Eye of the Be­holder

Knighted in France and awarded the Or­der of Merit in New Zealand, cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­pher Fiona Pard­ing­ton is a na­tional trea­sure. But, finds David Herkt, that doesn’t stop her act­ing like a teenager.

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“Iwas pre­tend­ing I was 14 years old when in fact I’m 55…,” says bruised pho­tog­ra­pher Fiona Pard­ing­ton, rue­fully con­sid­er­ing the pre­ced­ing day’s events, which in­cluded a lost par­rot and the Piha Vol­un­teer Fire Bri­gade.

She re­cently moved to a house high on the hill over­look­ing Lion Rock and the black iron-sand beach at Piha, on the west coast of the North Is­land.

Pard­ing­ton is the first New Zealand artist to be knighted in France. The French gov­ern­ment has made her a Che­va­lier de l’or­dre des Arts et des Let­tres (Knight of the French Or­der of Arts and Let­ters) for her pho­to­graphic work and re­search in the col­lec­tions held in mu­se­ums in Paris, Rouen and Nice.

She is also a Mem­ber of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit.

In 2015, a ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion, A Beau­ti­ful He­si­ta­tion, fea­tur­ing more than 100 pho­to­graphs taken over 30 years, opened in Welling­ton be­fore trav­el­ling to Auck­land and Christchurch.

To­day how­ever, Pard­ing­ton is re­cov­er­ing from a res­cue.

She had wo­ken early to take her dogs down to the beach, when she went look­ing for Tommy, a bright green or­ange-beaked eclec­tus – one of the three par­rots who share her home. Res­cued from caged ne­glect, Tommy doesn’t usu­ally fly. She as­sumed the blus­tery wind had some­how blown him down off the bal­cony and into the trees. A bit of “bush-bash­ing” across a stream re­vealed her par­rot peek­ing through the nikau, prompt­ing Pard­ing­ton to climb up a karaka.

“Any­way, I man­aged to slip,” she says. “I got my leg wedged in this V-shape be­tween branches and ev­ery time the wind blew they squeezed tighter to­gether…” Trapped, Pard­ing­ton be­gan phon­ing around and even­tu­ally reached a friend, in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Me­lanie Reid, whose ex-hus­band is a mem­ber of the fire bri­gade. In the mean­time, her par­rot started call­ing out to her.

“Tommy started call­ing me a ‘good girl’. Even he was a bit con­cerned and my dog, Freud, had man­aged to wrig­gle out of his har­ness to find me.

“I was so ashamed when I heard the sirens go­ing be­cause I knew they were for me… Freud showed them where I was. He went up and met the truck and took them down to where I was in the tree which I thought was pretty im­pres­sive. They got me out in no time which was great. So then I said: ‘Can you save my bird?’ I sounded like a crazy bird lady, which is prob­a­bly true…”

Crazy bird lady or not, Pard­ing­ton is one of New Zealand’s most cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­phers.

Her im­ages are a star­tling ex­plo­ration of beauty and mor­tal­ity: life casts of Maori heads made early in the 19th cen­tury, a road­kill hawk hung in glo­ri­ous splen­dour like a Dutch still-life, wilt­ing flow­ers in their mo­ments of de­cline, and the stuffed and skinned spec­i­mens of ex­tinct species.

She has haunted mu­se­ums in New Zealand and France to pho­to­graph hei tiki, plas­ter casts of guil­lotined heads, and a skull sup­posed to be that of the Mar­quis De Sade.

In May 2010, Pard­ing­ton’s Ake Ake Huia, a gelatin sil­ver print of a pho­to­graph of the feath­ers of the ex­tinct huia sold at Auck­land’s Art & Auc­tion for $30,386, break­ing the record for the sale of a sin­gle New Zealand pho­to­graph. Later the same night, her

se­ries of im­ages of hei tiki from the Okains Bay Maori and Colo­nial Mu­seum on Banks Penin­su­lar, The Quai Branly Suite of Nine Hei Tiki, sold for $64,278.

Pard­ing­ton’s re­cent work, Nabokov’s Blues: The Charmed Cir­cle, is on show at Auck­land’s Stark­white gallery. It fea­tures huge im­ages of iri­des­cent but­ter­fly wing-scales in breath­tak­ingly vivid colour, pea­cock­blues and gold-dust yel­lows. They are jux­ta­posed with close-ups of hand-writ­ten col­lec­tor’s notes or veiled but­ter­fly corpses leak­ing 70-year-old in­ter­nal flu­ids through torn glas­sine bags.

They are all but­ter­flies col­lected by Vladimir Nabokov, the wealthy Rus­sian aris­to­crat who went into a mon­ey­less ex­ile in 1919 af­ter the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion. Best known as a writer, Nabokov was also a life-long but­ter­fly col­lec­tor, or lep­i­dopter­ist, sub­se­quently liv­ing in the US and Switzer­land. He would be­come in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous as the au­thor of the “scan­dalous” novel Lolita in 1955.

“I was quite a pre­co­cious reader and my mother en­cour­aged me to read – even when we lived in a beach com­mu­nity she’d drive us into the Auck­land Li­brary ev­ery week,” says Pard­ing­ton. “So that’s what got me into it, Lolita, and hear­ing about the scan­dals. I thought: ‘Oh I’d bet­ter read it.’

“Then I sup­pose, like ev­ery­one else, I be­came en­am­oured by the pro­found ef­fects that his lan­guage had on me.”

She quotes Pro­fes­sor Brian Boyd, Auck­land Univer­sity’s world-ac­claimed ex­pert on Nabokov who said that the writer was “like a man with a thou­sand eyes all open at the same time”.

Nabokov lost his per­sonal col­lec­tions of but­ter­flies, first in his ex­ile from Rus­sia, then when he fled Europe at the on­set of World War II. Pard­ing­ton vis­ited his spec­i­mens, now held in li­braries in New York and Lau­sanne in Switzer­land.

“The but­ter­flies must be his own,” she wrote, de­scrib­ing how she chose what to pho­to­graph, “their tho­rax crushed by the fin­gers that held the pen with which he wrote. But­ter­flies taken, like relics. One de­gree of sep­a­ra­tion. Love and death fold to­gether.”

The project was funded by Cre­ative New Zealand. Pard­ing­ton trav­elled with Mark Smith, a young Amer­i­can whose fo­cus-stack­ing com­puter pro­gram en­abled her to ob­tain hun­dreds of macro pho­to­graphs of the but­ter­fly wings and then merge them to ap­pear as a sin­gle im­age.

Along with but­ter­flies and their scales, Pard­ing­ton ob­tained im­ages of hand­writ­ten phrases and sci­en­tific di­a­grams, cre­at­ing a por­trait of a Nabokov and his ob­ses­sions. “Death is there in any­thing beau­ti­ful,” she says. “It is the im­me­di­ate flip-side. Be­hind the beau­ti­ful maiden’s face is her skull… To be beau­ti­ful, means to die and to be­come not-beau­ti­ful. They are so in­ti­mately tied up.”

Pard­ing­ton was born in Devon­port on Auck­land’s North Shore. She is of Scot­tish (Clan Cameron of Er­racht) and Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Ngati Kahun­gunu her­itage. Her brother is Neil Pard­ing­ton, the award-win­ning de­signer and pho­tog­ra­pher. Their fa­ther was a painter-dec­o­ra­tor, a sign­writer, and later a com­mer­cial long-line fish­er­man. Their mother worked at the TAB and did the books for a garage.

How­ever, hers was a fam­ily of se­crets. When she was 10, her grand­mother told the chil­dren that, un­known to them, their mother had re­mar­ried and the man they thought of as their fa­ther had adopted the chil­dren and given them his name. She has de­scribed the dis­cov­ery to writer Jeremy Olds. “Grandma told us. Grandma wasn’t sup­posed to, but she did. We were sit­ting in the kitchen in Mor­rinsville, my step­fa­ther was cry­ing. We were all shocked.”

She has said, too, that she un­der­stands her mother’s de­ci­sion. It would later lead to her own fas­ci­na­tion with the ten­sions be­tween per­sonal and cultural iden­tity and the ef­fects of real and in­vented his­to­ries on an in­di­vid­ual.

Pard­ing­ton at­tended Elam, The Univer­sity of Auck­land’s School of Fine Art. Then she be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with Joe Makea, a hand­some Raro­ton­gan, who be­came the fa­ther of Pard­ing­ton’s daugh­ter, Akura.

His pres­ence is in­escapable in Pard­ing­ton’s pho­to­graphs from the 1980s. In one, Makea is mus­cled, smoothly bare-chested, and car­ry­ing lilies with his boxer’s ban­daged fists (see left). In an­other, he stands in brood­ing pro­file wear­ing a bee­keeper’s hel­met. They are sig­nif­i­cant pho­to­graphs in her ca­reer.

But Makea died sud­denly in 1993. He’d suf­fered from un­di­ag­nosed scar­let fever as a child and an op­er­a­tion had been nec­es­sary to re­place his heart valves. How­ever, he did not stop his ex­er­cise regime af­ter the surgery and died on his press bench. It had been a tur­bu­lent re­la­tion­ship. “I had to leave him first be­cause he would have killed me,” Pard­ing­ton says. “I loved him but he had ter­ri­ble prob­lems once you’d got a drink in him. So I just had re­ally dif­fi­cult…” she pauses, “…re­ally bad re­la­tion­ships, a cou­ple of them… Ev­ery­thing has been re­ally tough. So my birds are easy com­pared to some of the things I’ve been do­ing in my life.

“I’ve had to do most things my­self,” she adds, chang­ing mood, “which is why I’m so good at wa­ter-blast­ing.”

Since the mid-1990s, Pard­ing­ton’s ca­reer has ex­ploded. She has trav­elled to France and been granted un­par­al­leled ac­cess to sen­si­tive col­lec­tions. Her list of artist’s res­i­den­cies and awards is lengthy.

She has used dis­carded soft-core black and white erot­ica from the 1950s for her One Night of Love se­ries. Old med­i­cal pho­to­graphs have been re­si­t­u­ated, repho­tographed, and re­named. The Quai Branly Suite fea­tures nine im­ages of hei tiki, dis­con­cert­ingly min­gling both real and fake, set in mono­chrome im­pla­ca­bil­ity and com­posed melan­choly.

“When I was young I didn’t have the mana or the con­nec­tions to get to do what I wanted. I also didn’t have the money, so I had to work in the back­yard, to make things up, or to save up for film, or pa­per be­fore I could print it. I had to work with what I had.

“Then I slowly man­aged to get into mu­se­ums. Some peo­ple hated what I did be­cause, from an an­i­mistic point of view, there are great prob­lems deal­ing with taonga (in Maori cul­ture) such as hei tiki where peo­ple don’t dis­tin­guish be­tween an im­age of a taonga and a taonga it­self…”

More re­cently, her still-life works have opened up a new sen­sory rich­ness with their dense colours and for­mal com­po­si­tion. They fea­ture a cu­ri­ous ar­ray of ob­jects from dead seag­ulls to per­fume bot­tle stop­pers, car­tridge cases and scar­let rib­bons. Like the Dutch paint­ings they are mod­elled upon, they pre­serve the mov­ing pro­cesses of life in a static in­stant.

“I’d be a vam­pire in a sec­ond if it gave me longer to do art,” she laughs.

Pard­ing­ton’s pho­to­graphic ar­range­ments an­i­mate en­ergy and ex­ter­nal forces. At times, her work has re­sem­blances to Haitian Vodou, as she gath­ers dis­carded ob­jects and im­bues them with sig­nif­i­cance. Down­stairs in her new Piha house is a big room she will use for her new stu­dio, filled with col­lected ma­te­ri­als which may form part of fu­ture projects.

At the mo­ment, she is fas­ci­nated by the boldly coloured glass drip­pings left over from the man­u­fac­ture of chil­dren’s mar­bles in the early 20th cen­tury. They are like star-stuff or so­lid­i­fied candy. She has a large col­lec­tion.

“Aren’t they beau­ti­ful? I just love the ones with half-formed mar­bles in them.”

There are also cloth roses she has pur­chased at street mar­kets and pages on which Vic­to­rian chil­dren once prac­ticed their al­pha­bets in cop­per­plate hand­writ­ing. She col­lects old neg­a­tives of car crashes and house fires.

“It is also this thing of wit­ness­ing a life… Look at this gen­tle­man. Look how he tied up his col­lar be­cause he hasn’t got but­tons, and the way he’s hold­ing his hands. We are look­ing at him. These pho­to­graphs are im­por­tant be­cause they are ways of get­ting back in time.

“I have a nose for find­ing things that have been hid­den in plain sight or over­looked,” she says. “There are a lot of things we have to see in our so­ci­ety and it is the artist’s job to gift it back to so­ci­ety, to open the win­dow so that ev­ery­one can see it.”

Pard­ing­ton, with one of her three par­rots, on the set of a Ngai Tau artist web se­ries episode about her ca­reer.

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