The baby-boomer generation, better off, better educated and with more leisure time and professional prospects than previous generations, took up photography with smartness and ambition in the early 1970s. In the last decades of the 20th century, photography was slowly accepted as an art form by the art establishment, as photographers with artistic ambitions moved on from the sentimentality of pictorialism.
Commercial photography continued, and the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers Association was founded in 1978. The natural environment and wildlife remained of interest to photographers.
Two of Fiona Clark’s photographs were part of the Manawatu Art Gallery’s The Active Eye exhibition of 1975. She had photographed friends at a gay liberation ball, one of whom wrote challenging captions around the frame of the images for the viewer to read, such as ‘aren’t you furious you hung up closet queens’.1 The photos were the subject of complaints, and they were removed from the travelling exhibition, and eventually stolen.
PhotoForum, founded in 1974 by John B. Turner and others to promote photography, was influential, holding workshops, promoting exhibitions and producing publications. University courses were established and public art galleries began collecting contemporary photography and curating exhibitions. The Manawatu Art Gallery’s The Active Eye exhibition of 1975 was an important moment in photography’s acceptance as art.
Documentary remained the prevalent mode, but revealed new views and ways of looking at the world, illustrated by the work of Gary Baigent, Richard Barraud, John Fields and Glenn Busch. The style played a significant role in the activist movements of the 1980s as photographers recorded the protesters and supporters.
When Peter Peryer’s ‘Dead steer’ (1987), his best-known photograph, was exhibited in Germany in 1995, New Zealand’s minister of agriculture complained that it was bad publicity for New Zealand’s meat export industry.
The photographic horizon broadened to embrace colour, more personal views and a greater awareness of New Zealand history, variously exemplified in the work of Robin Morrison, Anne Noble, Peter Peryer, Rhondda Bosworth, Peter Black and Laurence Aberhart among many others.
This broadening also refreshed documentary photography, especially in the area of giving a voice to minorities such as Māori, women, gays and the disabled, in the work of Fiona Clark, John Miller and Mark Adams.
From the 1980s mainly women photographers, such as Di ffrench and Christine Webster, led the way in postmodern practice, which was interested in creating images rather than recording ‘reality’. They introduced a more conceptual and theatrical approach that not long before would have been unthinkable.
In the 1990s photographers such as Megan Jenkinson, in her The virtues series, blurred the boundary between documentary concerns and art photography. More recently Fiona Pardington’s work with hei tiki and plaster casts queried the shaping contexts museums and art galleries impose on their objects.
The long-held assumption, enshrined in French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s term ‘the decisive moment’, had been that photography was about the ‘now’, capturing a moment that sums up the subject being photographed. From the late 20th century postmodernism was concerned with the ‘then’ of history and its relationship with the present day, leading to a re-evaluation of 19th-century photography and giving a new cast to contemporary practice. This approach has shown up most potently in the work of a new wave of Māori photographers, including Natalie Robertson, Aimee Te Ratana and Vicky Thomas.
Reality and identity
For most of its history photography has been seen as a reliable mirror of reality. Contemporary photographers such as Ben Cauchi have scrutinised this belief and its assumptions of truth by, in his case, using 19th-century photographic techniques in the 21st century.
The work of many contemporary photographers is concerned with issues such as reality and perception, the role of fashion and the construction of identity. Yvonne Todd’s staged portraits display a formidable formal confidence, yet her subjects project great uncertainty about who they are.
Digital cameras became available in the early 1990s and within 10 years had replaced traditional film cameras. Cameras started to be included in cellphones, and by the 2010s even the most basic phone had an in-built camera. Image-hosting and sharing websites like Flickr provided free storage for the countless mass of digital photos produced daily.
The ubiquity of photographs and photography ushered in by the digital age challenged traditional documentary photography. Anyone could be a photographer and record seminal moments and events. Yet the digital revolution also triggered new interest in photography from dealers, collectors, critics and scholars. Non-photographic artists increasingly incorporated the medium into their work, and photographers took up digital cameras and fully exploited their artistic possibilities.