It was April 2018 and Georgina Whiteley (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Paper Conservator) and I (Gallery Librarian/ Archivist) had a job to do. We were in New Plymouth to take a close look at the archive of key New Zealand camera artist, Peter Peryer (1941–2018), to see what he was considering gifting and what its current condition was.
We were welcomed into a modest house in the suburbs with a well-organised studio/office just inside the front door that when you proceeded down the corridor opened into a much more chaotic and interesting living space. There were carefully selected objects, many books and on every available surface, plants. Even the bathroom held more plants than your average home. So, first impressions were that here was a man with a restless eye who liked to be surrounded by possibilities: things to both nurture and add to a collection and, possibly, to photograph.
Peryer had prepared for our visit by sorting through some of the material that had accumulated over his 40-year career. In a recorded conversation, he described it as ‘a bit of a cleansing process … very good for your health … It definitely feels as if there’s more oxygen in the house’. Deciding it was time to ‘streamline’, he ditched 1990s bank statements, for example, but relished the discoveries he made in the process. In particular, he was keen to revisit his contact (proof) sheets as he thought there might be ‘a lot of pictures in there that I would like to print up’ as he hadn’t printed them at the time they were photographed.
As to how his archive might work for researchers, Peryer was keen for students to have wide-ranging access, including being able to use his images in their assignments via small-sized reproductions. We agreed on what the archive would consist of and how the acquisition would proceed, and then Peryer very graciously played host on a tour of his beloved city.
Sadly, Peryer died later that year and may never have reviewed his earlier work in the manner he intended. His archive came to us as a donation from the Peter Peryer Estate in March 2021. A record for it can be found here.
What eventually came to the Gallery was essentially what we had agreed with the artist. As well as textual material such as correspondence, artist files and exhibition ephemera, there are contact sheets and negatives. The latter are both in 35mm and medium formats, and are mostly in black and white, though there are also colour slides. Some images are duplicated on the discs that came and, as well as these records of Peryer’s photographic output, we have his appointment diaries and some early scrapbooks. A smaller archive put together by Jim Barr and Mary Barr, art collectors, curators, and long-standing friends of Peryer, forms part of the larger Peryer Archive that we hold here at the E H McCormick Research Library.
Aside from a small number of working prints, the archive does not include silver gelatin/exhibitable prints. However, there are 75 Peryer photographs in the Auckland Art Gallery and Chartwell collections that researchers can refer to for an understanding of his practice.
So what does the archive reveal about Peryer’s working method and career?
Largely a self-taught photographer, and after a spell as a teacher, one can follow Peryer’s trajectory as an artist from attendance at Elam (University of Auckland) and PhotoForum workshops in the 70s through to a triumphant solo show Second Nature that toured New Zealand and was shown in Germany in 1995–1996. His collection of exhibition catalogues and ephemera spans his entire career from the 1970s to 2018.
Peryer’s approach to the wealth of analogue material that both came his way and that he proactively collected was systematic: he set up an alphabetical filing system organised by subject. The file titles – there are well over a hundred – may be obvious, such as the name of the dealer or public gallery that sold or exhibited his work, or more enigmatic – for example under ‘C’ we have ‘Concerns’. A bizarre set of playing cards featuring portraits of Iraqi leaders of the early 2000s perhaps reflect a dark sense of humour and are filed under ‘Entertainment’.
Within these files, created and accumulated pre-email, it is not surprising that letters provide evidence of Peryer’s activities but the quantity and the duration of written communication with some individuals is note-worthy. The correspondence he had with Dr Charles C Eldredge, for example, is of particular interest. A distinguished art historian, Eldredge was director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in the 80s and curated Pacific Parallels, an exhibition that featured works by Peryer and which toured the United States. They developed a strong bond and wrote to each other from 1983–2005. Similarly, Peryer’s friendship with the Barrs is represented by both personal and professional letters over many years and arose out of Jim Barr’s curating of Peryer’s first solo exhibition in 1977 when director of the Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt. Peryer’s correspondence with dealers exhibits nowhere near the same warmth and one could assume he found these relationships more challenging.
As well as providing information on his exhibitions, Peryer’s correspondence traces the many awards he received, such as the Order of New Zealand Merit in 1997 and an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2000. Often of influence in the subjects he chose to photograph, there are also letters and files pertaining to his various homes in New Zealand and the overseas travel he undertook, including to the Subantarctic Islands.
In commenting on the newly invented miniature camera with its use of rolls of film, George Bernard Shaw commented that ‘such machines are like the codfish that produces a million young in order that one may survive’. The inclusion of several thousand negatives/ contact sheets in the archive, contrasts with the relatively modest number of images Peryer made available during his lifetime (and the Estate has confirmed there is to be no posthumous printing). Ron Brownson, Senior Curator New Zealand Art explains, ‘he was a very skilled self-editor’. Brownson labels Peryer’s relatively small number of iconic images ‘meditative [and] fused with mystery [exhibiting] a forensic fabrication of reality’. These are represented many times over in different formats, showing that Peryer returned to them often.
On Peryer’s printing, Brownson remarks that ‘he was a meticulous and careful printer’ who early on, printed ‘everything he sold’. Hand-written notes on his negative sleeves or contact sheets, such as that on Judith, 1975 – ‘f8 - 12 secs Rt shoulder 12 secs; Left shoulder 9 secs plus 5 all round’ – indicate that he recorded the details of his printing process as well as his camera settings. In addition, we have Peryer’s darkroom notebook, where for Trout, Lake Taupo we read ‘25/5/88 … toned in selenium … H2O hypo-clearing agent. Developed in Dektol1 + 9. Printed in Kodak Elite Grade 2’.
Indicative of an organised person intent on a developing and serious art career, Peryer’s seven scrapbooks in the archive cover the period 1978–1982 and contain articles, invitations, checklists, prints, letters and certificates. Finally, his diaries place Peryer in a particular place at a particular time and are invaluable to a serious researcher.
Exhibiting the Archive – Peter Peryer: The Man in the Photograph
Currently on display outside the Research Library, the exhibition Peter Peryer: The Man in the Photograph celebrates the acquisition of the Peter Peryer Archive, showing its depth and range by focusing on Peryer’s early self-portraiture as well as images of him taken by others.
With 26 boxes of material to choose from, co-curator Tamsyn Bayliss and I scoured the collection before us for material relating to the photographic portraits in the Gallery’s art collection that we had chosen to profile.
Through the various components of the archive – negatives, contact sheets, slides, catalogues, and ephemera – one can trace a single image as it appears in various formats. In multiple reproductions, for example, we see the iconic Self portrait 1977, 1977, in which the artist holds a rooster. With Peryer as the sole subject of the photographs, it was interesting to explore how he represented himself versus how others chose to do this. Peryer photographed by others reveals a softer man: a smiling youth, and a father with small children.
Including personal insights as well as professional, third-person accounts and representations, we wanted the exhibition to reflect the many crossovers and layers evident in the life and practice of one of New Zealand’s leading photographers, and how they are manifested in his archive.
As I spend more time with this archive, I become increasingly aware of the parallels with my own life: like Peryer I went to Takapuna Grammar School and North Shore Teachers College, gained a Masters in Education and even lived in the same street at the same time. As well as facts, I have picked up on themes and patterns of behaviour that appear to indicate certain traits and interests, but my interpretations are but one of many possibilities.
If you would like to research the Peter Peryer Archive, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will make it available to you.
 Quoted in H V Morton, A Traveller in Rome, London: Methuen, 1957, p 400.