Back There Differently:

An Interview with Neil Pardington by Stuart McKenzie

“Beautiful—like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table!”

Your photos of empty space have generally been exteriors, but now you’re turning your camera inside and on institutions.

I’ve always liked the idea of space and emptiness. But the photo I took at the disused psychiatric hospital in Porirua, when we were scouting locations for our film For Good, also sparked off a specific concern about the relationship between the individual and institution. I took a photo in an empty room of an empty chair with kowhaiwhai patterns etched into the arm with black pen. At the time it struck me as a cry for help. I mean, the space itself was so desolate, you could never imagine being in that space and actually recovering from whatever ailment you were suffering from. It seemed to me it was a space that would create the conditions!

When we walked into that abandoned asylum with pill bottles scattered round and the black rubber gas masks, I felt a profound sense of dislocation, culture shock.

That’s right. And that idea of crossing cultures is important to me. What drew me to make the photograph of the chair was the kowhaiwhai pattern, and then as I looked around I noticed that a high percentage of the names left on the cell doors were Māori. But sometimes it’s more unconscious than conscious. I just see an image, a vivid detail, which I don’t necessarily have my head round fully at the time, and I take the shot. And I think that’s what photography is like. I mean, it’s a risky business making images about material you sometimes don’t fully understand.

But may get some understanding through the engagement itself.

In 'The Clinic', the series I’m working on now, they’re spaces people don’t normally get to go into. Well, if you do you’re either unconscious or you’re dead. So I think there’s a strangeness about these spaces, the operating theatres and postmortem rooms and the cold room, as they call it, where they store the cadavers.

In a way, it’s like when you go into a church or onto a marae you have a sense of respect and I suppose a heightened awareness and I think equally a feeling of uncertainty. For me, with the hospital rooms, I’m conscious of the people who have passed through. I mean, you look at those benches and you think well that’s where people are cut up. They’ve got drainage systems for the body fluids to drain out very tidily. Pipes coming out. It’s very practical. And of course, when you’re there, you have people walking round doing their jobs, making jokes, leading their day to day lives and it seems very matter-of-fact. But then you look at the lights which form a cross above the dissecting tables—clearly that’s to give them enough light to see, but…

They could have had a circle!

Yeah, it’s a cross of lights! Incredibly symbolic. And you discover these powerful symbols in something that is so utterly functional.

This is a place where bodies are dissected, where people are cut open to find out why they died. So, there’s an incredible presence in these spaces and the idea is that somehow that is captured in the images, giving an insight into another world.

I like the sense of voyeurism they suggest. Critics can decry voyeurism as exploitation, but equally it can be a sign of empathy, of taking time to see.

In this series I’ve decided to go back to using a four by five view camera, which is much slower to use than smaller formats. You’ve got to work with a tripod and you expose one sheet of film at a time, so you’re very much making single images. And so it’s a much more of a meditative process. I like that sense of looking in, slightly dreamy.

Hovering on the brink?

I think I want that point of tension between being inside and outside.

I guess it’s that voyeuristic imperative to keep the tension alive between watching and participating.

I think some photographers want to fix the moment, record something for prosperity because it’s about to disappear. I mean, I don’t think Peter Peryer does, but I think Lawrence Aberhart does for example. I mean, he’s wonderful at it. And it’s in his titles, because he puts a place and a date in the title. That’s what they’re about: this place, this time, gone. I purposely don’t put a place or a date in my titles because I don’t want them to be read that way. I want them to be an idea more than a record. So I just call it Operating Theatre, or Postmortem Room.

Can you say what that idea is?

A sense of strangeness perhaps. I think when photographers are looking for a subject that’s often what they’re looking for. You know, just suddenly, at the airport or in a hospital or any given space something jumps out as being uncanny or strange. In the end, you’ve only got reality to work with as a photographer, you’re not creating anything, you’re interpreting something, you’re framing and gazing—and when reality becomes strange I think that’s when it can become very engaging for people.

I see that in these photos: dreamy and real, engaged and detached, public and private, inside and out.

Those are the kind of spaces I’m looking for. There’s an other-worldliness about them and it is like stepping into a different culture, but they’re actually very much part of our everyday culture and can return us back there differently.