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Object: Johnny Hermann’s smile, Auckland, 1968

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Title Johnny Hermann’s smile, Auckland, 1968
Production Baigent, Gary (photographer), 1968, Auckland
Medium summary black and white photograph, gelatin silver print
Materials silver, photographic gelatin, photographic paper
Classification gelatin silver prints, black-and-white prints, later prints, black-and-white photographs, works of art
Technique black-and-white photography
Dimensions Image: 160mm (Height) x 237mm (Length)
Support: 203mm (Height) x 253mm (Length)
Credit line Purchased 2006
Registration number O.030074

It was the late 1960s when our current notion of contemporary photography began to emerge in New Zealand. Les Cleveland’s The silent land and Gary Baigent’s The unseen city were published in 1966 and Ans Westra’s Maori in 1967, the same year the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, The photographer’s eye, brought contemporary American photography to New Zealand. Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie Blow up, centred on a fashion photographer in London, was admired too: for many it seemed to epitomise the swinging sixties. Baigent recalls, ‘suddenly, in Auckland, everyone was buying cameras and photographing in the streets’.1

The unseen city struck a particular nerve. Baigent remembers that ‘people I’d never met or heard of, came out of the woodwork to praise, or conversely, to damn me, for the book was either loved or hated’.2 Its gritty black and white look at Auckland and the people who rotated around Baigent’s bohemian milieu was hailed by some as an antidote to the ‘beautiful New Zealand’ tradition of photography books. For the nascent contemporary photography community in Auckland, however, the book and the unknown, self-taught Baigent had come out of nowhere. While ‘praising its intent and conception’,3 they criticised it as roughly conceived and executed, the publishing investment a wasted opportunity. Elam School of Fine Arts photography lecturer John B Turner later recalled that he ‘couldn’t believe anyone could produce such a rough and ready book’.4 Today it is valued as one of the first expressions of a personal approach to photography in New Zealand — in particular, as the starting point for a generation of photographers who made street photography their territory.

Johnny Hermann’s smile, Auckland was taken a year after The unseen city was published, but stylistically could easily have appeared in the book. The back-alley location, contemporary fashions, and the way the characters are both aware of the camera and disengaged from each other also suggest a frame from a 1960s French New Wave movie. (Baigent cites the handheld camera work, night shooting, use of friends as actors and impromptu scripting of John Cassavetes’ Shadows as a formative influence.) Viewing it as a still from an unknown drama as enigmatic as Johnny Hermann’s knowing smile, we have to invent our own narrative — about the relationship between the three players in the photograph, and between each one and the photographer.

Athol McCredie

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Gary Baigent, ‘Hobohemia: Making The unseen city’, Metro, vol. 7, no. 78, December 1987, p. 239.
2. Ibid.
3. MC [Max] Oettli, ‘Photographs of Auckland by Gary Baigent’, Craccum, 29 April 1968, p. 11.
4. John Turner, quoted in Geoff Chapple, ‘Snapping the light fantastic’, New Zealand Listener, 11 September, 1976, p. 28.

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