Photographer Max Oettli on documenting New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s


I don’t think I was
confronting them. Having come here
as a kid, and lived a rough
but interesting childhood and young manhood
in New Zealand, I was sort of aware of the
limits of confrontation, but I also felt
I had to look in the face
of these people. For me, it was
a difficult act. I don’t think street
person-to-person communication was a
strong suit of Auckland in those days. Unless you were
being aggressive – and none of those people
were going to aggress me. And I they love the
guy with the betting ticket
in his hat. She saw this liquorice strap
disappearing… she’s Alice in
Wonderland. I would have had
the Leica, again. It would have been probably
a 60th of a second at about a 4 or 2 or 8 [f-stop],
something like that, whatever film
I was using. I wouldn’t have been pre-focussed,
but I would’ve had it in my hand… I mean… I cannot let this go. It was just too
damn good. And the photo is imperfect: the
depth of field is very slightly off the actual subject, but for some reason it’s
made an enormous hit, my little Alice. It’s a bit like the
Robert Frank photo, of tarmac going
up like this. I partly thank people
like John Turner and John Daly,
who taught me you can work in
low light levels with quite a rounded paper and get quite a long
contrast range, and just let it sit, rather than going
the Robert Frank or Bill Brandt way. A lot of my work is more about
the dance of human life, so the subject is very often interaction. We are beautiful, and we
move through this world – I mean, it’s like something
out of Pina Bausch. The other thing is we are
blessed with binocular vision. We have a wide
horizontal angle, the fact that I used a 35mm
was that it corresponded almost exactly to my instinctive
binocular vision. On the Leica, if you push
the button softly there is no movement at all, like, a completely
motionless photo, if you’re propped
on something, and, of course, the
shutter’s very silent. And if you saw
me, I don’t care, I sent him a
copy later. I was crashing
on his pad. If you look at the
stock of my work, I’ve always been
fascinated by the idea of windows. They have their own
fragmentation effect for a kickoff, often a light distortion effect. One of the pillars of
photographic art is the frame, and I was trying at the time, earnestly, to sacralise [Henri]
Cartier-Bresson’s idea that the frame was inviolable. That once you’d taken a photograph,
the photograph ‘was’. As it gets old it’s
certainly becoming quite an interesting
sociohistorical reading. We don’t have greasy
fork joints any more – not much, anyway – and… even things like the equipment
around them, the typography
of the sign… All that has its
signification as well, and I wouldn’t have
been conscious of all that when I
took the photo. All I can say is
it looked right.

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