From within the cool, darkened house at Barrys Bay, the woman looks through the window to her garden. She carefully brings her Pentax to her eye, peers through its viewfinder, and sets the exposure for the light outside. The lawn is scorched from the Canterbury sun; a stake driven into the earth supports nothing in particular, but precisely divides the spot where the grass ends and the dry, uncultivated soil begins. Against the wooden fence is a row of untamed bushes, flowering with dusky orange and yellow blooms. Before moving on to her next household task, she moves slightly, adjusts the shot, and—SNAP—pushes down on the shutter.
Almost forty years later, the resulting photograph, Untitled (Barry’s Bay) 1976/2013 (fig.1), was reprinted and exhibited as part of the 2013 exhibition Joanna Margaret Paul: Photographs 1976–1985 at Wellington’s Robert Heald Gallery.(1) Though Paul is most often described as a poet, painter, and/or filmmaker, this suite of photographs served to illuminate another area of her practice, one yet to be fully considered as part of her wider oeuvre. Writing after her sudden death in 2003, friend Peter Ireland claimed that ironically, Paul’s previous lack of critical and commercial success might be attributed not only to her disinterest in Modernism’s grand statements and focus on domestic subject matter, but to her polymath-like abilities, ones that led to a “perceived dilution of her focus.”(2) The Renaissance Woman, it seems, was not fully appreciated in New Zealand’s art world, and Paul lived much of her life on the fringes, quietly creating a body of work that interweaves through a wide variety of media. Ireland later speculated that the appearance of this “never much sought after” artist in Heald’s gallery was a calculated risk, and “the result may be that either her stocks rise by the association with his gallery, or his gallery’s stocks drop a few notches by his association with her.”(3) A little over two years later, evidence points to the former. By year’s end, Paul’s work will have been shown in no fewer than five exhibitions: Picture/Poem with poet Cilla McQueen at the Hocken Library; Thinking/Feeling with Ziggy Lever at The Physics Room and RAMP Gallery; Lunch Poems with Kate Newby at Hopkinson Mossman; Through a Different Lens/Film Work by Joanna Margaret Paul, which has been screened throughout New Zealand; and Fragments of a World: Artists Working in Film and Photography 1973 – 1987 at the Adam Art Gallery. A series of contemporary filmic responses, Six artists respond to the poetry of Joanna Margaret Paul, has also been commissioned by CIRCUIT and has be shown in Auckland, Wellington and New Plymouth. A programme combining six of Paul's original film works with the six commissions was presented by CIRCUIT at Collecif Jeunce Cinema in Paris and the London Film Festival. The posthumous increase of Paul’s artistic currency is hardly unique; art history abounds with such well-worn tales of the underappreciated genius. It does, however, beg the question of why, and why now? In the context of Paul’s renaissance, it seems timely to re-look at her photographs, and consider how one such as Untitled (Barrys Bay) might relate to her wider practice.
Barrys Bays is a small settlement – you can’t really call it a town – on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula, about an hour’s drive from the city of Christchurch. It’s a good stopping point when travelling to (for the cheesemongers) and from (for the rubbish dump) the nearby tourist hub of Akaroa. As a child, my family went on holiday there, staying in an old cottage just off the main road. The details are hazy – I can only remember that it was Autumn, and there was a tyre swing in the backyard – but it’s crossed my mind that the house could have been the same one Paul lived in for just shy of three years, after moving there in 1974 with husband Jeffrey Harris and their young daughter Ingrid Magdalena (Maggie). In February 1976, Paul gave birth to a second daughter, Imogen Rose, who tragically had a heart defect and passed away nine months later at Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital. It is well known that following Imogen’s death, Paul ceased drawing and instead focussed her energy and grief on a series of poems, later published by Hawk Press as a small book titled Imogen.(4) The photographs she took during this time, however, impart on the viewer a sense of Paul’s domestic life and mindset throughout the year, and are inextricably linked with her poetry, paintings, drawings and films.
References to photography are peppered throughout Paul’s own writing and the words of her biographers. In passages from her incomplete autobiography Rooms and Episodes, Paul clearly assigns photography a prominent (or at least equal) role in her artistic outputs, describing times at Barrys Bay when “J [Jeffrey] minded Maggie mornings or Thursdays’ while I worked, roamed outside with my tiny super-8 camera, the Pentax, or notebook of water colours & poems.”(5) This focus is highlighted in a 1988 letter from the Department of Social Welfare, which lists her annual expenses as spending over double the amount of money on ‘Photographic’ supplies ($714.48) compared to ‘Art Materials’ ($337.26).(6) Her drawings have been described as “akin to snapshots”(7) by writer Jill Trevelyan, and in one artists statement Paul used decidedly photographic language to describe her fluid movement between mediums, writing that “by constantly changing one’s lens, one sharpens awareness of the given medium; medium becomes subject.”(8) It could also be true that for Paul, who stated that in her work she was simply trying “to isolate something from the continuum,”(9) photography was a convenient medium, one that allowed her to pause briefly while juggling multiple roles of mother, wife, and carer. There is much to indicate, however, that photography was more than just convenient; it was a crucial aspect of her artistic vocabulary. Take for example this poem, written in the early months of her time in Barrys Bay and later published in the collection like love poems:(10)
Through the shaped spaced of the
beds frame; through the flower
carved in the wood & through the
window pane; through the pierced
verandah hood, the foliate rose I
see the straight & curved branches
parting of a tree.
Without the lens
heaven, / the heavens less understood.
Here, Paul describes a domestic setting, employing familiar motifs including windows, leaves, flowers (particularly the rose), and tree branches. Note, however, the repetition of the word through, and the implication that her line of sight has been tempered by a series of transparent panes – like the window she sees through in Untitled (Barrys Bay). Furthermore, the poem’s final lines indicate that another stage of ‘looking through’ has occurred within a lens – a lens, for example, photographing a window. Most insightful is her reference to the heavens – or, perhaps, the gardens and nature surrounding her at Barrys Bay, and her statement that without a lens, such heaven(ly) scenes would be less understood.
Lenses, of course, are equally associated with filmmaking – another medium in which Paul was accomplished. In this context, it is interesting to compare the image Untitled (Barrys Bay) 1976/2013 with one of her short films, Napkins 1975(11). As in the first photograph discussed, these works both look through a window, from inside to outside, where this time a clothesline is hung full with white napkins. Again, both works use the window as a framing device, with the film often showing us slight glimpses of the outside world against equal (or greater) parts darkened interior. Light dances around the napkins as they are buffeted by wind, catching their edges in bright, white streaks. The photograph too shows a streak of light to the right of the window, which appears to illuminate weatherboards – an indication that Paul may have added yet another layer to her photograph by stepping outside, only to photograph the inside looking out again. This tension between inside/outside and inner/outer is well documented as one of Paul’s main artistic concerns, and works from the Barrys Bay years only serve to emphasise this.(12)
Intriguingly, the large swathes of white space that are prominent throughout Paul’s later drawings and paintings are reversed in these photographs and films. Positive becomes negative; light becomes dark; white becomes black. Why can’t we see the interior of the house she once described as “her temple” while Imogen lived?(13) One possibility is that Paul could simply not bear to photograph it—friend Leicester Kyle wrote in his memoir of Paul that “[Imogen’s] illness and death bore down heavily upon the couple, and caused Joanna to take a great dislike to the house.”(14) Much later, in the catalogue for her exhibition Chronicle/Chronology, Paul wrote that: “The mutual scrutiny of objects contained and restrained emotion. But the interstices of a not so happy marriage, or a bereavement, might be visible between things or in the shadows of a mirror or a window.”(15) Paul’s emphasis on the house’s darkened interior turns the window into not just a lens, but a barrier between herself and the outside world—an emphasis expressed in her later statement that “In my earlier paintings they were closed, shut in; now doors and windows are ‘transitions’, a fragile intermediary between myself and the world out there.”(16) But the Barrys Bay photographs are not just reflective of Paul’s mindset—like paintings described by art historian Lorenz Eitner, they go further, to “put [the viewer] in the position of the ‘figure at the window,’”(17) allowing us to feel an inherent empathy with Paul and her position. Eitner’s essay goes on to sum up the iconography of the window in a passage that, though relating to art made over two centuries ago, relates strikingly to Paul’s practice:
However modest and aesthetically insignificant some of these works may be, they represent an effort to restore the identity of image and meaning and strive for an art in which pictorial form is the hieroglyphic of feeling and thought. “In representing the most significant and vital reality around us,” wrote Philipp Otto Runge in 1802, “we render symbols of the world’s great forces… These symbols we use when explaining to others great events, beautiful thoughts about nature, and the sweet or terrible sensations of our soul.”(18)
Twenty years after that holiday at Barrys Bay, I’ve moved islands to Wellington, much closer to the town of Whanganui, where Paul lived in the final years of her life (and where, I’m told, her name is still listed on the door of her old studio). Until recently the only time I’ve thought of Barrys Bay was when picking up cheese at my local supermarket. I never met Joanna—or, as she’s called in some letters, just Anna—but have heard and read many stories, ones that posit her in so many different lights that it is hard to tell where fact ends and hazy memory begins. Leafing through her archives at the National Library, I half expected to find some sort of explanation for the renaissance, but instead of reason I was struck by a continued, heightened sense of melancholy; no more so than when finding the heavens poem in a small exercise book covered in floral wrapping paper. Written in blue ballpoint, it shows Paul’s hand to be neat and simple. Most noticeable is the first instance of the word heaven; darker than the rest, it has been written over more than once, as though she had thought about this many times. Such repetitious obsession was described by friend and like love poems editor Bernadette Hall when she wrote that: “Although hardly any poems from the ‘Barrys Bay’ section of this book were ever presented to a publisher, Joanna had written them out by hand time and time again, as if, in ordering them, she was mediating the traumatic aspects of her life in the 1970s.”(19) Seeing Paul’s concentration on the word heaven begged the unanswerable question of whether she was indeed watching me then, sitting in the library surrounded by her papers. And as I continued my search, that first photograph kept coming back to me, over and over again. In my mind, I slowly became that figure at the window, looking out to the garden—simultaneously returning to my childhood and travelling to a future I have yet to experience.