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Special edition of best books for Xmas: The Shops, by Steve Braunias and Peter Black, with bonus question – why do photographers talk so goddamned much?

All week this week Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias recommends the very best, A-grade quality, guaranteed good books for Christmas. Today: The Shops, by Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias, in collaboration with photographer Peter Black. Here to promote it by way of a contentious essay is Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias.

Why do photographers talk so much? The best thing about working with Wellington photographer Peter Black on our book The Shops is that we didn’t really work together at all – I think we met two or three times, and talked on the phone about as many times. What was there to talk about, what was there to discuss? I love his photographs. I just wanted him to take photographs.

Photographers should see and not be heard. So many of them are obsessive yapperers, yak-yak-yakking all day long, with a camera, without a camera, on a shoot, between shoots, to themselves if no one else is around – is it because they resent being trapped behind a box in front of their faces? Do they feel buried beneath it, muted, silenced? A camera is like a mask, or a hood. It distorts the wearer’s appearance, obliterates their face. Maybe they talk so incessantly and with such haste because they’re trying to breathe.

They certainly take up a lot of oxygen. I’ve been on countless assignments hither and yon with photographers and oftentimes I wished they were hither and yon a long way away. Eg, the ones who talk during interviews! Who just open their trap and start asking even lamer questions than mine! Again, that desperate need to talk, to come out from under the shell of their camera – does photography dehumanise them, turn them into molluscs, and all their chit and their chat is actually a need to re-establish their identity? Or are they just natural gasbags, chundering geysers of hot air, with their yak-yak soundtrack?

Marti Friedlander! Poor show to speak ill of the so recently departed; in fact, it’s with considerable affection that when I think of her I think of her talking, talking, talking. The fact is that I’ve always liked photographers. My oldest friend is photographer Ivan Rogers. And probably the greatest conversationalist I’ve ever known is photographer Ken Downie. We were friends in Wellington, in the 1980s, and his talk was endlessly dazzling, endlessly funny, endlessly lively – I never wanted his talk to end. No one did; he held the best parties, where he held court. He was world-class, a kind of Oscar Wilde of chat.

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WELLINGTON: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BLACK FROM THE SHOPS

Alistair Guthrie, Simon Young, David White, Jane Ussher, the late, LOUD Glenn Jowitt! All brilliant photographers; all filibusters. Peter Black? Brilliant photographer, don’t really know about the levels of his gasbaggery because we’ve not spoken all that many times. Our working arrangement was ideal and something I’d been wanting for quite a while. It wasn’t entirely because I was sick of photochat. It was more to do with the idea of coming at a subject entirely separately.

There’s a strange dynamic at play whenever a journalist and a photographer are sent out together on an assignment. There’s a common goal, and entirely different methods; it can be exhilarating, the two shabby, restless crusaders on a shared pursuit, both tracking and tracing and circling and sizing things up. A duo, in tandem, showing up at people’s doors like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and just about as welcome. Outsiders, united.

Every assignment is a trip into the unknown. Will it be the door in the face, or a secret revealed? One of my many pithy definitions of journalism is that it’s the practice of approaching complete strangers for intimate details. It’s easy to lose your nerve, or worse, because in journalism once it’s gone it never comes back, your mojo; the very presence of a photographer is an added strength, and prevents or delays the terrible moment when a journalist packs it in and signs on as PR trout. It must be like leaving the army for easy street. One day, one half of a crack commando unit, two operatives working behind enemy lines; the next, selling policy or sausages. The thrill has gone. No more missions, although a lot less yappering.

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MARTINBOROUGH: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BLACK FROM THE SHOPS

The first photographer who I worked with in any meaningful way was Elspeth Collier. We were good friends and she could talk the leg off a table but I greedily fed off her wit as a photographer, her sense of style and composition. One of our earliest assignments was a profile of a garrulous and flamboyant character named Danny Boone. He really was a direct descendant of frontiersman Daniel Boone, and had left America to live in a small flat in Wellington. He worked as a Mae West impersonator. It took hours of hair and make-up and wardrobe for his shoot with Elspeth, and the photograph that appeared in the Listener is still one of the best portraits I’ve ever seen. He looks completely and utterly grotesque, but there’s a softening – Elspeth photographed him beside a potplant.

Jane Ussher is the photographer who I’ve worked with the most, and the closest. Again, a dear friend; again, talk about talk. But we made some pretty good things together in our years at the Listener, and subsequently at North & South, where our series of visits to small towns led to my book Civilisation. The book was text only; her photographs on that series were spectacular, and I hold out hope that one day I’ll have the means to publish an illustrated Civilisation.

The way we worked was established on a Listener assignment to Fiji. Prime Minister Helen Clark was at some conference or other. It was deeply boring standing around in press scrums where hacks asked urgent, meaningless questions, and I remember turning to Jane, and saying something like, “That mangrove behind Clark looks interesting, doesn’t it?” So we explored the mangrove, and then we kept walking, all day, without direction or plan, and interviewed and photographed anyone who just happened to be around. There was a particularly strange encounter in a tropical fish export business.

It set the tone for our series at North & South – go someplace we’d never been to, and wander aimlessly. It was always a pleasure being in her company; she had a star quality, a charisma, and I was the rough beast who blundered along at her side, approaching complete strangers for intimate details. Mosgiel, Whakarewarewa, Collingwood, Mt Roskill…The series occupied a great deal of my thinking, it was the work that mattered most, I felt that we were continually discovering a gothic ordinariness in New Zealand life. When I think back to it, I think of Jane’s images – the lonely shearer in her hotel room in Winton, the two ex-cops who left their marriages and the force to shack up in a campervan in Miranda.

The magazine insisted on the images relating to the text. It was a fair enough request but I hated the limitations it imposed; I loved it when Jane photographed anything she pleased. The notion of working separately began to take hold. I didn’t want the same story told twice.

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RUAKAKA: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BLACK FROM THE SHOPS

After I left the Listener I joined the Sunday Star-Times, and the thing that filled me with dread was being sent on assignment with a photographer. Jane was so regal, and her pictures so poised; I thought of newspaper photographers as harried, anxious, belligerent and artless. In fact I got sent on assignment with David White. Man could he talk, but every photo he took was original and striking; he was in a class of his own, the son of a photographer who was the son of a photographer, a pictorial genius in his DNA.

He also had very good, very basic tabloid instincts, and I learned a lot from his passion for news. I had been above all that sort of thing at the Listener. I was patient, thoughtful, considered. Really I was an intolerable snob, and David’s sensibility gave me a new direction and a new urgency. One time we set off to interview and photograph the former MP Ross Meurant. We met by arrangement at the Kings Plant Barn garden shop in Remuera – Meurant was a genuine eccentric – and he left with a very young, very pretty woman. They got in their car. David got in our car, and pursued them through the streets for half-an-hour – he had the eye of an artist and the soul of a paparazzi. He was determined to sneak a shot of Meurant and his Lolita.

We travelled now and then – Blackball, where the locals drove a paedophile out of town, and the Far North, to Hone Harawira’s house. Again, there were directions from head office on what he had to photograph. It didn’t matter too much in one sense – what mattered was how he photographed, and that was always entirely his own decision – but I found the whole concept of it frustrating and ultimately kind of really depressing. Where was the freedom to photograph anything that caught the imagination – and, just as crucially, not to photograph something or someone that wasn’t anything to look at?

Later, when I joined Metro, I daydreamed about working with a great artist, and imagined the magazine featuring our assignments over eight, 10, 12 pages, as designed by Metro‘s gifted art director, Delaney Tabron. I had two photographers in mind. I’d met both, and could barely get a word in edgeways: Peter Peryer and John Reynolds. Specifically I wanted to travel with one or the other of them to the Far North town of Ngawha. It has mud pools and a prison and very, very few people – you could visit everyone there in a day, probably an afternoon. Of course Peryer, as the poet of langorous, lyrical images, might only want to take one or two photographs, and they might have nothing to do with Ngawha – but they would be art, and that’s what mattered, although that might have posed problems for Delaney at lay-out, and come to think of it, editor Simon Wilson went quiet whenever I mentioned my idea.

As for Reynolds, he was a prolific photographer at the Listener long before he became a famous painter. Black and white prints of his work were held in the magazine’s archives when I worked there, and you could identify his photographs in an instant – his framing was like no one else on Earth. Also, he was hilarious. He once got sent with Finlay Macdonald to cover the visit of US Christian heavy metal band Stryper – one of their songs was called “To Hell with the Devil” – and he contrived to hide in the band’s dressing room before the show, bursting out with camera flashing just as they engaged in a prayer huddle.

Anyway I never got around to calling either Peryer or Reynolds, and the idea faded. Then, finally, it re-emerged, and I did get to work with a great artist. It came about by chance and mistaken identity. I was eating lunch somewhere a couple of years ago, March 5, 2014 to be precise, and a guy came over on his way out to say he liked my writing. Cheers, awesome, I said, and asked for his name. “Peter Black,” he said.

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WESTPORT: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BLACK FROM THE SHOPS

It was only after he’d gone that I thought: Jesus, was that THE Peter Black, whose photographs I’ve always loved? His first exhibited photos in the early 1980s caused a sensation. They came out of that grim, dark, post-punk time; they were brutal and gothic, quite shocking, a social commentary in grimy black and white. He switched to colour and I found other, softer themes at play – affection, wit, a quiet poetry. No doubt there was a trace of narcissism in my love of his work because they were the photos that most reminded me of the way I write.

I tracked down his email and wrote, “Was that you in the café today?”

He replied, “Alas it was not me – wish it was though as I think we are on the same wavelength.”

God knows who the other Peter Black was! But that began an occasional email correspondence; and I wrote to him on December 29, 2014 with an offer he could easily have refused: “I am interested in the possibility of us collaborating on book project about the backs of shops, those dusty yards with bins and pallets and weeds, abandoned places, sad and desolate, strangely fetching, a poetry of sorts. Are these places of interest to you, senor? If not, never mind; but I often think of you and your art when I walk around the backs of shops.”

He replied, “I will go through some images that might fit with the idea and send them to you.”

I replied, “I reckon we could make something kind of beautiful…Basically I see this as a cool art project, less a big fat windy he-man sonnet of This Place than a haiku, a few spare lines, if you get my drift…The last thing I want is Kiwiana. A pox on Kiwiana! But I’m confident neither of us mess about with that nonsense.”

He replied, “NO KIWIANA or cuteness but sadness with a bit of hope and dreams in there somewhere.”

I replied, “Look forward to some pictures!”

They arrived and they were beautiful, funny, sad, confrontational, intimate, with a bit of hope and dreams – they were a great start. More pictures arrived. As for my own contribution to the book, the only thing I knew was that I wouldn’t write anything about the photographs; in Peter’s previous books, art writers Greg O’Brien and Ian Wedde wrote an Introduction, and remarked at length on the photographs. I wanted to leave the photographs alone. They could speak for themselves.

The book came together and I got my wish of working separately, not at odds or in any kind of conflict, simply by approaching the same subject with different methods in different cities, in different rooms. We told two different stories. I never knew what photos he’d send through next.

Along the way, though, I came up with a terrible suggestion. I emailed, “Perhaps we should go on a roadtrip? Five nights in five motels, two or three towns a day….?”

He never replied. He obviously didn’t want to hear the sound of my voice chuntering on, filling the car, choking the air, getting in the way.


The Shops (Luncheon Sausage Books, $40) by Steve Braunias and Peter Black is available at Unity Books.

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