“Still, the outsider angle is of importance. In the 1960s I didn't fall under any of the restrictions that Maori faced themselves- because of their history, their position within the land. I thought that Maori were very good to photograph as they would just ignore me eventually. They had better things to do than watch what I was doing” - Ans Westra.
It is a truism that the 1960s and 1970s were years of intense social change and radical experimentation in the arts. Those decades marked the beginnings of art photography in New Zealand and Te Papa's latest exhibition focusses its corrective lenses on eight outstanding photographic pioneers who forged a bold new style during this period. The New Photography: Life in the 60s and 70s examines the work of Gary Baigent, John Daley, Len Wesney,, John Fields, Richard Collins, Max Oettli, John B Turner, and Ans Westra. Taken as a group, they constituted the key players in this new photographic movement whose common approach began in the documentary tradition, recording intimate aspects quotidian life just as it happened. It was highly personal, using the camera to capture, interpret, and understand everyday experience, and it shifted the emphasis from what was photographed to photographers and their unique view of the world.
As the only female in the group, Ans Westra warrants special attention. Like the other photographers grouped together here for the first time, she was interested in documenting the lives of outsiders - those who exist on the margins of society, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed. She was profoundly concerned with depicting the economic and political divisions within Kiwi society. Two early influences on her work as a precocious teenager were her visit in 1956 to the international exhibition The Family of Man in Amsterdam (a utopian, quasi-anthropological exhibition, curated by MoMA’s Edward Steichen), and a book by Joan van der Keukens entitled Wij Zijn 17 (We Are Seventeen), which depicted the lives of post-war Dutch youth. In 1957, Westra travelled to New Zealand to visit her father and worked for eight months at Crown Lynn Potteries. In 1958, she moved to Wellington, where she joined the Wellington Camera Club and worked in various local photographic studios.
Westra had her first photograph published in 1960 on the cover of Te Ao Hou, a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs, and received international recognition when she won a prize from UK Photography magazine for her work entitled Assignment No. 2. In 1962, she began working as a full-time, freelance documentary photographer, mostly for the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education and Te Ao Hou. In 1964 her school bulletin Washday at the Pa was published and distributed to primary school classrooms throughout New Zealand and later privately republished by the Caxton Press. Westra received a Certificate of Excellence from the New York World’s Fair photographic exhibition in 1964-65 and in 1967 she published Maori , accompanied by a text written by James Ritchie.
In 1982 an archive of Westra's negatives was established at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and 1986 she was the Pacific regional winner of the Commonwealth Photography Award, traveling to the Philippines, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US. In the late 1980s and 1990s Westra undertook several artist-in-residences, including at the Dowse Art Museum and the Tylee Cottage Residency. In 1996, she was awarded the inaugural Southland Art Foundation Artist in Residence, and two years later was appointed artist-in-residence at the Otago School of Fine Arts, Otago Polytechnic. Westra's 2009 book and exhibition, The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand, included a text by Adrienne Jansen as wellas interviews and photographs of thirty-seven individuals that provided a great insight into the lives of Asian Muslims in New Zealand.
Washday at the Pa was reissued in 2011 with additional photos of the same family taken in 1998 by Suite Publishing, which also released Our Future: Ngā Tau ki Muri two years later. This volume included 137 often damning photographs of the New Zealand landscape, with text contributions from Hone Tuwhare, Russel Norman, Brian Turner, David Eggleton, and David Lange. Between 2013 and 2014, Westra undertook her Full Circle Tour, revisiting various regional centres where she had been particularly active during her long career. In 2014, the digitization of Westra's archive of negatives held at the Alexander Turnbull Library came into effect through her representative, Suite Tirohanga. Her print Untitled, from Washday at the Pa, 1963 set a new auction record price of NZ$10,575 in June 2015. In April 2016, a museum was established in Cuba St, Wellington, dedicated entirely to Westra's six decades of image-making.
Accompanying this comprehensive survey is Athol McCredie's The New Photography - New Zealand’s first-generation contemporary photographers, which not only handsomely illustrates the story of the beginnings of art photography in New Zealand, but also provides extensive interviews with the photographers themselves. In his introductory essay, McCredie reveals how the break-through approach of personal documentary photography constituted a new field of photography that was not simply decorative, but rather spoke for itself in its own distinct language. Currently Curator Photography at Te Papa, McCredie was previously curator and acting director at Manawatu Art Gallery and his most recent publication, New Zealand Photography Collected, was shortlisted for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.