Title: Snap Happy

Author: Mark Amery

In: Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 2003

Part of: Sport

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Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction



You don't actually need a camera to take cheap and cool photos. Simply build yourself a pinhole camera (out of an oatmeal box, even), download PinHoleCalc (freeware, Mac) to calculate the optimum pinhole diameter and exposure time (or just do your best with this handy, dandy chart), and you might just create some amazing things.

Made by the Great Wall Plastic Factory of Hong Kong in the 1960s, the Diana Camera is a cheap plastic toy camera that has left an odd photographic smudge on our art history.

A precursor to today's throwaway service station cameras, the Diana would, on the face of it, seem to have no pretensions towards being a quality piece of equipment. Sold in plastic-entwined bunches as big as twelve dozen, you could say the Diana had a few design faults. Its single shutter speed varied from camera to camera, and the built-in flash could vary wildly in synchronisation with the lens. The plastic mechanism often didn't fully tighten the exposed film, resulting in a light fog passing onto the film, and the cameras were so notorious for leaking light through the body that it was common for photographers to bandage them up with tape. The coup de grâce, however, was that what one saw through the viewfinder didn't correlate exactly to what the camera itself shot.

Yet it is these very elements that led the Diana in the 1970s to achieve brief art fad status. It was arguably a period when contemporary art in New Zealand was re-evaluating its relationship to real life through direct action. The Diana took the fancy of a new generation of often art school trained photographers, who seized on it as if it were some plastic-encased Dadaist symbol in the liberation of the photographic image from technology and technique.

The Diana's allure is encapsulated perfectly (and inadvertently) by Chris Orsman in his poem ‘Instamatic’ (which accompanied Peter Black's work in Sport 15): We're easily charmed by inaccuracy and learn to love the plainness of life. The fine art interest in the Diana lasted long enough for there to be exhibitions devoted to photographs taken by the camera. A length of time, one supposes, governed also by when these artists’ combined stash of cameras stopped working altogether.

‘Since the Diana is a toy,’ suggests Robert Hirsh, ‘it allows you to look and react to the world with the simplicity and playfulness of a child.’ This might explain why Peter Black was attracted to the Diana in the 1970s—given that the child and the viewpoint of children are common in his photographs.

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Black has always looked for the spaces in which to exploit the camera's snapshot ability to play with chance. The photographer's eye roams guerilla-like in the environment around him, with little regard for the status of one subject over another. It's as if he's engaged in some kind of stake-out game of chasey with the camera around the legs of adults.

Ironically, it was ultimately the consistency of a type of visual effect rather than its happy variance that made the Diana camera as popular as it was—and led Peter Black to work with it only briefly. The very lack of surprise in its surprise, you could say. The Diana's hallmark was a fuzzy keyhole effect around the edges of the image, with the detail becoming sharper towards the centre. While others were charmed by the Diana's democracy in making everything look suitably dark and moody, for Black this effect ultimately interfered with the plain, direct power of looking.

The Diana's period of popularity coincided generally with the beginning of photography's acceptance into the contemporary fine arts in New Zealand. But just as some photographers seemed to have taken something different from the Diana camera than Black, the photograph that was ushered into the public galleries in the 1980s as contemporary art seemed largely to espouse quite different values from those of Black's photography.

Black's images reflected the pace and behaviour of daily urban life, finding a suitable quick
Black and white photograph.

Prince Charles’ Visit 1, Lower Hutt, 1981, from ‘Fifty Photographs’

page 14 snapshot freedom in the camera to engage in the chance encounter. On the other hand, the painstakingly constructed elegance and reverence for the iconic image of other new photographers’ work seemed to belie the modern camera's snappy, off-the-shoulder capabilities—further drawing darkness between the ‘documentary’ and ‘aesthetic’. This was art with a capital A, as interested in incorporating the cultural iconography and traditions of the past as the mood of the present. The time taken by Laurence Aberhart to let the light soak into a large-format camera for example, or the delicate filigree of Megan Jenkinson's collages and Fiona Pardington's early work, the theatrical weight of symbols and poses in a Christine Webster—all those large and exquisite, glossy, black, sumptuous and expensive sheets of photographic paper. Put in a group exhibition with such artists, Peter Black would have stood out like the drunk who had inadvertently gatecrashed a party—all ragged and random street poetry, while everyone else is dressed up in elegant conversation and costume.

At the time of ‘Moving Pictures’ (1987), for which Black took reels of film out of a moving car window, his images were described by Peter Ireland as having an artlessness. Others, no doubt, were quick to label him an adventurous documentary photographer. In the artistic climate of that time, perhaps that's not surprising. Now, with a retrospection that labels Black a postmodernist, we can see the choices he continues to make are far too refined in their personality for either label.

In the first photograph [p75] a woman holds a camera. It looks like a cheap toy camera; just as the photograph itself looks to have been taken with a cheap toy camera. Smiling and squinting as if she's been blinded by the other photographer's light, one imagines she has been beaten by (or beaten) the other photographer in a play camera-slingers duel—at not many paces. She appears snap happy. The photograph is a celebration of the joy of the snapshot. A suggestion that it's not how swish your camera is, but how fast you can draw.