Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Marti Friedlander
By Leonard Bell
Auckland University Press, October 2009

Reviewed by Naomi Gryn  in the Jewish Quarterly

‘A very good portrait is a paradox,’ says Leonard Bell, professor of Art History at Auckland University. He considers how revelation and mystery co-exist in the work of Marti Friedlander, and her motivation for each of the 185 photographs included in this handsome book, many now being published for the first time.

The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Marti was born in 1928 in London’s East End. Aged three, Marti and her sister Anne were put into an orphanage in Bethnal Green run by the London County Council. In 1933 she moved to the Jewish Orphanage in Norwood. You need to know this about Marti’s early life because it informs so much of her photography. Deeply steeped in Jewish sensibilities, yet always an outsider.

Leonard Bell considers how Marti’s Jewishness accustomed her to be ‘at once in the thick of it and watching from the margins,’ and how her well-honed powers of observation, analysis and interpretation have equipped Marti to become one of New Zealand’s most celebrated photographers. But the acclaim and accolades don’t make her mainstream. She’s too original for that. Marti sees the world with an open heart. You see that in the images. Curious, empathetic, non-judgmental, a restless dynamo searching for what makes everyone special and unique.

Marti had been a friend of my parents since they were all teenagers. But I only got to know her properly on a visit to New Zealand in 2006, when she welcomed my boyfriend and me after our long flight and, with a light touch, remote-controlled our month-long trip around North and South Islands. The photographs she took of us when we returned to Auckland on New Year’s Eve have become cherished mementos. I’m wearing a big, bold necklace that Marti had given me because it was my birthday, and a tee shirt on which is printed a cartoon couple and the caption ‘Real Love’. As Bell explains, couples are of particular intrigue to Marti, what draws them together and sustains their bonds.
In 1957, having studied photography and worked as an assistant for two leading London photographers, Marti married Gerrard Friedlander, a dentist from New Zealand. For their honeymoon, they travelled through Europe on a Lambretta and spent a couple of months in Israel before making their home in Henderson, a suburb of Auckland.

‘I fell off the edge of the world when I came to New Zealand,’ says Marti. ‘Being in a society that was so authoritarian was like going back to an institution…This outpost of England was thoroughly unfamiliar to me. I never attempted to make pavlova, but I did preserve fruits and veges, bake bread, climb mountains, wade through rivers, get lost in the bush, and generally embrace a pioneering spirit of sorts.’ She worked at first as a nurse for Gerrard, but once she returned to photography, Marti started to make a name for herself.

Bell charts Marti’s gradual but never total immersion into New Zealand society through her portraits of artists and writers (pic right, CK Stead, author, 1982),, miners and farmers, politicians and street protesters, children and wine makers, documenting urban, suburban and country life.

Behind it all, the fabulous backdrop of New Zealand’s mystic land and untamed beaches. And photographs from her periodic escapes to Europe, Israel, Asia, South America and the South Pacific.

Read Gryn's full review at the Jewish Quarterly online.
Naomi Gryn is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Further details are at www.naomigryn.com.
This review appears in the latest issue of Jewish Quarterly and is timely in view of the title's shortlisting in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

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