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Brake's career 

Questions and answers    | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |


Who or what were his influences?
Early on, Brake learned an appreciation of the arts from Doreen Blumhardt. He met her when he was a young boy and she was training as an art educator at Christchurch Teachers' College.

His employer, Wellington photographer Spencer Digby, introduced him to studio portraiture in the mid-1940s and encouraged him to enter photographic society competitions. Among the lasting influences he gained from this period were an interest in strongly directional lighting, and the values of pictorialism – the dominant photographic style found in photographic societies of the time.

Then, in the mid-1950s, Brake came under the sway of the photojournalists who belonged to the photo agency Magnum, and particularly the philosophy of one of its founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Photojournalism and pictorialism were poles apart, and Brake had to repudiate some of his earlier values, but he never discarded them entirely.

How did Brake come to join the prestigious Paris-based photo agency Magnum?
There are conflicting stories about how this young man from the other side of the world, with no experience of photojournalism, became a Magnum photographer. It seems most likely that through visiting the Leica camera factory in Germany (probably in early 1955), Brake met Magnum photographer Ernst Haas. Later, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson.

When Haas looked at his photographic portfolio, which at that time consisted mainly of colour photographs of New Zealand scenery, he said, 'Very nice, but where are all the people?' Brake realised that he needed to expand his portfolio and spend time photographing people on the streets of London. On the basis of this portfolio he was accepted into Magnum in about mid-1955, but probably at nominee level only, as the group had a three-stage process of membership. In 1956 he was accepted as an associate, and in 1957 he gained his full membership of Magnum.

Brake often said that he joined Magnum in 1955 (or even 1954), but this was an evident oversimplification. He always readily acknowledged that he was very lucky, though. No doubt this was supported by his natural talent, hard work, and ambition.

Why did he later leave Magnum?
Probably because he no longer needed the agency. By the time Brake left in 1967, his main source of income was from a series of big commissions by Life magazine that he probably arranged himself. Magnum took a 40 percent cut of the fees that magazines paid for photographs and Brake may have felt this was too high for the relatively little involvement Magnum would have had in the Life stories.

Was he a Life magazine photographer?
No, Brake wasn’t actually a Life staff photographer, but his major source of income through the 1960s was from this magazine. He was considered by Life as part of its ‘family’ of photographers and writers – part of the ‘canopy of Life’, as Brake himself put it.

Why did he photograph in Asia a lot?
The Magnum photo agency to which he belonged needed its members based in different countries in order to have worldwide coverage. Brake’s chosen specialty was Asia, as he liked the region and felt more comfortable there than in Europe. He settled in Hong Kong in 1962. Ironically, he spent most of the 1960s working on the Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt essays for Life magazine.

What was the New Zealand Centre for Photography (NZCP),and how was Brake involved?
In concert with Brian Enting and Matheson Beaumont, Brake founded the NZCP in 1985. The idea was that it would promote all types of photography, but it had mixed support from photographers from the outset because of the difficulty of covering all varieties of photography. When Brake died in 1988, and then Brian Enting in 1995, the Centre lost a lot of momentum.

The NZCP was based in Wellington under the successive directorships of Sharyn Black, William Main, and David Langman. It held small exhibitions, organised events, built up a collection and, perhaps most significantly, published the New Zealand Journal of Photography. In 2006 it planned to jointly operate Shed 11 on Wellington's waterfront as an exhibition space with the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, but after two exhibitions this scheme fell apart in 2007. The Centre was wound up in 2010.

Continue reading – Assessing Brake’s work

Continue reading - Assessing Brake's work

Brian Brake with Doreen Blumhardt and friends
Brian Brake with Doreen Blumhardt and friends, circa 1945, Maker unknown, New Zealand. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa
'Life', 19 Oct 1959, cover
'Life', 19 Oct 1959, cover

© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.