John B Turner

‘We should be photographing things that are important to us.’

– John B Turner

John B Turner, interviewed by curator Athol McCredie, 2011


AM: You were showing work in the camera club situation. When did you start taking photographs which you could see as outside of that sort of environment? What were you doing?

JT: By ’65 I was moving away from the camera club. For me, a major influence was, for instance, Wayne Millar – you know, the Magnum photographer, the guy who helped [Edward] Steichen do The Family of Man. I was discovering people like [Josef] Sudek, who people later cottoned on to. You know, [André] Kertész. I was picking up Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange – all those kind of people. I was actually picking up on quite a broad range. My interests have always been very catholic. A lot of different styles, different kind of work that I personally enjoy, but not necessarily that I would make.

Basically, I was turning to look at my own situation. I’d always done things like photograph my workmates at the printing office and things like that. Then I turned on photographing Johnsonville. That was in ’66. At that stage, I was testing out the Zone System. I was following Ansel Adams and [Paul] Strand, people like that. Then The Photographer’s Eye came along in ’67, and that really broadened my knowledge.

The Photographer’s Eye show was just so important – it was the first time I could actually see a [Edward] Weston. I would go up to the museum. In those days they had daylight coming through, and on Edward Weston’s White Church at Hornitos the print just glowed. It was extraordinary. The illusion was even greater than being there. I imagine being there at the church when he took that picture – it wasn’t quite so glowy. But isolated and framed tightly and shown in immaculate detail with no sense of grain, and beautiful tonal range, it just glowed. Charles Scheeler’s picture of the train engine with the steam puffed out: that’s still one of the most gorgeous prints I’ve ever seen. So they become the new standard.

The series I did on my parents’ home, that’s also post-The Photographer’s Eye. That was the stimulus for that portrait of Mum and Dad. We should be photographing things that are important to us, not any old crap just to show off. I tried to get photographs of my mother with 35mm with no success because she always didn’t like being photographed. Never could do it. But at least with a formal occasion, that kind of took them over. I kind of got it that way. I’m basically a diarist with a camera, I use it as a diary.


This excerpt is from a conversation for the book The New Photography, available at Te Papa Store on Level 1.