Laurence Aberhart

Aparima Estuary, Riverton, Southland, 25 February 1999.

1999
gold and selenium-toned gelatin silver print
198mm x 245mm

signed L. Aberhart, dated 11/1999 and inscribed Aparima Estuary, Riverton, Southland, 25 February 1999. in ink lower edge

Provenance

Private collection, Auckland.

Exhibitions

The Shadows Dream of Light, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1999

Essay

This distinguished Laurence Aberhart photograph dates from 1999, as its title meticulously records, although chronology matters less for his photography than for most other arti...

Read full text
Estimate $3,000 - $5,000
Achieved $4,084.25

Laurence Aberhart

Aparima Estuary, Riverton, Southland, 25 February 1999.

1999

gold and selenium-toned gelatin silver print

signed L. Aberhart, dated 11/1999 and inscribed Aparima Estuary, Riverton, Southland, 25 February 1999. in ink lower edge

198mm x 245mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $3,000 - $5,000

Achieved $4,084.25

Aparima Estuary, Riverton, Southland, 25 February, 1999

by Peter Simpson

This distinguished Laurence Aberhart photograph dates from 1999, as its title meticulously records, although chronology matters less for his photography than for most other artists’. One reason for this is Aberhart’s fidelity to the same antiquated equipment for nearly half a century, an Antique Korona Large-format—8 inch by 10inch—view camera, a veritable museum piece surviving into the digital age. With this camera what you see inverted on the ground glass screen is exactly what gets onto the exposed film, as there is no enlargement involved. Virtually as old as photography itself, the view camera has persisted because it allows for exceptional control over focus and depth of field. Another reason why chronology matters little in Aberhart’s work is that his photographs do not display much change or development in their method and technique. This photograph of a stone angel in a cemetery might have been taken at any time since the 1970s. Furthermore, Aberhart was an expert from the word go and achieved sustained excellence throughout his long career.

This consistency was well illustrated in the retrospective exhibition Aberhart, mounted by Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery, Wellington in 2007 and fully documented in the superb Victoria University Press publication of the same year. In this book, the photographs are grouped not chronologically but according to subject matter: churches, lodges, marae, museum collections, people, landscapes and so forth. A whole section is devoted to graveyard monuments and statuary. Of the twenty-five photographs in this section, the earliest dates from 1971, while the most recent (the book is already a decade old) is from 2005. There is one image from the seventies, eleven from the eighties, eight from the nineties, and five from the 2000s, demonstrating Aberhart’s propensity to return again and again to favourite themes. Most other sections of the book show a similar temporal range. Aberhart’s oeuvre is cumulative and circular, not linear and uni-directional.

Aberhart has documented graveyard imagery not only through time but also through space. The 2007 monograph includes examples of work from Northland, Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Whanganui, Wellington, Amberley, Christchurch, Dunedin, Balclutha and Southland, as well as Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, France, and Louisiana.

Apirama Estuary is not included in the 2007 exhibition or the accompanying book, though another photograph taken the same day at the cemetery in Riverton, Southland, is included. Comparing the two works is fascinating. Riverton, Southland, (plate 112 in Aberhart) is dominated by an enormous, oddly-shaped yew tree, a solid dark mass which almost fills the right half of the picture. To the left, dwarfed by the giant inkblot of the yew, is a row of gravestones, one of which is surmounted by a tiny winged angel in discoloured white marble, no more than a centimetre high in the photograph. It is this very same statue which dominates the picture in Aparima Estuary. What seemed so puny and vulnerable in face of the brute facts of death (as symbolised by the giant black yew) is here almost triumphal, as it rises above the quiet fields, ragged fences, calm waters and low hills of the estuarine Southland landscape into the huge, cloud-filled sky. “In Loving Memory of Margaret” reads the headstone, while the short-skirted, bare-footed, curly headed angel takes command of the scene, with eyes cast downwards and hands placed piously together, her modest wings stretched wide.

Viewers will no doubt bring different sentiments to the image and take different things from it. In David Eggleton’s history of New Zealand photography Into the Light (2006), the author positions Aberhart’s statues as surrogate presences: “Though charged with human presence, his scenes are mostly empty of people. Statues, though, can become substitutes: angels hold their marble postures, weathered and mournful in sepulchral light.” (p. 146) Justin Paton remarks on the “time-tarnished stone angels that seem to grieve for their own neglect,” (Aberhart, p. 287) while for Greg O’Brien “there is often beauty in the way natural processes distort and dissolve the things humanity venerates.” (p. 264) For me, despite its pathos, this transcendent image brings to mind the proud defiance of John Donne: “Death be not proud; though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”

However we view it, it’s a marvellous image (as Marti Friedlander might say), not easy to forget.