Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Glenn Jowitt's secret societies: notes on two photographs*

Glenn Jowitt, who died at the end of July, loved to discover and document secret societies and secluded worlds. Jowitt is justly famous for the photographs he took during his travels through the tropical Pacific in the 1980s and ‘90s, but I wanted to praise two images that he made very early in his career.
While he was a student at Ilam Art School in the late 1970s, Jowitt became preoccupied with horse racing, and began to travel with his camera to courses around Canterbury. With its elaborate rules, bizarrely named animals,  erudite, laconic tipsters, and conspiratorial trainers and jockeys, the racing industry was and remains a society within New Zealand society.
This portrait of a Canterbury jockey appeared in Jowitt’s first book, Racing Day. With his youth, his pallor, and his dirty face, the jockey might remind us, at first sight, of the chimneysweeps or underage coal miners preserved in nineteenth century daguerreotypes. But where those victims of Victorian commerce offered aimed weary and embarrassed gazes at their pitying photographers, Jowitt’s jockey looks haughtily down at the camera. He is proud of his role in the world Jowitt has entered, and he needs nothing from the photographer or the photographer’s audience. He wears the fresh racetrack mud in the same way that a young man in another culture might wear war paint.
After graduating from Ilam, Jowitt began to photograph another secret society. He spent months drifting across Canterbury with members and associates of Black Power, which had become, by the beginning of the 1980s, New Zealand’s biggest gang. An astonishing series of photographs shows gang members journeying out of Christchurch and into the empty spaces of the Canterbury Plains.
The flat countryside of Canterbury has often posed problems for the Pakeha imagination. Even before the arrival of pyromaniacal European settlers, the Plains had lost their forests to fire. As they looked westward from the tight little colonial town of Christchurch, colonists were troubled by the emptiness that separated them from the Southern Alps. The peaks and glaciers and valleys of the Alps could be safely praised, in Wordsworthian language, for their Sublimity, and happily sketched and painted by weekend excursionists. The formless flatlands, though, were harder to assimilate. Colonial diarists deplored their ‘desolation’.
Driven by psychological and well as economic needs, imperial planners drew straight lines across maps of Canterbury. Crops and stock were raised on rectangular and triangular farm blocks; hedges and gothic churches were planted, as guardians against the tormenting emptiness.
By the time John O’Shea made his road movie Runaway in 1964, Pakeha audiences could consider the Canterbury Plains a cosy, calm place. Taking a stolen car across the lush, flat twilit farms of Canterbury on his way to the Southern Alps, the protagonist of Runaway enters a sort of trance, and believes that he is flying rather than driving his machine. 
But one culture’s paradise can be another’s desert. For their former owners, the Plains had become, by the second half of the twentieth century, an alien landscape. Ancestral rivers had been straightened into drains; lamprey weirs had been replaced by pumphouses; willows had usurped flax bushes; NO TRESPASSING signs frustrated old pathways. For Black Power members habituated to the boozy solidarity of Christchurch’s seedier clubs and pubs, the Plains must have seemed empty and exposed.
This photograph is called Devil and Baldie, after its protagonists. Running out of road, the two gang members have driven across an expanse of grass. Have they stopped deliberately or broken down, at this apparently random spot in the middle of a paddock? The Southern Alps are a line of low hills on the horizon. The sky might have turned grey with age.
Devil seems reluctant to leave the safety of the car. He hunches by one of its open doors, hiding under his Afro. It is left to Baldie, who has been identified by other photographs as a senior member of Black Power in Canterbury, to walk into the emptiness.
Baldie wears a cowboy hat, but he has arrived in this landscape too late: the frontier has been closed, the title deeds have been drawn up, hedges and fences and police stations have been raised, and an outlaw can hope to find neither refuge nor riches.
Jowitt’s jockey exists safely inside his alternate society; Devil and Baldie, by contrast, have been separated from the sanctuaries and rituals of their world, and given to a strange and malicious landscape.
*This post began as yet another attempt to write something for hashtag500words, the website set up last year by the artists and curators Louisa Afoa and Lana Lopesi. As its name suggests, Afoa’s and Lopesi’s site limit its contributors to five hundred words. I’ve now run hopelessly over that word limit three times; as a failed student of the haiku, I should have known that I’d lack the concision that Afoa and Lopesi require. Take a look at hashtag500words anyway.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Good Scott. Did you post about Jowitt before? I thought I had heard of him, when I went to Wikipedia just now, I realise I had read about him somewhere. But I didn't know much about him. The pictures I can see are good for sure.

Regarding the South Island, have you heard from Keri Hulme lately? She used to post here quite a lot. I know she had some problems with eyesight or some illness. I hope she is good.

When I was selling on TM I sold a lot of NZ books and one was about the Treaty of Waitangi as applied to the SI and it was a sobering document. The Maori were ripped off for sure. The buyers falsified the amount of land, then paid Maori a pitiful pittance. Then they reneged on a promise to provide a place for education and homes near Christchurch. One wonders about Christchurch. A very Englishy town (my parents were English but they were good people!). I have cousins there but I have never been able to get very concerned about the place, and the endless winging about the earthquake down there.

Ambivalent re the Black Power etc but he was photographing what was around him. I recall trying to base a story years ago on racing, using the strange names (you mentioned this phenomena). What was the book film based on racing (and some dubious practices) by Morrieson? Was it 'Came a Hot Friday'? The one I'm thinking of was great.

But I don't know the film you mentioned...

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I was just discovering Jowitt, thanks to an exhibition of his Pacific photos at the Pah Homestead, when I read about his death. Very sad. I think the early black and white stuff has been overlooked, because of the success of the later colourful photos of the Pacific.

I wonder, as well, about the subjects of the early works. Where is that jockey today? What about Baldie and Devil? It is a credit to Jowitt that he makes one think questions like these.

We had a pre-launch meeting tonight with Murray and Ted and Brett. The books are very handsome. Murray's essays range over some of your favourite authors, Richard - there are two on Smithyman!

11:43 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think Keri Hulme may still post on the Public Address blog as The Islander. There has been a worldwide trend for blog comments to drop away, as social media - facebook and twitter and the rest - becomes the preferred venue for people wanting to respond to an online text. After initially being reluctant I have become a convert to, though not, I hope, a fanatic for, twitter, and I'd like to bring this blog into a closer alignment with the action there...

11:47 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Though of course I don't really employ any sort of conscious strategy when I blog: two small kids and other travails mean that I simply post what I can when I can!

11:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I see re Jowitt, I must have seen something in the Listener. Yes, where are they? I am in at least one photograph by Friedlander taken ca 1970. I bought a book of her photographs from Brent Lewis because of it. That picture of the Jockey is priceless, and your comment is right on.

I agree re that trend. I am on FB as you know. Not Twitter as I spend too much time as it is. I rarely watch TV except on Sat. night I watch 'Ice Truckers'. Vic likes cooking programs. We also watch the trivia things while we have dinner but I got rid of my own TV.

I post sporadically as the impulse takes me, not a writing or working method I encourage, or is encouraged, but one of my long poems of about (now nearly 50 pages) was written very rapidly - I think it is true that the workd day by day thing is good - but I still adhere to the Romantic, almost the 'genius' thing and 'conversational tones' etc are not for me, but some consideration and intellection and cunning is mixed with my wild unbidden excesses.

As 'social media' gets big there is a one danger that writers and everyone mistakes a lot of what is social so to speak (and indeed it is good stuff overall) for a on my Blog, while I love comments, and would like to be 'famous' or whatever, it has an advantage NOT being so, that is I can write or present what I want (more or less) and as it is mostly unnoticed or uncontroversial (it sometimes is) in the main I just soldier on; it is like my Mongolia, it belongs to me, so indeed I have this mix of the Romantic, lonely ego, and the Language writers' injunctions and experiments, as well as my own rather strange view of the world. So I feel that the Blog is still a great place or space.

2:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I am looking forward to the Launch, what I cant understand is why Murray didn't undertake a deep and investigative, nay greatly laudatory, look at my own masterworks,which I humbly submit, are all anyone in NZ - in fact, in the whole Cosmos - really need to study or read...

...It is beyond me...

But I assume of course he has written about Michelle Leggott and David Mitchell inter alia...I suppose he leaves Comrade Stead in the sidelines and a few others. I suspect he refers to 'The New Poetic', Davis's 'Willy's Gazette', Wystan Curnow (and his art crit. etc), Dr Ross?, Professor Jenner?, Able Seaman and general Pisshead Bob Orr, and many others known and unknown, ...oooh and I suppose Loney, the Great Groaner and general Outsiderness Himself....multi others no doubt...Smithy, but he cant neglect A Curnow and Baxter. Your mate Lindsay is big on Baxter. Lindsay himself. Elizbeth Smither...Elizabeth Wilson, Doctor Geraets, and others who were in Brief and the earlier mags with Roger Horrocks etc. Bill Leadbeatter? I saw him when I read at the Titirangi Poets...

But I am keen to buy, as apart from being an inveterate book collector of almost everything, good or bad, I am interested. Also of course in young Ted's book...

2:26 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Morrissey's 'The New Fiction' and perhaps 'A Way of Saying' - I have to confess, I have never read that.

2:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's what i think

God, the Creator, Reality are one and the same. The idea of monotheism is that there isn't a deity for every little rock or brook or planet. This is also the idea behind Godel's ontological proof and Tolkien's remark that there is "truth and high beauty beyond our power to corrupt".

As Roger Bacon said, we must first obey the laws of nature if we are to master it. And we must listen to what nature -- or God - says.

12:57 am  

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