Max Oettli, [Self-portrait], date unknown. Photo courtesy of the photographer
Max Oettli, West Wind Coffee Bar, 1968. Te Papa (O.040779)
Max Oettli, Kerb, Queen St – Wellesley St, 1969. Te Papa (O.030452)
Max Oettli, 2 a.m., Parnell, 1971. Te Papa (O.040778)
Max Oettli, Leonard and Rover, Suva, Fiji, 1974. Te Papa (O.030470)
Max Oettli, interviewed by curator Athol McCredie, 2019
AM: So, Max, in the ’60s, you know, landscape photography was really big. You had Brian Brake, you had Ken and Jean Bigwood doing things – and this became a whole genre of photography, really, of the attractive, beautiful, New Zealand book. But you were off taking photographs in the streets and of people. So why did you do that rather than photograph landscapes like it seemed everyone else was?
MO: The short answer is, I don’t do landscapes, which is slightly ironic, slightly facetious. I contradict myself because I actually noticed there’s a surprising number of landscapes in my work, but I’ve never actually exhibited them or published them. I don’t think photography is adequate as a means to – well, my photography is adequate – as a means to express the depth and beauty of landscape.
AM: So, it’s more adequate to express social relations, is that what you’re saying?
MO: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
AM: In what way?
MO: In the way that everybody from Baudelaire on more or less here said, you know, you’re a flâneur, you’re out there, you’re walking, you’re picking up the texture of the city. That’s something, you know, that’s Gary [Baigent], that’s what I did and various others did – and it is inexhaustible. You know, even a small town can give you a lot of stuff occasionally. The city is more animated and there’s more going on. And you’re looking, I suppose, for a version of the exotic. Although, if I see something too exotic I turn away. But I was a lot more naive when I was 19, 20, 21, whatever I was, and I simply looked at and was fascinated by everything.
AM: Would you have called it documentary photography at that time? Do you call it documentary today?
MO: No, probably not. I think of documentary photography as more thorough and more targeted. I have done documentary.
AM: So documentary tends to be, like photojournalism, telling a story using a whole variety of photographs which adds up to something. So you’re doing more: a one of this, a one of that?
MO: I’m much more spontaneous, yes, I think I would say. I tend to hop around like a rabbit, rather than graze like an old cow.
AM: But do you think, looking back on your photographs in that period, that they’d be called documentary today?
MO: Of course. The documentary component, which is one of the many components today to have, has become stronger as time goes on. I’ve got photographs, endless photographs of old jalopies, cars of all kinds. Very often with people’s bums sticking out of the bonnet. You no longer see this. So that’s, if you like, documentary. I told my students many years ago that every time you press a shutter button you’re essentially taking act of [recording] a historical situation.
Hear more from Max Oettli in the book The New Photography, available at Te Papa Store on Level 1.