Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy birthday, Robin Morrison

The 14th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is another from the first issue, June 1993.

Robin Morrison was born on 16 June 1944 and died on 12 March 1993. The photo above (unforgivably in this context, I don’t know who the photographer was – almost certainly Gil Hanly, who I hope won’t mind me using it - UPDATE: actually, almost certainly George Kohlap) shows him in 1991 at the launch of his book At Home and Abroad, with Kevin Ireland. On Robin’s death, Kevin wrote in the Listener:
All those who met Morrison were struck by his alertness and magnetism. He seemed uncannily aware of hidden possibilities in the most ordinary of surroundings – as if he had the power to draw his subjects towards him [. . . ] the distinction of his best works lie in the virtues of the man himself. He never lapsed into parody or pomposity. He gloried in human effort, no matter how vain, comic or frail . . .
In 1992, before he became ill, we had talked about how he might be part of the new magazine I was planning. He was enthusiastic – he was enthusiastic about anything that struck him as a good idea – and I was thrilled that he would want to be involved. I have worked with some fine photographers before and since but Robin taught me more than any of them. When I was a callow sub-editor at the Listener, before they had designers, we subs used to lay out the pages and in my first week I cropped one of Robin’s photos. Just a sliver off the left-hand side, but it was a crop too far. Next week he came in, introduced himself and politely but forcefully explained to me where, how and why I had got it wrong. It was the best lesson in photography and magazine design I have ever had.

The original intro to this was:
Robin Morrison, who died in March, was our best and best-loved photographer. His highly personal images of New Zealand and New Zealanders helped define the way we see ourselves and the land we live in MICHAEL KING recalls working with him in the Chathams and the Coromandel, and LOUISE CALLAN looks back on a long friendship.
Here is Michael King’s piece:
Like many other New Zealanders, I first encountered Robin Morrison in the pages of the Listener, where his astonishingly revealing photographs began to appear in the 1970s. I remember especially one of Frank Sargeson, which did what no other portrait of the writer had done up to that time. I’m talking about the photograph of Frank sitting on his small veranda stroking his cat. It captured Sargeson’s seriousness, and his extraordinary angularity. It showed, prominently but naturally, his writer’s and gardener’s hands. Close to those hands lay a green pepper, for which – among his friends – Frank was as famous as he was for his stories. And, even though he was dressed in what passed for his best clothes, it revealed that the writer’s trousers were secured by a necktie. In addition to doing all these things, the photograph was beautifully composed, framing Frank in the leaves of his grapevine, through which the dappled light of summer was seen, but distanced.
Last year I found and read Frank’s letter to the then Listener editor Ian Cross about that photo session. “Morrison’s a good lad,” Sargeson wrote. “He knows what he’s doing. There was no mucking about. And I enjoyed the time with him. Send him around again some time.”
Robin’s comment about the session was that Frank had been a ham, changing posture and expression for the camera with the ease and confidence of a professional model. The point is, of course, that it was Robin’s easy presence and conversation that transformed Frank, temporarily, into that ham. Sargeson was not naturally a poser, though there was in him an element of poseur. There is a mountain of photographs that show him looking awkward or cross to testify that the success of that session was to the credit of the photographer rather than the subject.
Much later, working with Robin, I saw the extent to which successes were the product of highly refined instincts and skills. Robin had an extraordinary facility for putting people at their ease, and he did this largely by talking to them as he photographed. He also had a genius for snapping the shutter at the absolutely decisive moment when people, buildings and landscapes – and sometimes animals as well – arranged themselves into the composition that he had seen: or, more accurately, perhaps, foreseen.
I recall his photographing the Solomon brothers at Manakau in the Chatham Islands, standing around the statue of their grandfather, the so-called last Moriori. The boys, the Beagle Boys as they’re known locally, were feeling a bit uncomfortable and didn’t seem to know what to do with their hands. Robin kept talking to them and waiting. Suddenly, as Robin lifted the camera to his eye, they all three clasped their hands to the front, in unconscious imitation of the statue. The shutter clicked, and what Robin had was four Tommy Solomons, one of which happened to be in ferro-cement. The second after the picture was taken they were shuffling about again.
I remember too the time we were in the cemetery high on the cliffs at Mataora Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula. We had been talking about the fact that this was the place where David Tamihere had lain up on the run from the police in 1989. It was from here that he had gone across the range to meet up with two Swedish tourists near Thames. The cliff-top was lined with Tamihere family graves and the whole place seemed heavy with psychic residue. As we stepped out of the cemetery we walked straight into two members of the tangata whenua, both in woolly hats and Swanndris. One carried a rifle. It was disconcertingly close to the scenario we’d been discussing.
The one with the rifle unslung his weapon and asked us what the hell we were doing there. While I, the supposed words man, was thinking about how best to deal with the situation (we had permission from elders to visit both the bay and cemetery), Robin simply strode forward, hand extended, and said, “Hi. We’re doing a book on the Coromandel Peninsula. Do you mind if I take a photograph of you?”
They didn’t. The professional was immediately in quiet control and yet another unexpected encounter became part of the story and part of the corpus of an evolving book.
Sometimes his seeking out of such people led to incongruous results. He was keen to photograph the only woman professional fisherman on the Chathams, because she stood out as such a silhouette against the strongly male culture that prevails there. When he found her and did so, as she was rowing out to her boat, she shrieked with dismay and accelerated away from us – because the last time she had seen Robin was also through the lens of a camera, when he had been drawn to her for similar qualities in another setting.
She turned out to be Julia, “the moon woman”, whom he had photographed at the Fox River commune in 1979 for The South Island Of New Zealand: From The Road.
Inevitably, in my mind, professional recollections of Robin merge with personal ones. He was a marvellous person to work with because he was the best of travelling companions. And he was the best of travelling companions because he derived so much joy from the shared rituals of friendship: from conversation, from good humour, from courtesy, from the preparation and enjoyment of good food and wine, from expeditions to interesting places, from the drink in the evening at the end of a day’s work, and from the quiet, companionable silences that exist between words and conversations.
All these things we shall miss now, just as we shall miss the puckish sense of humour that infused so much of his life and work. Who, having seen it, can forget the picture of Norm Smith and his pet sheep Pebbles; and who, also having seen it, hasn’t wondered which was Pebbles and which was Norm? The existence of his books, however, especially the major retrospective At Home And Abroad, means that we are not deprived of his vision. He helped us see things we needed to see – the rhythms in our landscape, the things that made us knowing and tolerant and affectionate about our country and our compatriots; and he helped us see a great distance.

And here is Louise Callan’s memoir of Robin Morrison:
Sometimes lives suddenly acquire a logic at the end that was not apparent during their living. When someone dies way before their allotted three-score and ten, the temptation to make some sense of the senseless is strong. And so we find ourselves saying “if only. . .” or “it’s as if. . .”. It’s as if he lived his life knowing he was short on time.
I’m sure that was not how Robin saw his life. Yet at his dying and since then I keep being reminded how much I associate him with a life fully lived.
I first knew Robin Morrison as a workmate, back in the early 70s when he and Dinah, his wife, had just returned from Britain. He became a regular photographer for a magazine I worked on. That business relationship gradually developed into a friendship with Robin and the whole family, one of the most important friendships in my life. What his illness and death brought home to me forcibly was the significance Robin had in such a lot of people’s lives.
Some men and women have a talent for friendship, an easiness with people, a natural sociability. When I think of Robin, as often as not it is with people: talking, arguing, gossiping, challenging. . . and listening, dark brown eyes, lighter brown voice, very easy on the eye and ear; proffering advice, some of it unsolicited, most of it good; organising some occasion or outing; at a wine tasting; moving with ease through the ebb and flow of a party; on one of the celebrated “chaps’ lunches” which could take place anywhere in the world when Robin and one or two of his oldest friends met up; locked in a highly competitive weekend card-playing marathon, fortified by occasional meals and regular shots of single malt; out on a friend’s boat for the weekend with a line over the side and a beer; with the family and friends at a remote beach; on the road all over the world, fearlessly exploring and seeing the essential, the unexpected and ironic. I can think of few people as good to travel with.
Robin had that rare ability of being able to talk to anybody, which showed most clearly when he was at work. Unlike some photographers (and journalists, television crews, politicians, anyone who needs a bit of someone else in order to get the job done), there was never ever any sense of a switch flicked on and off. His interest and responses were genuine and as a result people showed him parts of themselves and their lives they didn’t often reveal to outsiders.
That is not to say he was indiscriminate in the company he chose. Robin looked for those who had qualities similar to his own – broad interests and constant curiosity, a catholic taste in reading and music, an awareness of images of all kinds, the talent to tell a story and appreciation of a good joke, a sense of style. Yet he was also someone who had learned the skill of being alone. Not just the alone of sitting in the living room for the afternoon in front of the fire reading, but the less welcome solitariness of life on the road. The second was not something he necessarily relished or sought and in the last few years he found it more and more difficult. But it came with the territory and as his reputation grew, his travels from home became more regular, and at times extended to months. When the job was too long, and when they could, the family went with him.
In many ways Robin and Dinah, and their two sons, Jake and Keir, were a travelling family. Their lives were a series of widening circles – the family in the South Island, Sydney, London; Jake and Robin in Paris, Keir and Robin travelling through Spain; Dinah and Robin in Scotland, France, Italy, Greece, the USA and India. Wherever they lived or paused, they fitted, found an adventure to be part of. But the circle at the centre, always, was the house in Tole Street in Ponsonby. For 18 years it was the heart, the pulse, the hearth.
Tole Street holds my most familiar memories of Robin. Number 7 was a big old villa with high pressed-metal ceilings, stained-glass panels in the windows and doors, well lived in and welcoming. The wide L-shaped hall led to a long living room which could be divided in two and the front used to house Dinah’s piano or the ping-pong table, as a bedroom for any friend who needed it for a night or a week, or the dining room for a long leisurely lunch or big family Christmas dinner. But it was the large kitchen-dining room at the far end of the house that most often drew visitors to talk, drink and eat. The walls were an ever-changing calendar and gallery of Morrison life – postcards, cartoons, shots by Robin and Dinah, invitations to parties and exhibition openings, snaps of friends, rediscovered photos of the boys, Robin, Dinah and their parents when young. The wooden floor which sloped unmistakably towards the back doors carried tap-dancing classes in the 80s. At film festival time tickets were stacked on the sideboard, in a good year for two or three films a day. There were new books and magazines, flowers, a slant of sunlight, old-fashioned kitchen chairs and the staccato click of the two Jack Russells as they travelled ever-hopeful of the falling morsel.
The kitchen is important because, along with his office and the darkroom underneath the house, it seemed like Robin’s room at times. As well as the strong element of the hunter-gatherer in him, he was one of the best cooks I have known. A day in the kitchen preparing a meal for friends was a pleasure, not a chore. And his was no occasional culinary exhibitionism but a practical skill used almost every day.
Robin and Dinah left Tole Street several months before he died. It was strange for their friends as well as for them. When I think of Robin now it is there: he is opening the old front door, the dogs dancing at his feet; calling hello from the living room; walking in front of me down the hall in pale khaki trousers, faded blue shirt, navy blue and white spotted handkerchief sticking out of his pocket; at the lightbox with an eye glass in his hand checking sheets of transparencies; sitting in the fading light on the back deck with his troughs of lettuces and herbs and pots of tomatoes like a frieze around the edge; chopping onion, garlic and parsley to steam with mussels collected earlier in the day; shouting up the hall to Jake or Keir to ask if they’ve fed the dogs; standing down in the backyard, tongs in hand, staring into the heat shimmer of the barbecue; settling down after dinner with Dinah to watch a video, a demitasse and a glass of something at hand – and the dogs sighing in front of the fire.


Keri Hulme said...

Lovely elegaic comments- like many many others, I thought Robin a good friend as well as an excellent seems weird that 18 years have gone by without him around BUT - his works remain. As does his family.

Somebody needs to put the boot into Alistair Taylor for hogging the plates to "South Island from the Road" - and into the former Hodder& Stoughton NZ branch for refusing to release the plates to either Dinah or myself for "Home Places."

Robin's work needs to be available to as many people as possible-

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the photographer of this pic is George Kohlap?

Stephen Stratford said...

Indeed, Keri.

And you could well be right, Anonymous - I might have got that photo from Metro in which case it's definitely George. He was a lot of fun too. I'm sure I remember him being there that night - but then Gil would have been too.

Mr. M said...

Thanks for this lovely post, Stephen. Great to read those words again on Dad's birthday. A real treat - it was a great article.

Keri - you're right, his images and his family remain - and grows! Robin is now a grandfather with the recent addition to the clan Morrison of Eva Mae Morrison (born 2nd June, 2010). He would have loved her, as he did us, life, good conversation, kai moana, people...

Keri H said...

Keir - kia ora! And really heart-warming to know- cheers n/n Keri

Stephen Stratford said...

Gidday Keir, lovely to hear from you.

Congratulations on the baby - Robin would have been a wonderful grandfather, but even though he is not physically with us I am so pleased that he lives on through Eva Mae. I hope that I will meet her one day.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this page in a search for photographs to show to a Year 10 English class to prompt some creative writing. I was lucky enough to know Robin in the 80's when I "hung out" with his son Keir in what now seems a lifetime ago. Their home in Tole Street was a wonderful place full of beautiful treasures and sights to someone like me who came from a far more conventional background. Robin and Dinah were always warm and welcoming and the two little Jack Russells were so mischievious!I always loved visiting and have great memories of the time I spent there. It is lovely to read Keir's words - congratulations on being a dad!

Stephen Stratford said...

Ah yes, the two Jack Russells. Billy and Rosie. They used to come to my house and terrorise my cat and spaniel - Jack Russells are small but tough. Billy, I believe, is the great-grand-sire of many of the Jack Russells we see today.

Ron Brownson said...

It is more than 20 years since I read this memoir of Robin Morrison.

I am about to speak about him publicly, again, for the first time in 20 years in association with Auckland Museum's current exhibtion of some of Robin's balck and white images of Auckland.

Seeing Robin's photographs in focus again brings to mind that Nabokov phrase - 'Speak Memory'.

Stephen Stratford said...

Hi Ron - how long will the exhibition be on for? I'll have to come up to Auckland. And when is your talk?

Ron Brownson said...

Sorry Stephen, I just now picked up your note to my comment.

I am speaking at Fresh Gallery Otara tomorrow at 6pm with Janine Love and Vinesh Kumaron.

It will be the 21st anniversary of Robin's passing on the 12th of March 1993. Knowing this, I sense that I must speak in a valedictory way.