Ans Westra's New Zealanders

Article Detail

Friday 19 February 2010
Ron Brownson

Ans Westra has spent a lifetime recording New Zealanders and she has produced some remarkable images of how we look. They are records of both a time and place that look directly at life's intimate moments. This is one of the benefits to her documentary approach - it asks us to look at what we are seeing.

Her photographs convey human personality in a telling manner. You feel how closely she is looking at movement and gesture, as if they make up our physical signature. She shows how people are living their lives. These two young guys take delight in presenting their timber town haka to Ans' camera. The modesty of this image is really a measure of its charm. It's a simple moment of the artist communicating her pleasure in meeting these boys on a Murupara street and just stopping to record them. What is stunning about this photograph is that while it was made with a medium format camera - never an easy tool to use - it has been made quickly and with stunning confidence.

I really like the way this man cuts hair. No nonsense at a job that has to be done. The boy has the same attitude. The smoker could probably shear sheep just as confidently. Ans is physically close to the people she photographs and the framing, while it may appear casual, is always perfect for the shot. The focus is short so that while the background can be seen it is carefully kept a bit out of focus to concentrate on the presence of the figures.

The Gallery is fortunate in having 59 black and white photographs by Ans Westra in the collection. The first group was acquired in 1976 and the most recent ones in 1997. Looking at the entire collection again, I was struck at how consistent Ans has been in the ways in which she records people. All of the photographs are of people living in New Zealand and none of the images has been set up. There is never any sense that Ans has been searching for the ‘decisive moment’ which Henri Cartier-Bresson was such an effective advocate for with his own documentary photography.

There is a powerful tenderness in Ans' eye. This girl is not in any way scared of the photographer but she is wary. There is a tentativeness in her response to the woman she sees holding a big camera while looking down into a viewfinder rather than directly at her. This is a quiet inner city street at Wellington where children still play. Marti Friedlander, similarly, also took fine images of children using the street near their homes as a playground.

One of the strengths of Ans’ photography is her strong empathy with people. One hardly ever encounters famous or celebrity people in her photographs, she prefers to look at ordinary citizens. Her ability to represent the experience of young people from their own perspective is compelling. The event of the photograph, its simple taking, never becomes a big event for her subjects and that is why people come across as natural and unforced.

You cannot look at this photograph and not think that it is a picture taken during school holidays. Heat and water, sand and sun. Ans does not often choose such action shots. Yet, with swimming and water, the scene almost calls for a true moment of fun when flying through the air. It reminds me of this question - when did you last fly through the air and land on hot sand?

Credits: Ans Westra
Murupara 1984
gelatin silver print
From the series: Whaiora - The Search for Life

Holloway Road, Wellington 1973
gelatin silver print

Hikurangi 1982, printed 1984
gelatin silver print
From the series: Whaiora - The Search for Life

Otara, Auckland 1984
gelatin silver print

Te Kao, North Cape 1983
gelatin silver print