Max Coolahan

Pit-sawn log

1959-60
gelatin silver print
392mm x 495mm

Provenance

Private collection, Auckland.

Literature

Art New Zealand 98, Autumn 2001, 80.

Essay

After a limited formal education, Max Coolahan served in the signals division during World War Two, where he was trained as a photographer for the purposes of gathering military...

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Estimate $600 - $800
Achieved $600.63

Max Coolahan

Pit-sawn log

1959-60

gelatin silver print

392mm x 495mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $600 - $800

Achieved $600.63

Footnotes

1.   Mark Derby, “Going Bush: Photographer Max Coolahan,” in Art New Zealand 98, Autumn 2001, 78.

2.   Ibid., 80.

 

Images from Nature

by Andrew Clark

After a limited formal education, Max Coolahan served in the signals division during World War Two, where he was trained as a photographer for the purposes of gathering military intelligence. He was seriously injured in New Guinea and was discharged as a result, subsequently experiencing what would now be considered post-traumatic stress disorder, but was then diagnosed as “shell-shock.” Coolahan moved to New Zealand with his wife Kate in 1952, settling in Wellington. Coolahan purchased a hut in the Orongorongo Valley, a stretch of dense bush south of Lower Hutt, which became a refuge from his struggle with PTSD and also a source of inspiration. He took all of his photographs in Orongorongo, documenting the landscape as well as details of the bush: plants, trees, stones and creeks. He exhibited two shows of his work in Wellington: Images from Nature in 1962 and Images and Abstracts in 1963. Some of these photographs were selected for a UNESCO travelling exhibition which toured internationally, including to Japan and Israel. However, Coolahan did not pursue an art career, instead working as a teacher at Onslow College from 1962 until ill-health forced him to retire in 1983. Coolahan’s photography was a part of his pedagogy as a teacher; his works were intended to demonstrate the fundamentals of modernist design and composition, a function at which they excel.1

In Mark Derby’s essay on Max Coolahan, one of the very few published sources about this reclusive artist, the author cites Eymard Bradley’s observation that Coolahan’s crisply focused black and white nature studies echo the style of the Californian Group f.64.Invoking the names of Edward Weston, Ansel Adamns and Imogen Cunningham raises a high bar for Coolahan’s photographs, but the comparison is not unwarranted. Coolahan’s practice was founded on the kind of tight, technical photography endorsed by Weston and his disciples, which at the time was referred to as “pure” photography—reflecting Weston’s concern that to be a viable art form, photography needed to develop an identity divorced from that of the arts which had come before it, such as painting and drawing. Group f.64 was essentially a modernist movement in terms of its goals and outlook, but it also emphasised the role of the camera as a direct, impartial means of documenting the world. In this sense, the photographer’s “eye,” their ability to selectively isolate elements of the natural world and imbue them with pattern and meaning, took priority over their ability to manipulate the materials of photography in the darkroom.

Turning to Coolahan’s own work, it is clear that his photographs fit many of the criteria of “pure” photography, as set out by f.64. In Pit-sawn log, Coolahan turns his camera on a section of tree trunk, documenting each crack and fissure in the wood, as well as the tooth-marks of the saw which criss-cross the surface. All parts of the object are in focus, encouraging the viewer to look closely at each detail. The simple design of the image emphasises its formal qualities, transforming the found object into a modernist composition. In its simplicity, this photograph brings to mind Weston’s assertion that photography should capture “the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself.” For Weston, the photograph should not be a mere recording or facsimile, but something which looks beyond the physical object, capturing the meaning of its subject in a typically modernist search for an essential truth or reality. Coolahan’s photograph brings to mind f.64 images like Edward Weston’s photographs of vegetables—cabbages, peppers and onions—or Imogen Cunningham’s botanical studies. In these works, biological forms become modernist emblems, patterns of light whose stark formal qualities are their primary feature: tone, contrast, texture, shadow and structure.

Although Coolahan’s mature works were created long after f.64 had disbanded (the group was all but defunct by the early 1940s), he followed their precepts and the modernist ideals which motivated them. In Coolahan’s works, the details of New Zealand’s natural environment are wedded to the artist’s rich understanding of the modernist project, but are also imbued with an order and tranquillity that speaks of a deep love for the bush, and is a reflection of the peace and comfort that he found there.