A Careful Eye: Peter Peryer

NZ Listener, 23 August, 2014


“My earliest memories are of growing up on a dairy farm in Takanini, just south of Auckland. One of my earliest memories is my father sawing horns off some cows; my father trapping hawks in a gin trap to protect the ducks on the farm; a hedgehog, a cowshed,” photographer, Peter Peryer tells me from his New Plymouth home.

Many of Peryer’s most well known photographs capture the flavor of small town New Zealand, askance. A Careful Eye is an exhibition of over fifty of his photographs at The Dowse curated by Sian van Dyk. The new show spans four decades of Peryer’s photography and includes early work from his first public gallery exhibition at The Dowse in 1977, curated by then director Jim Barr. “It’s just what I need at this time in my career,” Peryer says. “A cup of meths on the barbie.”

A Careful Eye focuses on the recurring patterns in Peryer’s carefully composed images; the visceral urgency between life and death is a persistent theme but it pays to look closely. “You can’t change a culture easily,” Peryer says. Earlier this year his art made Taranaki News headlines: Councillors Get in Behind After Panic Over Carcuss. Local councilors on the monitoring committee had questioned the tastefulness of a Peryer print recently acquired for the Govett-Brewster art collection. Carcuss (2010) is a photograph of a prop from a film set, but it looks like a sheep that’s been slaughtered. “Often my photos are about whether something is real or not. The carcuss is an example,” Peryer says. “I seem to have certain templates that I return to.”

A Careful Eye includes Slaughter (1985), which is the real-life predecessor to his recent photograph. The exhibition hones in on the harmonies between his ‘families’ of images. “Quite a lot of my photos were taken in zoos.” The zoo is an unreal site: a substitute for nature in the industrialised world. The heavy artillery of a pair of alligators seen through the grid of their cage at Auckland Zoo can be admired alongside prints of a shark made out of sand, a Nazi doodlebug and the interior of a submarine. “I’m nuts about engines.” Peryer applies a scientific precision to his photographs of natural and mechanical forms. “I’ve said this before. I use my camera like a biologist uses a microscope.”

The shapes in his compositions are as vital as the content. “Negative spaces in my work are very important and they’re often accurate to within a millimeter.” He cites European Hare (2009) and Camellia (2010) as examples. The white ears of a stuffed hare share the same symmetry as the two leaves that frame the camellia flower. “A lot of my work is nature study,” Peryer says. “It’s an old fashioned term, but I like it.” A Careful Eye is alert to the anthropomorphic: the tendrils of a Buddha’s Hand curl inwards like fingers towards a palm.

“What’s the weather like there?” I ask, as the wind picks up and breathes down the phone line. “Tumultuous,” Peryer says. “I like it. I was a plant in a previous life.” Peryer has a laugh like Jack Nicholson’s Joker.

“A certain amount of comicality has come into my work in the last decade or two.” Peryer refers to the early black and white photographs that first brought him acclaim in the 70’s as; “The moody blues.” He completed a degree in English and worked as a teacher, before taking up photography in his early thirties. The later start proved an advantage: “I already had something in the image bank.” Peryer was exhibiting within a year and profiled in Photoforum. The Mars Hotel series and several portraits of his then-wife Erika were taken on a toy ‘Diana’ camera. Peryer only used the ‘Diana’ for six months and it lent the images a dark, grainy quality he now associates with European film stills.

“What I really like about A Careful Eye is that there’s no portraits in it,” Peryer says. “A lot of people haven’t seen my newer work.”

The exhibition at The Dowse features several large-scale photographs that have not been shown before including Television. In this 2005 colour print one blue screen is glimpsed through a lonely network of hotel windows. Peryer likens the process of searching for a photograph to mining. “Sometimes I don’t get photographs for months even though I’m working on them all the time. In my head. Day and night. Seven days a week.” It’s a matter of removing the overburden, then hitting a seam. Peryer calls his finished photographs ‘keepers.’ But how does he know which ones to keep?

“Its whether or not I get that feeling in my solar plexis. Do I feel it in a visceral way? I try and keep out of my brain. But I have other criteria too,” Peryer says. “I’m quite interested in beauty.”

We commiserate about the current predominance of theory in art writing.

“I don’t like to be told how to react to a picture,” he says. “So much art writing is like that now, including wall labels.” Peryer has strong opinions about teaching and the value of art schools. “School is one thing, education is another, they don’t always overlap.” He believes art is a vocation rather than a career and advocates ‘search’ over ‘research.’ “I’m quite anti-academia,” Peryer says. Then laughs. “Jim Barr once told me that I was one of the most academic artists he knew.”

Peryer is precise but he’s no camera club purist. Instead he has been quick to maximise the benefits of digital technologies. The exhibition includes Calla Lilies a picture taken on his iPhone. His favourite photograph is always the most recent. Peryer tells me he posted an image of a railway tunnel on his Facebook page; “I’m going back to shoot it again if I can manage. There’s something about the bend in the railway line and the light that speaks to me.”

“Do you believe in genius?” I ask.

Quietly: “Yes. I do.”

image: Peter Peryer, Television, 2005.