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Friedlander, Marti

1928–2016

Photographer

This biography, written by Leonard Bell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.

Marti Friedlander was one of New Zealand’s most outstanding twentieth-century photographers. Her work was massively influential both in the development of photography as an artistic practice in New Zealand and in the documentation of the country’s changing social and cultural life. Her close collaborations with leading writers helped her work reach audiences far beyond photography enthusiasts, and her portraits pictured the faces of Māori, vintners, immigrants, artists, writers, actors, craftspeople and musicians. Friedlander’s brilliant images of diverse aspects of suburban, small-town and rural life pictured her adopted country during a period of radical social change. Many of her images have shaped how places, people, and events in New Zealand are known and understood.  

Early life

Marti Friedlander was born Martha Gordon in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, on 19 February 1928. Her parents were Sophie Cohen and her husband, tailor’s presser Philip Gordon, Russian-Jewish immigrants about whom little is known. She had an older sister, Anne (born 1926). Their parents were unable to cope and disappeared in 1931. Marti was placed initially in the London County Council’s Ben Jonson Home in Bethnal Green, shifting to the Norwood Orphan Aid Asylum, a Jewish orphanage in southwest London, in about 1933, where she was reunited with Anne. Marti lived there until she was evacuated to Worthing and a foster family in the early years of the Second World War.

In the early 1940s Marti won a trade scholarship to train as a dressmaker at the Bloomsbury Technical School in London. The course proved to be full, so she joined the photography course, the only other one with a vacancy, following it with a valuable year at the Camberwell School of Art in South London in 1944–45. From 1946 Marti was an assistant for two professional photographers, New Zealand-born Douglas Glass and then Gordon Crocker, who was primarily a fashion photographer, in their shared Kensington studio in London. The technical skills she acquired were invaluable. Glass, the Sunday Times portrait photographer from 1949 to 1961, observed ironically that Marti could produce an image from a blank negative.

Marti married dentist Gerrard Friedlander on 10 February 1957 in Hendon, London. Born Gerhard in Berlin, Gerrard and his family had fled Nazism first to British-administered Palestine in the mid-1930s and then, in 1937, to New Zealand. In 1957 Marti and Gerrard travelled throughout Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain, for nine months on a Lambretta scooter with a tent and haversack. They then moved to New Zealand, via Israel, arriving in early 1958. Auckland was Friedlander’s home for the rest of her life, first Henderson until 1967, then Herne Bay and finally Parnell from the early 1990s.

Move into professional photography

Several of Friedlander’s photographs had been published in British newspapers in the mid-1950s, but she initially had no plans to work as a professional photographer in New Zealand. It happened incidentally. Her first photographs published in New Zealand were for the arts quarterly Landfall, edited by Charles Brasch, in 1959–60. One was a portrait of then-aspiring writer Maurice Gee, because his parents lived next door in Henderson. Her next published photographs were for the entertainment magazine Playdate, edited by West Auckland friend Des Dubbelt, in the early 1960s. They included a ‘shot’ of visiting English crooner Cliff Richard performing in Auckland’s St James Theatre in 1961. Another friend, historian Dick Scott, edited The Wine Review, which began featuring her photographs in 1964. Beginning in 1965, the important New Vision art gallery in Auckland, founded by Dutch immigrants Kees and Tine Hos, began employing  Friedlander to photograph artists, potters and exhibition installations for their brochures. By the mid-1960s her career was well on its way. Her first exhibition, at the Wynyard Tavern in central Auckland, came in 1966: portraits of children, which revealed astute insights into the complexities of childhood. She later observed that her heart-breaking inability to have children of her own gave her permission to pursue a creative career in place of motherhood; tragically, she lost a still-born daughter in the early 1960s.

Acclaim and prominence

Print publications then provided the prime opportunities for photographers to make their work public; outside camera clubs, photography exhibitions in art galleries and museums were rare. The variety of newspapers and periodicals for which Friedlander worked demonstrates her broad range of subjects, themes and genres. These included the New Zealand Herald, the Auckland Star, the Weekly News, the New Zealand Listener, the Town Planning Quarterly, the proto-feminist women’s magazine Thursday and the feminist Broadsheet, along with the prominent arts periodicals Art New Zealand, Islands, New Argot and Music New Zealand.

A series of successful books, produced in partnership with writers, showcased and expanded the audience for Friedlander’s work. Her first photo-book was Moko: the art of Maori tattooing in the twentieth century (1972), with text by Michael King. It documented the moko (traditional facial tattoos) of more than 70 elderly Māori women, at a time when the practice had been long abandoned and the numbers of people who wore them were dwindling. Several leading publishers rejected Moko, claiming that it was not financially viable, though it was eventually published by the novice counter-cultural publisher Alister Taylor. It became a best-seller and had passed through six subsequent editions by 2019. Friedlander’s second photo-book, Larks in a paradise: New Zealand portraits (text by James McNeish, 1974) was also successful. Some criticised its supposedly negative view of New Zealand, but criticism had not been Friedlander’s intention. Others aptly praised its humanist celebration of the individuality and distinctiveness of the country’s people. Friedlander’s next book, Contemporary New Zealand painters: A–M (text by Jim and Mary Barr, 1980), also published by Taylor, would become a collector’s item (the planned second volume, featuring artists with surnames N–Z, did not eventuate). Friedlander was less published from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, though her portraits featured in Virginia Myers’ book Head and shoulders: successful New Zealand women talk to Virginia Myers (1986).

Friedlander’s public renown increased steadily from the 1970s onwards. Her photographs appeared frequently in group exhibitions, though one-person shows were rare until she joined FHE Galleries in Auckland in 1994. This enhanced the public visibility of her work and reputation, culminating in a massively popular Auckland Art Gallery retrospective in 2001 which toured the country until 2004. Shirley Horrocks’ documentary film The passionate eye (2004), primarily a biography of Friedlander, won awards in festivals in Germany, Italy, Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia, and further expanded the audience for her photographs.

A rush of books accompanied this new prominence: Ron Brownson’s Marti Friedlander photographs (2001), which accompanied the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition, Dick Scott’s Pioneers of New Zealand wine (2002), Leonard Bell’s Marti Friedlander (2009 and 2010), Claire Dunleavy’s Waiheke Island: a world of wine (2017) and Bell’s Marti Friedlander: portraits of the artists (2020). She published a memoir, Self-portrait: Marti Friedlander, co-written with Hugo Manson, in 2013. Her photographs figured prominently in numerous other books from the 1970s onwards; their subjects and concerns are diverse – old age, sociology, high-achieving women, tourism, Fiji and the Tokelau Islands, biographies, monographs on artists and exhibition catalogues, and authors’ photographs on the dust jackets of novels and volumes of poetry.

Friedlander’s vision of New Zealand

Friedlander was intelligent, passionate and coolly reflective. Photography enabled her to explore New Zealand society and people, and portraits were her prime strength. They reveal great skill in visualising individual personality and temperament. Her portraits of elderly Māori women not only documented their subjects with intense, understated sympathy, but also helped her feel more at home in New Zealand. As an immigrant, she was in a position to visualise aspects of social relations that most New Zealand-born people did not see – or did not want to see. For instance, a 1967 photograph of a solitary man in a crowded small-town South Island pub, his fist clenched, explosive with latent tension, is a revealing portrait of both an individual and a widely shared social condition.

Her 50-year project to photograph New Zealand’s artists, writers and other creative people, which began in the early 1960s, was motivated by the view that they were under-recognised and under-valued. Together these portraits constitute a history of the radical changes in New Zealand culture, from a time when the arts had little status in mainstream society, to the early   twenty-first century, when they were much more widely valued and the quantity of excellent creative work was large for a country with a relatively small population. For instance, Friedlander’s numerous photographs of writer C.K. Stead from the early 1960s to the second decade of the 2000s – used as author’s portrait on the dust jackets of at least eight of his books, as well as in other books, newspapers, periodicals, exhibitions and Stead’s own blog – are effectively the public face of the writer. They also constitute a kind of visual biography and narrative of the changing relationship between the photographer and writer.

Her photographs also embody her advocacy for more opportunities for women, and it is striking how many women she photographed at a time when, with some exceptions, female artists and writers were routinely placed in secondary positions, regarded as minor, and patronised or overlooked by male critics and fellow practitioners. Friedlander did not passively accept such marginalisation; she simply ignored the traditional subordination of women and went her own fiercely independent way, ruffling more than a few feathers.

Overall Friedlander’s photographs provide insightful images of diverse places and their inhabitants, particularly people’s relationships with one another, whether in New Zealand, Israel, England, or Fiji and Tokelau in the Pacific. Her photographs attest to her intense engagement with various locations, such as deserts, rural environments, vineyards, beaches or city streets, and the people, events and behaviours within them. Her photograph, Eglinton Valley (1970), for example, shows an encounter with a flock of sheep on a misty rural road. The sheep, sentient and wary, spread across the road, look back at us, as if asking us what we are doing there. What could have been an ordinary scene is transformed into one of enchantment. Empathy characterises Friedlander’s photographs, whether, for example, her 1968 portraits of the elderly Rauwha Tamaiparea (Taranaki), an isolated presence in the mostly abandoned Māori settlement of Parihaka, a troubled-looking child clutching a balloon, or an artist who struggles with anxiety or depression.

Later life and legacy

In 1999 Friedlander was made a CNZM for services to photography. She gifted around 180 large prints from her 2001 retrospective exhibition to the Auckland Art Gallery, while the vintage Moko images went to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa with the aim that they would be exhibited around the country. In 2007 she and Gerrard inaugurated a biannual award to a promising photographer. She deposited a large archive of photographs, negatives, and personal papers on loan with the Auckland Art Gallery, and its cultural and social value was recognised when it was elevated to the UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand Register in November 2017. She was made an Arts Foundation Icon in 2011, and the University of Auckland conferred an honorary doctorate on her in October 2016. Friedlander died at her Auckland home on 14 November 2016, aged 88, survived by her husband Gerrard.

The Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust continued Friedlander’s legacy, funding a lectureship in the history and practices of photography at the University of Auckland, a series of books on the visual arts, and an annual programme to purchase camera and computer equipment to help teach photography at middle to lower decile secondary schools. Friedlander, whose childhood beginnings were inauspicious, was always a powerful advocate for programmes to enable children and young people to realise their creative potential.

How to cite this page:

Leonard Bell. 'Friedlander, Marti', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6f4/friedlander-marti (accessed 23 October 2021)