The photography of johN fields

Signature series is a major suite of photographs of New Zealand interiors. It is John Fields’ most concentrated and cohesive series, comprising forty-two images made between September and November 1975. These interiors of the homes of his friends and colleagues reveal rich detail; each room, each view, redolent of the lives and concerns of its inhabitants – they bear the ‘signature’ of the diverse lives of those individuals.

John Fields himself always regarded Signature series as his most important single body of work. We both agreed that the series would make a singular exhibition; it was just a matter of finding an appropriate venue and time to show the work. What we had not envisaged was that John would die suddenly in early 2013, before we had mounted the hand-printed contact prints that make up the exhibition. It is fitting now that, with his close ties with the University of Auckland, we are presenting it at the Gus Fisher Gallery. While several of these works were exhibited in 1976, this is the first time the original contact prints are brought together, providing an opportunity to introduce to a wider audience yet another facet to the themes explored in John Field’s oeuvre.

I first became aware of John Fields during my postgraduate research. At that time, and ever since, I have considered him to be one of New Zealand’s foremost documentary photographers. My admiration for his work led me into a relationship with him that allowed me to get to know his vast body of work. The focus on interiors in the Signature series is a natural progression from earlier work such as the hundreds of photographs that he took for Victorian Auckland (John Stacpoole and John Fields 1973) and the documentary photographs in Auckland Motorway; not to mention his peerless study of Thames and Townspeople (1973-6), (scheduled to be exhibited for the sesquicentenary of the Thames Goldfields in 2017). While Victorian Auckland looked at exteriors, Signature series was an opportunity to take the same sensitivity he brought to Auckland’s built environment indoors.

What makes Signature series significant is that it represents John Fields’ understanding of, and insight into, the changes that were happening in urban Auckland at the time. The larger documentary project that includes Victorian Auckland, Auckland Motorway and Thames and Townspeople finds its most intimate expression in Signature series. Signature series re-images these Auckland Edwardian and Victorian dwellings, showing them re-purposed for a new generation of occupants. The modern ownership and gentrification of inner city Auckland began here.

John Fields’ photographic vision and technique, begun whilst serving abroad with the U.S. Navy, was honed in his home state of Massachusetts. In a ten year burst of activity in Auckland from 1966-76 he created a body of photographic images unparalleled in New Zealand’s photographic history. Following the acquisition of a number of his vintage prints by Te Papa, in 2012 John asked his old friend, university colleague, author and poet Michael Sharkey to write an introductory essay on the series. The essay, which is included in this book, carefully situates Signature series in the context of John’s early years in the USA and his years in New Zealand.

The technical origin of Signature series is in the large format practice which John Fields reprised in 1969 when he repatriated his 5 x 7 inch view camera to Auckland. Once he realised the larger 8 x 10 inch format offered even greater and unparalleled nuance, detail and tonal control, he delighted in the opportunity to realise his vision in these New Zealand’s interiors. At the time he was employed as photographer in the Medical School, University of Auckland. All his personal New Zealand work, including the four ‘precursor’ images and the 8 x 10 inch negatives for Signature series, was processed in the small but pristine darkroom he designed on campus.
Almost forty years after the work was completed we are indeed privileged to see them in their entirety and I am especially indebted to both John and Patricia for access to John’s remarkable legacy. Thanks are due to Michael Sharkey for permission to publish his essay, and to Allan Chawner for the high quality scans. I acknowledge the support of Linda Tyler and her team at the Gus Fisher, which has enabled me to present Signature series during the Auckland Festival of Photography 2015.

Finally, the photographs, the essay and the exhibition would not have been possible without the love and support of the many family members, friends, colleagues and associates who have lent their support to me, John and Patricia.

David Langman
Wellington, May 2015.

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