Remembering Olaf Petersen, one of New Zealand photography’s best-kept secrets

For much of the 20th century, photographer Olaf Petersen tirelessly documented the landscapes and people of West Auckland. Her work has been a secret enjoyed by the few for too long, writes Sandra Coney.

Excerpt from the book Nature Boy: The Photography of Olaf Petersen. All photographs by Olaf Petersen, courtesy of Auckland Museum.

I’m lucky to have spent my childhood – and indeed my whole life – in a bach with a suite of brilliant photographs by Olaf Petersen on the walls. In the 1950s, my father, Tom Pearce, owned a speedboat called Dorynamed after my mother, Doris Margaret Pearce. Dory was painted in deep lipstick, the name inscribed on the bow in a white flourish. The boat was the typical speedboat of the time, constructed of wood, with the bow curving gently towards the water, rather than the later shark-snout style.

piha [Surfers]1950s

There was a summer when the wind didn’t blow at Piha for days and the usually rowdy surf beach turned into a lake-like serenity. Even grown men wanted to play, so my dad and his surf club buddies brought the Dory go to the beach and water ski. Dad was behind the wheel and lanky redhead Terry Neville and burly Morrie Keary played on the skis. A picture of Petersen shows the two men on skis behind the boat – my partner says the Dory must have had a bit of a grunt to pull two sturdily built men behind him.

Tom Pearce’s Speedboat [Piha]1950s

The last photo in the series shows the Dory being brought ashore, with a bevy of local boys popping up out of nowhere to help the men push her onto the trailer. Walking through the water towards the boat is a young girl, with a ruched sundress over a t-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat designed to stop sunburn. This girl is me.

Transport in the Doris speedboat at the end of the day which was unusually calm, 1950

Olaf Petersen was the chronicler of the West at that time. If something happened on a beach or on a farm, or at a community event, he was there to record it for posterity. He was also there on the dunes or on the rocky reefs to observe natural phenomena: cloud formations, flocks of birds, solitary birds, patterns on the sand, breaking waves, foaming on the shore and strandings of whales.

His photography business required him to shoot weddings and events in West Auckland and queues of sports teams and club members, but he enjoyed being in the natural world much more. . Unlike pictorial photographers of an earlier era, Olaf was in the mold of Henry Winkelmann. Although he took raw nature photographs, there are often humans in his nature portraits, or at least living organisms. His images are not so much frozen in time, but capture a moment in motion, with the viewer aware that the motion continues after the shot. His photographs often convey a story for the viewer to pursue in their imagination.

Jonkers Farm, Waitakere, c. 1960

His flocks of birds convey the notion of flight, of migration. Her topdressing plane creates a magnificent signature in the sky. Her children climb sand hills at the exact angle of the horizon, the sand slipping under their feet. Did they ever reach the top? His people are shown alive in nature, at home and at ease, enjoying nature in all its dramatic moods. His landscapes and pastoral scenes are not empty, but show people who inhabit them, work there, even transform them. The children follow their lessons in the emblematic setting of the coast of Te Henga; a group of 1950s women in their finest dresses are curiously observed by a cow.

Correspondence school. Ash and Matheson families [Te Henga]1960s

In Nature Boy, Shaun Higgins points out that Petersen was respectful of the children, and this approach was rewarded with photographs in which the children seemed completely at home: they were their own people and had stature and individuality. Of course, there are other photographers who are accomplished child photographers. Within Aotearoa, you think of Leslie Adkin, John Pascoe (1908-1972) and Eric Lee-Johnson (1908-1993).

But historically, there aren’t too many photographers doing justice to women. Women are often absent, as in Winkelmann’s photographs, or they are sentimentalized in their role as mothers or marginalized as peripheral witnesses to men’s activities. Petersen stands out as having found women as worthy of documentation as men. He grew up, after all, with five sisters in a household where his mother experimented with photography and ran a home and a farm.

[Tug of war] Waitakere [Ranges] Protection Society Field Day, Te Henga, c. 1973

It’s a period in which we are stereotypically told that women were tied to the kitchen sink – a very debatable proposition – but Petersen shows them on the farm, running businesses, in the world, involved in environmental work. A group of birdwatchers includes a woman and baby in a carrycot playing with binoculars, identified as “Rosemary and Charlotte”. An undated portrait of members of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society playing tug of war on Te Henga has a towering woman as its central figure. Labor Prime Minister Walter Nash is surrounded by men, but the center of attention is a confident young woman playing the piano accordion.

Petersen shows scouts but also guides and rangers, and surely his wonderful 1964 photograph of Mrs Avis McIntosh practicing jumping hurdles while her toddler son watches from his stroller is the ultimate portrait of a multitasking woman. Douglas Vesey reclines on Muriwai Beach while a girl – presumably his daughter – expertly holds a fishing hand line. He looks up and smiles, relaxed knowing she knows what she’s doing.

Mrs Avis McIntosh training over the hurdles at Ranui during [her] two-year-old son Clive looks on, c. 1964

Petersen dignifies “women’s work” by depicting it as essential, even heroic. He also does this with the manual labor of men, but it was unusual for an artist to observe what women were doing, let alone put them at the center of an image. In Bethells – Outdoor School, a woman takes a lesson with her son. Behind her, floating on the clothesline, are miles of striped pajamas and blindingly white diapers. You know she would have accomplished this with a copper and a wringer, not the agitator washing machine that middle-class city dwellers used. She did all of this before she even got down to the important task of sending her son to school.

Bethells – Outdoor School

Petersen’s photos celebrate the relative prosperity and calm of those years, a time before the distractions of television, social media and ubiquitous cellphones. It was a period that sought and celebrated egalitarianism, devoid of the economic and social divides that have characterized the current three or more decades. Two things come out of Petersen’s photographs: a sense of community, of social cohesion, of people doing things together, actually running the show, and then there’s a sense of discovery of the natural world and a pleasure of to be able to get into that.

Self-Portrait, c. 1975

Most historical reviews of New Zealand photography do not include Peterson. That doesn’t mean he was unknown. If you lived in West Auckland during the post-war years, you would have seen his work in local and regional shows and exhibitions. He was well known in his community: you may have been photographed by him as part of a club you belonged to, or you may have, like me or Sarah Hillary, been lucky enough to have a moment of your own life captured by him. It seems that he never particularly sought recognition in artistic circles, preferring the company of his family, the locals, his friends from the vagrancy club. Maybe he was a little shy, not a person of party life and soul, but he was a keen observer of the world around him, seeing ironies, meanings and glory in people. and the places that others passed as mundane.

Nature Boy: The Photography of Olaf Petersen (Auckland University Press, $59.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently appointed International Bookstore of the Year 2020, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today.

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