Photographer as alchemist

Updated: Jun 30

A Beautiful Hesitation

Fiona Pardington

Victoria University Press, 2016


Reviewed by David Eggleton



Fiona Pardington is one of those rare artists who can create new myths from old and convince you of their power. She can imbue her photographs with a vibrant, even passionate, emotion, and yet also presents them with a highly accomplished formalism and an implicit awareness of photography's histories, strategies and possibilities. She is the photographer as conjuror, as alchemist, as animist, transforming her chosen subject matter into symbols and allegories, into something magical or transcendental, without turning pretentious­­ – or at least too pretentious.


This well-crafted artfulness has been achieved by trial and error, as this big book shows us. The twists and turns of her career trace a consistent journey in a quest to realise her obsessions and revelations. However, there have been a few wilful exercises in theoretical obscurity along the way, mostly prompted by the need to address the relatively recent validation of photography as art, ­­or as art sanctioned by the academy.


When Fiona Pardington began her career as a photographer at Elam Art School in the early 1980s, it was still regarded as a slightly disreputable discipline suited more to documentation. She was in a sense a radical pioneer in art photography, making a personal connection via second-wave feminism with its pre-Modernist heritage and its beginnings in nineteenth-century Pictorialism.


The book is true to her oeuvre in its sumptuousness and attention to detail. Designed by the artist's brother Neil Pardington, and containing essays expertly examining different aspects of her work, it is a major contribution to the steadily-expanding shelf of books on New Zealand photography.


In his introduction, Aaron Lister, the curator of the survey exhibition that accompanies this book, refers to Pardington's thematic cycles, taking us from the early black and white analogue photographs of members of her family, to the recent digital colour images that include objects salvaged from the beach near her home — the 'gifts of Takaroa' — incorporated into her series Still Lifes.


Various essayists, along with Lister — Hana O'Regan, Susan Best, Peter Shand — and the artist herself in an interview with Andrew Paul Wood, make reference to Pardington's preternatural sensitivity to the possibilities of what this book calls 'abject, discarded, precious, wounded objects'. Always a canny photographer flirting with the uncanny, Pardington has found motifs for family, sexuality, eroticism, identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, in objects that convey a sense of these themes as entangled, or at least in a state of tension.


There are many paths into Pardington's photographs, and an important function of this book is to help us navigate them. So, on one hand, for instance, there's the perennial Kiwi Gothic, with its shadowy creatures, its gestures towards the sublime, its gloom, its morbidity; and on the other hand there's the mesmeric enchantment of Māori taoka, or treasures, to which Pardington is personally connected through her Kāi Tahu whakapapa. Above all, there is the artist's mastery of a spellbinding crepuscular beauty — this signalled by the book's title, where we hesitate till our eyes accustom themselves to the shadows, or where the subject itself hesitates in the shadows, gradually emerging into the light.


First published ArtZone #64

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