Monday 13 September 2010
A few weeks ago, I came across Harvey Benge’s new book Against Forgetting(FAQ Editions, Auckland, 2010). The book also takes Mt Roskill as its subject and the illustrations contrast images made by the artist during 2009 with his own family photographs, a discarded map and an anonymous found portrait.
This wonderful little book is, to my way of thinking, actually an artist’s book in its conception. It arranges the carefully sequenced images so that they reflect both the artist’s past and his present experience of this unique Auckland suburb. Against Forgetting is a dynamic response to place because it reveals the area’s identity as residing as much in its memory as in its current experience.
Harvey begins his book with an informative prefatory note, setting the scene for the visual narrative which follows:
“For the first thirteen years of my life I lived with my parents in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill. Our family home was a modest, two bedroom, weather-board house which my father had built about 1940. The suburb is known for its volcanic peak, 110 metres in height, one of the many extinct volcanic cones that dot the Auckland isthmus. Mt Roskill has been referred to as the Bible Belt of Auckland with more churches per capita than any other New Zealand suburb. Now, after more years than I care to think about I’ve gone back to look at my past. Where I grew up. Here are some photographs. Against forgetting.”
While Against Forgetting works as an autobiography of the artist’s Mt Roskill childhood, it also reflects upon the changing nature of the suburb. It is illustrated with snapshots gathered from his own family, a hodgepodge of signage including a silhouette of the crucifix that looms down from the mountain. There is recent graffiti, and a religious message presented as if it is an old grocershop's handmade sign writing. Among all this is a gathering of found material that have been, perhaps, mislaid or simply lost or even discarded.
There are two portraits of unknown children. A teenage boy captured in a battered mug shot, probably taken for his New Zealand Passport. A blond girl stands demurely against a dark background. Bibles are placed on chairs waiting for worshipers. A present day image of the Benge family’s home is contrasted with a period snapshot taken by Harvey’s Dad, who I am told was a “keen photographer”.
Against Forgetting reveals a suburb now reduced in scale and changed from what it once was. A passionate demonstration of self-discovery has occurred in Harvey’s returning ‘home’. His book reveals the suburb’s character and reminds us it has never been gentrified like Freeman's Bay or Grey Lynn, Parnell or Ponsonby. Mt Roskill remains a home place for people with modest means. I asked Harvey to comment on the difference between what Mt Roskill was like between 1943 and 1958, when his family decided to shift across to Mt Albert so that he could attend the Grammar School:
“Mt Roskill then was very much a white working to middle class suburb bounded by new sub-divisions to the south of Mt Albert Road. My old school (Dominion Road Primary) photos that I have show only white faces. Today the suburb is completely multicultural with a strong Indian community.”
Harvey's view of Auckland's suburban life shows the ways images can work as symbols rather than as a mere document. His photographs, at first, look like they might function in the tradition of documentary photography yet they frequently express a telling narrative. Harvey kindly sent me his take on locality:
“Sense of ‘place’ has always been central to my thinking and is often defined by the people. I've frequently been told my pictures have a cinematic feel to them and capture moments where something has just happened or something is about to happen. These edited still frames of course sometimes include people if only in the minds eye.”
Harvey Benge has an impressive website that is both international in its subject and scope: http://harveybenge.blogspot.com/