Elsewhere

by Lara Strongman

Years ago, I interviewed a great old artist in his Auckland studio. He didn’t have much time left: he knew it, and I knew it, and over the course of a week he told me the story of his life. Sometimes he’d have an audience of people who’d dropped by to see him: other times it was just him and me. He played to a crowd no matter who was there, recounting the highlights of a dangerous life in the grand manner. I was spellbound, transported. It felt extraordinary to be actually there sitting in his studio, surrounded by paintings and files and ashtrays and wire breadboards: during the previous year I had immersed myself in his life and work, reading everything I could find about him. But then as I listened to him speak, I heard something strange. The words he used to describe the singular events of his life were identical to those I had read in interviews with him from many years before—not just similar, but precisely the same. I realised after a while that what he was remembering was not the event itself, but the previous telling of the story.

In thinking about Neil Pardington’s recent photographs of other times, other places, I keep coming back to this experience. I think that photography might work in much the same way, interceding somewhere between memory and history, between the story and its telling. The photographic image is an object unfettered by time, it belongs neither here nor there; a calling card for somewhere else entirely, the no-man’s-land of the frozen moment. As a physical artefact, the photograph remains in a perpetual present, whereas the event itself recedes slowly and inexorably until the experience is obliterated by its image; until, like the old painter, the story is lost in the telling.

With its finest hour in the American 20s and 30s, straight photography was understood until comparatively recently to tell the truth of the world. Its characteristically gritty black and white images of everyday life attempted to capture life directly as it was apprehended, a pattern of timeless moments without artifice or trickery or construction. Seen today as a style as much as any other, straight photography has undergone a recent revival of interest among contemporary photographers who use its discredited objectivity as a way to communicate the subjective realities of contemporary life.

Neil Pardington takes straight photographs with a twist: they are not so much about capturing the current moment as attempting to recapitulate the past. Pardington pictures the talismanic objects of his New Zealand childhood—swimming pools, balloons, old mattresses in baches and caravans. Taken with a handheld camera in available light, these are images full of nouns rather than adjectives, raw black and white Hemingway-style pictures pervaded with a sense of melancholy stillness. Borrowing from photography’s two great themes of place and time, Pardington’s recent images tell small stories. There is the sense, as Derek Walcott noted in his epic ‘Omeros’, of ‘the great events of the world’ having happened elsewhere. While an earlier series of photographs recorded a distinctly New Zealand vernacular—a sense of being here as opposed to anywhere else—Pardington’s recent images are about the impossibility of ever going home again. There is a sense of having returned only to have missed the party; here the balloons are deflating, the mattresses are stained, the lights are going out. It’s over.

Pardington’s images capture the sad persistence of the past in the present, exuding a feeling of things not as they were then, but as they are now. Time moves on, and memory has been overtaken by what Alan Walls has described as the ‘iconographic inertia’ of photography, halting time in a series of frozen moments. While the story is in the details, the image has become a metaphor for the memory, standing in for actual experience. And as might have been the case with the old painter, sometimes we need to forget as much as we need to remember.