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John Brian Brake was born in Wellington on 27 June 1927. His birth parents were Margaret (Maggie) and Gerald Wilson, but his mother died of pneumonia six weeks after his birth. He was then adopted by her great aunt Jane (Jennie), and her husband John (Jack) Brake, who had no children of their own.
Brian spent his first three years at Doyleston, south of Christchurch, where the Brakes ran a general store, and then at Arthur’s Pass, when Jack took on the store there. Although Brian and his mother moved to the Christchurch suburb of Papanui so he could attend primary school, they rejoined Jack at weekends and school holidays at the small mountain settlement.
Living in the spectacular setting of the Southern Alps made Brake very much at home in the mountains, and no doubt fuelled his life-long interest in photographing such environments. He often recalled helping the national park caretaker Charlie Warden prepare hand-coloured lantern slides for lectures.
Early enthusiasm for photography
Brake probably also gained early experience of photography through the many members of his extended family who were keen amateurs. Some of the early images he took still survive; tiny contact prints depicting local scenery and flora.
Brake recalled that his photographic hobby became more serious at Christchurch Boys’ High School where he joined the school camera club. He was particularly inspired by geography teacher Merle Sweeny who ran the club and taught him darkroom skills. Such was his enthusiasm that he also joined the Christchurch Photographic Society while still at school.
Brake moved to Wellington in 1945 to work as an assistant in the studio of portraitist Spencer Digby. Brake learnt a great deal about technique from Digby, who was a hard taskmaster. Once, Brake excitedly showed him some photographs he had just printed, still wet from processing. His employer tore them up and threw them on the floor, admonishing the young apprentice for showing unfinished work.
Brake preferred male subjects for his portraits. Here, in the fashion of the day, he could use more dramatic and directional lighting. He was less interested in the softly- lit, highly retouched approach often used for female portraits in the studio. He later said he grew tired of ‘learning to be an artist in “flattery” rather than photography’.
Digby encouraged Brake to pursue his own photography both within and beyond the studio. He also urged him to enter his work into photography competitions run by photographic societies.
Brake’s main interest outside studio portraiture was landscape photography. His images were made in the dominant ‘photographic society’ style of the time, pictorialism. This was a romantic, often soft-focused approach that favoured the picturesque in landscape images.
Brake left Spencer Digby for a job as assistant cameraman at the National Film Unit in Wellington 1948, while continuing to take landscape photographs in his spare time.
At the Film Unit, he specialised in mountain films, although he was also on call as a cameraman for the many short documentary or newsreel films the Unit made. His more noteworthy films are Prelude to Aspiring (1949, director and camera), The Snowline is Their
Boundary (1955, camera), and Snows of Aorangi (1955, director and camera).
His best-known film, Snows of Aorangi, was highly praised at the time for combining music and image to tell a story without relying on the voice-over commentary favoured then. However, Brake had to struggle against government bureaucracy to make the film the way he wanted. Frustrated, he left the Film Unit in 1954 for England.
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