Jane Zusters

Life Drawing North Beach, Christchurch 1978

1978
gelatin silver print
140mm x 225mm

Signed Zusters and inscribed AP ” Life Drawing North Beach, Christchurch 1976 in graphite on label affixed verso

Provenance

Private collection, Christchurch.

Essay

Jane Zusters’ body of work encompasses both painting and sculpture, and explores themes of feminism, personal narrative, postcolonial New Zealand history, environmentalism, an...

Read full text
Estimate $1,000 - $2,000
Achieved $1,201.25

Jane Zusters

Laurence Aberhart, Kamala and the Hammond Boys - Lyttleton 1976

1976

gelatin silver print

Signed Zusters and inscribed “AP” Laurence Aberhart, Kamala and the Hammond Boys - Lyttleton 1976 in graphite on label affixed verso

150mm x 230mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $1,000 - $2,000

Achieved $1,081.13

Jane Zusters interview

by Andrew Paul Wood

Jane Zusters’ body of work encompasses both painting and sculpture, and explores themes of feminism, personal narrative, postcolonial New Zealand history, environmentalism, and more recently, responses to the Canterbury earthquake of 2011. Her photographic practice includes both intimate, documentary portraiture and more experimental, deconstructive approaches. The following interview was conducted with the artist in March 2017.

 

APW: What first drew you to photography as a medium? When you were studying at Ilam in Christchurch in the 1970s, it was still considered a somewhat ambiguous art form.

JZ: Photography was a compulsory part of first year at Ilam. I spent my first year resisting becoming fascinated by it because I thought it would be very expensive. We had to have our own single-lens reflex camera. Then my sister Susan and my brother-in-law, professional photographer Harry Ruffell, waltzed up the stairs to my flat in Rhodes Street, Christchurch, with an enlarger and a developing tank. I set up a darkroom in my bathroom.  While my class were dropping their films in freezing communal tanks and getting unexposed negatives, I was getting perfect results. Harry was very supportive, giving me access to his Time-Life books and boxes of dated Agfa paper.

Lawrence Shustak was my photography teacher. He taught by example, which could be very frustrating for his students, but he was always out taking photographs. I was a bit of a rebel and never did the assignments, but it didn’t matter as long as I was taking photographs. That’s when I first saw the work of Diane Arbus, and it changed my world. I began a painting major the following year. I was only there for a week before the painting department burned down. It was traumatic as we didn’t have any studios, and we had to go out painting landscapes with Bill Sutton. I didn’t want to do that and stayed at home in my darkroom. Allie Eagle invited me to be in Women’s Art: An Exhibition of Six Women Artists  at the Robert McDougall Gallery in 1975. I exhibited my photographs. I don’t think the painters liked it very much. In retrospect I’m very proud of that work; it was quite edgy and brave.

Lawrence was my referee for my first successful Arts Council grant application in 1977. I was in shows with him when I dropped out of art school. He was in his Polaroid phase and photographed everyone and everything, including me. I was part of a community of passionate photographers; Rhondda Bosworth, Allan McDonald, Jae Renault, Terry Austin, and Laurence Aberhart.

APW: How did Arbus influence you?

JZ: From Arbus I learned that the ordinary could be extraordinary, and that making public what was normally considered private was a legitimate aim for the artist. Her work made me seek out situations that were foreign to my own experience.

I was objectifying my subjects, which is something Susan Sontag criticised Arbus for, though I think it’s a big oversimplification to see Arbus as an exploitative outsider. She wasn’t stalking her subjects from afar, she was actively engaged with them, which is what you have to do to make a portrait.

Five of the twelve photographs in Six Women Artists were about adult nudity. Like Arbus I photographed in the nude to put my subjects at ease. I had a romantic view of it, thanks to her, I suppose; I saw myself as sanctifying the private worlds I was entering.

I’d also learned from Judy Chicago that my life, experiences and sexuality were legitimate subject matter.

APW: Your earliest subjects seem to have been your friends in Christchurch. Were you consciously making a document of that place and time?

JZ: No. I didn’t see myself as a documentary photographer, but I took some documentary photographs because I went to a lot of protests with my friends—abortion rights protests for example—and I took photos because I was there.

I made portraits of my friends, but I also propositioned people I was fascinated by. I’d make dates with people and photograph them. Some of them became friends. I was on a mission.

I loved Ralph Eugene Meatyard. What I found exciting about him was his wonderful, dramatic, spooky lighting. I was drawn to extremes of light. I was abstracting people and using them as a metaphor for unease, actors in a drama like he did. . . Whereas now, I’m much more empathetic when making a portrait.

A lot of photography, for me, is made just because I am there.

APW: The second-wave feminism is quite overt in your work of that period.

JZ: I was part of that generation that abandoned their bras, peered at their cervixes and all that, looking to discover forgotten and unknown herstories. I was one of the original members of Christchurch Women’s Liberation in 1971.

I didn’t realise it but my ‘70s feminism was already disrupting and subverting the mainstream modernist way I was expressing myself. There was also a lot of gender blurring in that work. When I exhibited it in the ‘90s, a portrait of my friend Richard was mistaken for a lesbian woman because he had long hair and was knitting. A heterosexual couple were read as a lesbian because the man had long hair and not much visible body hair.

The one female nude in Six Women Artists was considered very transgressive in the ‘70s because it showed a hairy armpit. “Nice girls” didn’t have hair under their arms in those days.

APW: Did much change in the ‘80s?

In the ‘80s I became a painter. I’d failed “Visual Studies” and dropped out of art school because I had taken and shown photographs instead of drawing landscapes.

I became a lesbian in the ‘80s. I wasn’t in the ‘70s, but I was on the way. In the lesbian feminist circle in Auckland some of the people I was photographing vehemently didn’t want their images shown. I had a pile of paintings under my bed and I found them starting to sell.

I was very fortunate to crest that first wave of young artists with dealer galleries. I was still taking photos, and Kerry Aberhart showed them on a number of occasions. However, I found more opportunities as a painter than as a photographer. I was very lucky and privileged to have had the creative opportunities I did in the ‘80s, making community murals, winning a few prizes, having an audience.

To an extent, in the ‘80s my photography got derailed by postmodern feminist critiques which made the body off-limits. In the ‘70s I was depicting both male and female nudes, under the adage “the personal is political.” I was exploring the nature of desire. Then, in the ‘80s, that became problematic because French feminists like Luce Irigaray were saying women could only talk in riddles because men had a monopoly on the gaze. By this time I’d largely switched from black and white photography to shooting with Fuji colour transparency, which I filed away in folders mostly unprinted. I did analogue photography until 2011 and have a big archive I’ve built up and can dip into because I’ve been taking photos for forty years. I’d like my next book to be the colour work. I’ve self-published four books now.

APW: What kind of cameras were you using?

JZ: My first camera was a Pentax Spotmatic F that I bought from Harry for $50. I had a phase where I used a $2.50 plastic Diana camera, which was all the rage for a time. Then I had a Bronica Two and a quarter-format camera, and then in the ‘80s I had a professional Polaroid SX-70 until I accidentally dropped it in the sea. When digital came in and people started dumping their analogue equipment, I got my dream Olympus cameras.

APW: Your work is exclusively digital now. When did you take that up?

JZ: Miranda Playfair brought me into the twenty-first century with her Artists explore digital technology project at the Auckland Society of Artists in 2001. Her support and encouragement was pivotal. When I went to do my MFA in photography at Whitecliffe in 2001-2, I became au fait with computers for the first time. A two-finger typist, I taught myself Photoshop sitting beside Miranda as she manipulated my 70’s negatives. Julie Firth encouraged me to do the MFA. She headhunted me as a tutor and that paid for my studies. It was very stimulating, and changed my art practice yet again. It was a good process for me. I had Cushla Parekowhai as my mentor and she fostered writing in a personal voice that suits the kind of practice I have.

APW: And of course in 2011, back in Christchurch the earthquake changed everything, including your work. You started creating those striking digital montages.

JZ: In the ‘90s I’d already started experimenting with sandwiching together two transparencies to make one image. You can see these types of images in the book Charts and Soundings where my photos illustrate Sue Fitchett’s poems. With the quake I had the brainwave to digitally knock out the wall of an interior room and put an earthquake image in.

I had a “eureka” moment when I saw a bathroom suspended without any walls on it. I remember the Community of the Sacred Name convent on Barbadoes Street. . . All of the nuns’ toilets hanging in the air. . .

APW: In the forty years since you began taking photographs, you have revisited those images from the 1970s twice, re-photographing the same subjects decades later, once as part of your MFA, and again in the book Where did you go to my lovelies in 2015. In that time, what had changed? How do you think your approach has evolved?

JZ: My personal ‘70s archive was my starting point. Between 1975 and 1982, photography was my main means of creative expression. Then I was abstracting reality, whereas now I acknowledge the local, the specific and the particular.

In the ‘70s a part of the social revolution was about nudity and being without clothes. In the twenty-first century there is an anxiety about nudity, displaying the body and the female body, the older female body and children, especially. The naked body became problematic in the politics of representation that came out of the feminist discourse of the ‘80s. The first thing most of my subjects that I photographed in the ‘70s say now is, “I want to keep my clothes on.”

Back then it was about my friends and me. I made us all into abstractions. . . Actors in a theatre of light and dark shadows. In between taking photographs and obsessing about my love life, I was lying around drawing, listening to the Grateful Dead and Emmylou Harris. In 1976 I made my own photographic tarot pack and cast my friends as symbols in it. I didn’t usually photograph my friends in the context of their own lives. I wasn’t interested in the local, the specific or the particular, though I often used the natural world as a backdrop. I never thought about where I was geographically.

When I started revisiting that work, I worried it was dated. Often I’m reversing the order of past and present. The Māori concept is that the past lies in front, rather than behind you. I was challenging the Western notion of putting the past behind you. Starting with the present interrupts the nostalgia with which we tend to see the past.

I don’t have a formula for what I do. I always stuck to the camera’s viewfinder. I’ve stopped worrying about whether I’m postmodern enough or not. Fashioning the past, rather than the fashion, is where it’s at for me. The new contradiction is that I approach the snapshot in the language of modernist aesthetics. And the scale of the print has increased three hundred percent from the precious archival prints I made in the ‘70s.

APW: Do you see it as a continuation, or as something new?

JZ: It’s part of an ongoing dialogue; a chance to stand in the present and look back at the past, and now that I have a past, I can do that. I don’t make any claims beyond my own subjectivity. Take it as you find it.