Marti, the formidable foto-person

I concluded my last blog with a recent photograph of myself with Marti Friedlander who died 14 November, and said that I would return to the subject in my next. Here are a few paragraphs from a memoir I’m in the process of writing, when Marti first makes an appearance in 1960 or ’61:

A colleague in the University Philosophy Department, Edward Kharmara, was boarding in Herne Bay and brought Marti and her husband Gerrard to visit us in Mason’s Avenue. Marti and her sister, of Russian Jewish parents, had grown up in a Jewish orphanage in London. Marti had trained in London as a photographer, where she met and married Gerrard on his OE from New Zealand. Gerrard, son of a Jewish father and Aryan mother, had been born in Germany, and with his parents and siblings had escaped the Nazis to Palestine, and then onward to New Zealand. Gerrard had grown up in Henderson and Kay had known him as a schoolboy, and had know his family.

Marti and Gerrard were to figure in our lives one way and another from that time on. Through the 1960s and ‘70s Marti, whose attitude to New Zealand was full of contradictions and ambiguities, developed a reputation for the rich and vivid record her photographs created especially of aspects of New Zealand no one else thought memorable or worth recording – back streets, dairies, crummy commercial precincts, commonplace suburban houses and the people who lived in them, shearing sheds and wool stores, old Maori women wearing the original 19th century moko; but also protest demonstrations, and the faces of New Zealand’s artists and intellectuals. She became for us a family recorder, and for me a sort of unofficial photographer when publicity pics were needed. As our children grew up Marti and Gerrard would become part of the family.

They were a strangely matching pair, Gerrard (whose looks clearly came from his mother’s side) the perfect Wehrmacht officer-type, handsome and Aryan; Marti the prototype Jewish brunette, attractive, sexy, animated. Her mind was quick and lively. Where he was hesitant, she was shrewd and fluent, especially in talking about and explaining her own work. As a portrait photographer she could be bossy, which sometimes made me more than ever self-conscious, but at others could jolt me into ‘projecting’ – acting, I suppose. Her famous photo of Walter Nash, on the jacket of Keith Sinclair’s Nash biography, she achieved simply by telling the great man to go back and come again through the door he’d just emerged from. He was so amused by this he did it, and with a jaunty wave of the hand. In disagreement Marti was often sharp and impatient. She and I had that in common, and we could at times be sharp and impatient with one another; but I loved Marti and felt (more often than not) loved by her.

There are so many ways I could write about Marti – she has been such a presence in my life and in the life of my family; but it occurs to me the best way to deal with the fact of her death is to let her speak for herself, as she always did, through her photographs. So what follows are a few examples of her work ‘on’ or about me and my family (and herself). They are samples from a set of photographs put together for a talk I gave at the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery in November 2009 about ‘being a subject of Marti’.

The first come from the little two-storeyed house (formally a manse) Kay and I rented in the early 1960s in Maunsell Road, Parnell, and which we passed on to Allen and Jeny Curnow when we moved to Tohunga Crescent.


A young C.K. Stead with a cigarette.

Kay and C.K. Stead.

Next are from the middle to late 1960s at Tohunga Crescent as our children were born.


Young Oliver with a camera.

Now from the late 1960s when Keith Sinclair stood for Labour in the Eden electorate and the Peace Power and Politics Conference took place in Wellington.


C.K. Stead with Wolf Rosenberg at the Peace Power and Politics Conference.

C.K. Stead with Keith Sinclair.

Marti and Gerrard lived for a time in London and helped us through with our three children, aged 8, 5 and 2, when we arrived by sea and went on by train to the Mansfield Menton fellowship in the South of France. A few months later Marti followed us there and stayed with us, and she and I photographed one another in the Memorial room where the fellow worked.


C.K. Stead in the Fellow's room at Menton

Margaret at Menton.

Marti Friedlander in the Fellow's room at Menton.

Back in London after her Menton visit Marti wrote

It has been a wonderful week, and being one of the family more enjoyable than you can perhaps imagine. “Menton” already has a permanent place in my memory. There are times when one knows with certainty that “this occasion I will never forget” – and you gave me one of them. Will it surprise you that I am already missing you?

Almost ten years later Marti and I were both in London and she took publicity pics for a forthcoming book.

Some time in the early 1990s Marti took shots of Charlotte and Margaret, Charlotte with her first child, Conrad; and around the same time caught me and Janet Frame at a festival in Wellington.


Charlotte, Margaret, and Conrad.

C.K. Stead with Janet Frame.

She took shots for the jacket of my (A.U.P.) Collected Poems; and there’s one from the early 2000s of me with Gerrard at breakfast at the Friedlanders’ house up the road from ours in Parnell.


Gerrard Friedlander and C.K. Stead.

Marti was there for this talk and sent me a message afterwards:

Dear Karl,

I was so moved by your talk on Saturday, getting it altogether must have been quite a task-but it was just wonderful to see all those images of you and the Family over the years-it is quite a story of friendship and love, and I thank you so much for talking as you did with such affection and humour too. Just wish Gerrard could have been there, I know he would have been delighted.

...

Again, thank you so much. Being part of your Family over the years gave us such joy. Gerrard is recovering reasonably well, but with his zest for life I know he will be fine.

Wish I could have taken that photo of you walking with Charlotte yesterday-I was on my way to see Gerrard.

Love
Marti

Marti and I could be fierce with one another at times, especially on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, though the old affection always surfaced again afterwards. But we both wrote about this bone of contention, and Marti, in an angry moment, is quoted as saying ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with Karl.’ What was wrong with Karl was his capacity for righteous indignation and (at alcohol fuelled parties) anger and ferocity on behalf of those he saw as victims, which on this subject made him sometimes forget, or ignore in the heat of the moment, what a sensitive subject it was for the East-End orphan Jew, who in youth had invested such high romantic hopes for, and faith in, the state of Israel – whose legitimacy was to be the world’s small, inadequate, but genuine attempt at recompense for the immeasurable wrong of the Holocaust.

No need for more detail or analysis of this question. My point of view had been especially confirmed from having got to know the Palestinian writers Raja Shehada and Ghada Karmi at the Eaglereach Retreat in New South Wales (and Ghada later in London where we became friends); and having read their eloquent and tragic books which will explain my position to anyone interested. But there has been enough said about this, and no defence needed. I acknowledge what I now see as my fault, and I am grateful for the fact that it always seemed, afterwards, that Marti forgave me.

During Marti’s last illness the University of Auckland awarded her an honorary doctorate. I knew she was dying but pretended not to know, and she and I exchanged messages acknowledging that she was ‘very ill’ but full of hopes for recovery. Kay handled this sad situation much better. She e-mailed:

Dear Marti

Congratulations on your Hon. Doc, an honour well deserved. I am so sorry you are ill. You are in the thoughts of all of us. So many memories, since our first meeting in the little flat in Mason’s Avenue with Edward Kamara. How exotic and what a Londoner you were. Do you remember Menton? And the time you and I went to Hamilton to see Olwen, and we missed the bus at Huntly and had to hitch a ride with the Evangelicals? And Tirimoana Rd Henderson, next door to the house where I had spent so much of my childhood. And later, all your photographing of the children – such wonderful photographs. You have enriched our lives, dear Marti. Much love to you, and to Gerard (whom I remember even further back as a Grammar boy).

Kay.

Now just a few days from her death, Marti replied:

Thank you so much Dear Kay, Your lovely words have cheered me no end! Love

Marti x

At Marti’s funeral a message was read from her sister in London, remembering her as a very tiny, frequently ill child, sitting up in bed in the Orphanage Hospital and saying, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to travel the world!’ It seemed to catch perfectly the spirit of optimism that characterized Marti, the way she presented herself and lived her life.

Here is a final pic, I’m not sure by whom but with Marti’s camera because it ended up among her files, of Marti and me at the Auckland’s Going West Literary Festival, which used to include a trip from Henderson into the city (or the other way about) by the old steam train:


Marti and C.K. Stead at Going West.

- C.K. Stead

1 comment:

Bill Sutton said...

Some great shots of C.K. smiling!