‘Inevitably provocative and striking in her technique’ is how Anne Kirker described Di ffrench in 1986, and again in 1993.1 Today, with the resurfacing of many of the artist’s photographs last exhibited in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s retrospective in 2000, Kirker’s statement still rings true.
Born in Melbourne in 1946, ffrench arrived in New Zealand in 1963 aged 16 with her parents. While finishing her high school studies in Auckland, she encountered the work of Scottish expressionist and American colourfield artists such as Morris Louis, sparking a life-long interest in art and art history. Her passion eventually lead her to the Auckland Technical Institute, where she garnered the skills necessary to pursue a professional artistic career. Over the next twenty years ffrench traversed a broad range of mediums in order to confront and carve out new ways of thinking about gender, aggression, the environment and conflict, as well as art itself. Her innovative approach made a lasting contribution to New Zealand art, and secured her a reputation as one of the country’s preeminent feminist artists. Standing in front of ffrench’s captivating photographs, subject to their textural charm and sophisticated exploration of concepts, it is easy to see why.
The striking technique Kirker speaks of is immediately apparent. One is unlikely to have encountered a photograph similar to ffrench’s, and in their contemporary context they were certainly unlike anything seen before. By 1985, she had developed her own photographic process which radically blurred the lines between sculpture, performance, and photography. Employed for one of the first times in the self-portrait The Useful Idiot and Arnolfini’s Hat (1985), the technique consisted of ffrench photographing an original image (in this case of herself) and projecting it onto a bed of ruptured matter usually consisting of coal dust or coke breeze. After sometimes adding in other elements in the manner of collage, or reflecting herself into the image by means of a mirror, she would then precariously posit herself above the projection and rephotograph the whole to produce a cibachrome print – itself an unprecedented artistic material for the 1980s in New Zealand. ffrench referred to the technique as ‘a lengthy process of light and illusion,’ well-illustrated by the incredible luminosity and haptic allure for which her photographs are known.
Like her earlier performance works out of which her photography evolved, ffrench conceived of this new process as a means to “activate ideas.” She saw the camera, however, as enabling greater creativity, providing a vehicle to explore the more complex ideas that captivated her interest. Although the themes ffrench dealt with are diverse, her fascination with the body and vision is perhaps the most enduring thread running throughout her photography.
The Fundamental series of 1986/7, for example, arose out of the artist’s admiration for the ease and confidence with which male athletes manipulated their bodies in space. The gleaming musculature of nude male figures moves in and out of the shadows of these works, begging the viewer’s attention. Reversing the traditional male gazein this manner proved somewhat controversial when the photographs were exhibited, demonstrating the provocative capacity of ffrench’s work.
The photographs produced during ffrench’s residency at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1990 as part of the Trustbank Canterbury Fellowship she was awarded similarly captivated critics and the public. Extending from the ideas of the Fundamentals, the Life Drawing Class series depicts active, athletic bodies. In this case, however, the figures are women poised for combat in karate-like stances. ffrench herself was a brown-belt in the martial art, using her skills on one occasion to successfully fend off a late-night intruder to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery studio. Emulating the artist’s abilities, the female figure in The Life Drawing Class works take up arms with the patriarchal gaze that seeks to confine them. Alongside the concurrent Hunter/Warrior and Taking Possession works, the photographs pulse with dynamic and defiant energy.
While Kirker’s statement acknowledges the provocative capacity of works such as these, it does not encapsulate ffrench’s photography as a whole, forgoing various other elements which make it so compelling. In addition to the defiant spirit, there exists also a quiet, sincere element underpinning ffrench’s photographs. The artist’s reversal of the male gaze in the Fundamentals and Trustbank series, for instance, was not intended simply to objectify and shock, but as an act of compassion. ‘I approach the study of the human form with respect, she wrote, ‘and primarily intend to project human dignity and humanity.’2
In The Thousand Rocks series (1988/9), the figures seem to radiate with the warmth of ffrench’s respect, exemplifying this often-unacknowledged side to the artist’s photography. The intimate portraits explore the ability of gesture and expression, specifically of the heads and hands, to convey something specific to an individual. Despite being projected onto piles of coal, the figures appear soft and familiar, as if they have known us our whole lives.
It is possible this sense of intimacy arose out of the close relationship between the subject of ffrench’s photograph and the woman behind the camera lens herself. ffrench primarily only photographed those whom she knew personally, with her work from the early 90s in particular providing a small portrait of Dunedin’s intellectual and artistic circles. Popular subjects included friends Julia Morison, Glenda Norris and Rob Garrett. The latter can be seen in the 1996 viewfinder titled Oscillation. In what is perhaps a friendly inside joke between Garrett and ffrench, helooks up from his laptop only to meet the eyes of Christ standing before him.
ffrench also later photographed her granddaughter, casting her as a regal sun queen in Opera on the Wanganui (1996). The Significant Little Opera series of which this work is a part, as well as the Illustration of Government and Viewfinder seriesfrom the same period, demonstrate ffrench’s interest in conflict, cultural memory, and negotiation. At the centre of these series, however, is ffrench’s interest in the body and vision.
In the Significant Little Opera photographs, bodies are immersed in landscapes fraught with colonial angst such as Bastion Point and Waitangi. Attempting to reverse one’s habitual modes of viewing these sites as conflictual, ffrench’s puts forward an alternative vision in which these locations become potential sites for negotiation between Maori and Pakeha.
Similarly political in subject, the Viewfinders draw on the frescoes of 14th century Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti known as The Effects of Good and Bad Government. Just as Lorenzetti’s frescoes were intended to remind the rulers of Sienna of their obligation to wisdom, peace and justice, so too are ffrench’s photographs. Using three-dimensional frames or “viewfinders” ffrench manipulates the body of her audience, asking them to peer inwards to the photograph in order contemplate the state of New Zealand society today. While departing from ffrench’s concerns with the male gaze, her enduring interest in vision and its impact on the body is evident in the manner in which these works physically condition how one is to view them. The “viewfinders” remind us that one’s point of view is always bound to a certain extent within the societal frames or assumptions of a given period.
It is ffrench, however, who shows us that such boundaries can easily be surmounted. As is clear from her photography, female bodies need not be viewed only through the male gaze, nor is it only men who may be seen as strong and athletic. Likewise, sites once viewed as conflictual and violence may instead represent opportunities for constructive negotiation. Finally, ffrench demonstrates that the relationship between vision and the body need not be objectifying. Amongst the list of reasons her photographs are so appealing to viewers is because they exhibit the possibility of photographing the body with a respectful and humanising vision – that of ffrench’s herself.
Text by: Minnie Parker
 Kirker, New Zealand Women Artists, 187.; Kirker, New Zealand Women Artists: A Survey of 150 Years, 174.
Di ffrench, work plan, August 1988/9. Quoted in Hay, article, 29.