Ron Brownson & Max Oettli

Max Oettli: Visible Evidence

Article Detail

Photographer Max Oettli reflects on a selection of his photographs with Ron Brownson, Senior Curator of New Zealand Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Reprinted from Art Toi Magazine, November 2021


Ron Brownson: In 1975 I was living right next to Snaps, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s first photographic gallery. Established by Glenn Busch and Alan Leatherby, Snaps’s inaugural exhibition profiled Swiss-born Max Oettli’s photographs. I worked as a gallery volunteer, which meant I could look closely at and spend extended time with Oettli’s black and white images. They proved an eye-opener to me: Oettli was committed to capturing inner-city street life with grit and humour while using the opposing light perspectives of night and day.

A number of the rare vintage photographs presented at the 1975 Snaps show are included in this selection, which the artist and I have written short comments on. These join more than 50 other photographs in the Gallery’s exhibition, Max Oettli: Visible Evidence – a strong representation of his practice during the 10-year period which also includes work from the 2018 gift Oettli made to the Gallery of his Auckland photographs.

The decade Oettli was active in Auckland coincided with the time when photography began to enter our art scene. The use of miniature 35mm cameras was widespread, providing photographers with technical versatility to match the varieties of imported film and stocks of photographic paper that were becoming available. Even in 1975, photography exhibitions were infrequently encountered in local galleries, but this did not discourage Oettli. An innovative artist, his vocation was independent of the marketplace – he chose when, what and where he photographed, working outside commercial constraints. Being spontaneous and intuitive, he approached his subject matter like a visual diarist, adroitly using a candid ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ technique influenced by French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Unlike local camera club artists, Oettli avoided the tradition of ‘fine art’ exhibition prints, relishing instead the contrast of dark versus light. His images vary spatial depth, experiment with light and do not favour balanced exposures or pre-determined compositions. This imaginative confidence gives his photographs emotional vitality and expressive momentum.

Immediacy, rapid response and quirkiness are central to Oettli’s photographic practice. His images oppose notions of following a preconceived or correct photographic mode, and by concentrating on graphic intensity rather than conventional pictorial finesse, Oettli has helped redefine the relevance of street photography. Using his camera not merely as a functional extension of his curious eye, but instead an apparatus reflecting a discerning mindfulness, Oettli captures reality in a spontaneous, unrehearsed and intuitive way.

As a fellow immigrant from continental Europe, Oettli’s photographs share affinities with the work of Marti Friedlander and Ans Westra. Like them, he observes this country from a forward-looking urban perspective with a photographic agenda to seek out how people in New Zealand live. Oettli was also close to other New Zealand camera artists, including John Fields, John B Turner, Tom Hutchins and Laurence Shustak, who worked as professional photographers while maintaining their own personal artistic vocation.

Over the course of a decade Oettli emerged as one of New Zealand’s ground-breaking photographers. Dedicating himself to independent picture making – and avoiding editorial direction – the distinctive images he has created offer a live, subjective view of a time of immense change when New Zealand was opening up to the world and engaging in the cultural, political and social exchanges that would set the course on which we now find ourselves.

Max Oettli: The plaster casting sequence happened quite early in my Elam career. I entered Elam School of Fine Arts in the current of 1970 and spent the first few months getting to know the staff and students and developing some notion of what I was supposed to be doing. John Haydn, whose project the casting was, had quite recently come back from a stay in California and was very excited by the People’s Park protest and its brutal culmination, which he had energetically photographed. We became good friends. Apart from the rich visual contents of the whole casting series (even the fact that I was shooting maybe 20 or 30 frames on one subject over a few days was unusual), it also fitted into my agenda as being strange and beautiful, scary even.

RB: The Kiwi Hotel, on the corner of Symonds and Wellesley Streets, was renowned as the place where students and university staff gathered six days a week. On Monday 7 October 1967, when the enforced six o’clock closure of all hotel bars was lifted, the Kiwi opened from 11am to 10pm. Its business tripled overnight and it immediately became a centre of Auckland’s youth culture. However, the pub retained its regular clients, people who came for a drink almost every day. These friends are enjoying refreshments from glasses that were called ‘ponies’.

MO: The escalator girl has become one of my most popular pictures, reproduced in about five anthologies and held in many public and private collections. It is undeniably a great image, but I would have to mentally reboot it to get a valid personal reaction to it. I remember spending a lot of time in Auckland’s big stores then, not really purchasing anything, often after a few puffs of cannabis and essentially watching the human zoo. The most valid personal commentary I have on this is the one I recorded for a video at Te Papa in 2019, which you can watch here:

MO: Another from my Queen Street strolls. At one level, there is a metaphysical dimension to this photo, which is something I often, in my subconscious, searched for. I did not give a stuff for fashion, but I was fascinated by the congruity of the two identical arms, accentuated in black and white, and the anonymity of the three figures. It would have been, as most of my pictures, very rapidly snatched with a Leica in my fist, raised to my eye for a fraction of a second to compose the scene in my frame. I owe a lot to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

RB: Henderson and Pollard’s massive timber and joinery mill was adjacent to Mt Eden Prison. It operated from the 1930s to the 1980s and was the largest wood processing factory in central Auckland. At night, its furnaces remained operational, sending out smoking clouds of vapour over the entire site. Walking past it at night was always an eerie experience.

MO: ‘Night Out’. A compression of ‘Sometimes at night I feel myself locked out’ and the title of the 1959 Harold Pinter play. Sexual, affective frustration, naturally, is also an interpretation of the artist as an outsider popularised by Colin Wilson a few years earlier. I’m driving my VW beetle, both windows open and hearing the echo of the metallic whirr of the double tailpipes against the cold concrete. My night work, which started in about 1969, eventually became part of a show that Luit Bieringa curated in Palmerston North.

MO: A tense situation where I did nothing to ease the tension, with a family presumably watching a relative march by as part of the returned New Zealand contingent in the Vietnam War. As a good war protester I am suitably scruffy and wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘Shame’ printed on it with a felt-tipped pen. I am quite close to these beautiful people. The father said, ‘Never let this photo be used against the Māori people.’ I assured him I never would, and I never have. It is a sad and dignified work.

MO: In my 20th year, I was in my second year of a BA course at the University of Auckland. It was my fourth year as an active photographer, and I was working with a somewhat cumbersome, if reliable twin-lens reflex. The Auckland Art Gallery, welcoming and open, was a very frequent destination of my walks, and I was interested right from the start by an expressive and personal language. The impact of Duchamp on Auckland’s staid and conservative art gallery goers was dramatic, at a time when the likes of Michael Illingworth were still being denounced for pornographic work. The idea of Duchamp as the perpetrator of a completely individual practice that put the artist as a performer in the picture, as it were, was totally new and far removed from the more familiar circus acts of Salvador Dalí. The rotating eye happily reproduced on the gentleman’s catalogue, outstares us in total indifference. The artwork is in a suitcase, untouchable.

MO: Suit in soft herringbone wool by a very talented English tailor who seemed to be part of Auckland’s gay scene. Hat? Op shop, I suppose. During a dandy phase of my career. On a ‘Night Out’ stroll.

RB: In the decade that Oettli was photographing in Auckland he frequently made images of families and friends gathered together. He often included children, who they are always captured candidly as individuals in their own right. In foregrounding relationships, his group portraits express a keen closeness with others while conveying the values of the generation.

MO: ‘Point of Departure’, another of those ambiguous concepts that nourished my photographic work (comparable to ‘Funny and Moving’, ‘Visible Evidence’ and other such phrases parked in a football field-sized semantic area). I had come back from a fortnight in New South Wales the day before, saying a second farewell to a beloved lady, so a stroll down to the Railway Station seemed perfectly logical. I shot a sequence of photos essentially in a valedictory mode and did a few final blurred sweeps as the fancy silver train moved off into the darkness. The couple, my parents’ generation, are perfect in the context with the gentleman’s military bearing somewhat marred by his fists in his pockets and mum waving with a mixture of affection and respect. When we left Aotearoa at the end of 1975, I used Point of Departure as the title of a show we had in Glenn Busch’s Snaps gallery.

MO: Who was she again? Anne? Julie? Fast asleep behind her billowing curtain, no balcony scene tonight. This Romeo will wend his weary way back across the Domain and fall into his bed in his shared flea-ridden Grafton house. Personal stuff, which I try to make more universal. Who has not stopped and stared up at the window of a beloved who is probably blissfully unaware of the love, lust, longing, loneliness seething in the garden below? The curtain carries a message; the photo takes it away. I’m probably at a quarter of a second exposure handheld, fully aware of the result I will get. Night Out.