art curator and writer
Mars Hotel.JPG

A Personal Perspective

A Personal Perspective 


Peter Peryer, Hunua, 1975. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the artist.


Peter Peryer is an observer who draws attention to the corners, curves and patterns many people dismiss in daily life.

At first glance, his photographs are focused and discrete: the sharp angle of a curb side flower bed (Frozen Flame, 1982), a citrus fruit  that looks  like it might begin to wriggle (Buddha’s Hand, 2012) , or a TV screen  that gleams out of a window in a grid of dark rooms. (Television, 2005). Look again, and these images  appear to be part of something greater, leaving the viewer to wonder what the story is. While Peryer’s photographs are visually seductive, their potency also lies in their ability to evoke curiosity. As a consequence, his  perspective on life beckons us to think twice about we  are seeing, and  invites us to look at the world in our own way.

In 2001 writer Emily Perkins recalled her teenage self encountering Peryer’s early portraits of his then-wife Erika:

This was life outside the humdrum, images that proved what, at sixteen, I suspected and hoped - that there were other ways of being, in this country, than hale and athletic and sporting a grin. The pictures gave off an intense romance, a doomed cinematic aspect, an acceptance of complexity in love that I yearned to experience.[1]

This heartfelt account  discloses the way Peryer’s images connect with people, and how his photographs provide alternative ways of seeing, just askew from the mainstream. There is a sense of relief carried with Perkins’ memory; that a stranger managed to visualise for her complex emotions she had not yet experienced herself.

My first Peryer experience, Neenish Tarts (1983), left me feeling both enticed and unnerved by what I saw. I suspect it had something to do with my high school job in a dubious cafe. Here sub-standard cabinet food was a poor disguise for the last indoor refuge for smokers in the local mall.  In this café, ‘smoko’ masqueraded as afternoon tea, and food was undercut with the odour of cigarette smoke. That year I spent my Sunday mornings folding asparagus rolls and being chastened for my lack of presentation initiative, all the while doubting anyone would ever notice. However, Peter Peryer noticed. Not my asparagus rolls, but someone else’s neenish tarts. Captured, just like that, patterns within a pattern, in an unremarkable bakery - nowhere of particular importance - but somewhere we are all familiar with.

Peter Peryer, Neenish Tarts, 1983. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the artist.

But was it ‘just like that’?

In fact, Neenish Tarts developed out of series of cake images that began when Peryer’s eye was caught by some doughnuts in a bakery in Devonport.  He recalls thinking, “goodness gracious me, there must be something there[2] before promptly buying three dozen to take home, arrange and photograph. While these images appeared to be shot in situ, they were constructed, resulting in three very popular photographs - Doughnuts (1983), Jam Rolls (1983) and Neenish Tarts. Sixteen years later, Neenish Tarts drew me in with its sense of uncomfortable allure.  This cake series is sweet, but dark; Doughnuts once likened by writer David Eggleton to having the appearance of being decorated with “coagulated blood”[3].These tarts, composed so carefully by Peryer, swirled on the picture plane  while transporting me back to my high school job.

 A Journey from Mars Hotel into the future

In 1985, curators and collectors Jim Barr and Mary Barr wrote about Peryer’s 1975 series Mars Hotel, which had featured in his first public gallery exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in 1977. This portfolio of works, they observed, was an early and important step taken by Peryer away from his very personal, inward-looking portraits[4] that captured writer Emily Perkins with their “intense romance”.  Almost 40 years after his first public gallery show at The Dowse, Peter Peryer: A Careful Eye is anchored by Hunua (1975), a work from this pivotal series.  Hunua is a significant precursor to a sequence of internal guides which have since echoed consistently in Peryer’s image making.

Like many of Peryer’s works, Hunua draws our attention through its sense of mystery. Picture an abandoned concrete block. Stripped of its façade and divided by a centre line, it is gridded by holes that were once windows. Tagged in white paint on the bottom right corner of the building, above the hollow garage – like a clue from a dissipated counter culture – are the words “Mars Hotel”.  Is this photograph of a film set, a model, or a real building?  

On a recent studio visit with the artist I was enlightened when Peryer googled the Grateful Dead album Mars Hotel for me. What I saw was another concrete block, gridded by windows in a cratered landscape with a green sun and two blue moons. While Peryer knew of this album, he was not aware of its cover when he took his photograph.  He did however have an instinct for the image the building would make. Not only is Hunua carefully composed, it also encourages social connection. In creating this image Peryer shared his appreciation of that obscure building; invoking its mystery and inviting us to consider the story behind it, the tagger - a Grateful Dead fan -  and how we may, or may not, relate to them.  

 The family tree

The interest in composition that emerges in Hunua becomes a consistent feature of Peryer’s work, as does his habit of using found imagery as building blocks for his subject matter. In a 1994 television documentary, Peryer talked about his “families of photographs[5], reflecting on a series of overlapping internal guides that had begun to form over his career.

While these guides have developed instinctively over time, they were born out of the Peryer’s adaption of formal compositional techniques observed in modernist photography. In this way, Peryer’s ‘families’ reflect his play with particular aesthetics such as organic forms, triangular compositions, closely cropped subjects, the natural and manufactured, as well as images that reveal the deceptive nature of photography, particularly in relation to scale.

Consider his photographs as an extended family arranged in a family tree, where members are in discussion with each other, sharing personality traits and physical attributes. Each is a part of the wider gene pool, repeated but never quite the same.

Peter Peryer, Buddha's Hand, 2012. Digital print. Image courtesy of the artist.

Peryer’s attraction to organic forms is seen in works such as the solid  configurations  in Ratanui (2002), and Buddha’s Hand, along with the more delicate shapes in Tendril (2006) and Poppies (2006). The newest of these images, Buddha’s Hand, a citrus fruit from China with twisting upward reaching fingers, uncannily mirrors Ratanui, where the roots of a giant tree undulate into the earth.

Poppies dainty radicles echo a triangular composition that is repeated in works such as Camellia (2010), a pink flower acting as a point for two extruding green leaves, and Frozen Flame where a curb side flower bed intersects the picture plane and points to the bottom left corner of the photograph. While the subject matter is wholly unrelated, each image is visually balanced by a triangle.

Peter Peryer, Camelia, 2010. Digital print. Image courtesy of the artist.

The hard line cutting through Frozen Flame resonates in many of Peryer’s images of flora. In Blood Lilies (1981) and Calla Lilies (2012) delineations formed by leaves and flowers dissect the overall image. Both works are also cropped, like the flock of sheep in Farm Study (1986) and the crawling foliage in Ribbonwoods (1985). These photographs are all focused intently on the subject matter without any other distraction.

Ribbonwoods also reflects Peryer’s interest in the play between order and randomness, as leaves and stalks spread themselves across the parallel lines of weather board.  This scattered aesthetic is repeated in Drowned Forest Kai Iwi (2013), where disarrayed branches stagnate in a swamp, and Alligators (1981), where the ordered, diamond shaped lines of  a zoo cage contrast with the organic forms of two large reptiles. 

Alligators, like Hunua, is an early work that tussles between a series of binaries.  Often Peryer’s works flip between what is natural and manufactured (as seen in many of his animal images), and large and small. Home (1991), an ornament appearing to be a full size house, and MOTAT (2005), a museum display of model planes portrayed as a real life squadron, are both examples of images that appear to be large when they are small, real when they are not.   

MOTAT is a representation of the artist’s fascination with machinery, engineering and the power of technology. Other examples in this exhibition include Submarine (1996) which reveals the engine deep in the body of a submarine, and Doodlebug (1994), a German World War 2 V1 from Auckland War Memorial Museum with a swastika on its rocket.

The cylindrical shape of Doodlebug is composed very similarly to Sand Shark (1991) a benign shark shaped by sand on a beach. In both photographs solid masses extrude out from the left of the picture.  Again, these images question what is real and what is not. Is that plane a toy? Did that shark wash up on the beach?  This is not unlike a photograph mentioned at the beginning of this family tree, Tendril, visually linked with other organic forms like Buddha’s Hand and Ratanui.  Are the elegant tips of Tendril the root of a plant or a synthetic wire?

This leads us full circle around some of Peryer’s families of photographs. There is no way to tie one work to a single set of rules or exclusive group .Their relationships are complex, often overlapping with each other. While Peryer’s work is grounded in an understanding of a wider art history, his work is generated by a less formulaic, more visceral approach. 

 Music and poetry

In considering the recurring compositional elements in his photographs, Peryer has spoken of his work in the context of music and poetry. When you step into the exhibition you will see Hunua placed on the gallery wall to mimic the beginning of a musical staff, guiding this selection of photographs. This work becomes a beat starting off a song, echoed again in every other invisible bar on the wall.

Peryer’s families of photographs relate to and play off each other like chords repeated throughout a symphony, a chorus sung over and over to emphasise the point of a song, or the rhythmic structure of iambic pentameter.  The black and white halves of Neenish Tarts roll around each other, abstracted, they are a pattern of swirls within a pattern of circles and diamonds. This series of black and white shapes gives the impression of recurring visual notes. Peryer’s observation of visual accents are repeated in the patterns of Jam rolls and Doughnuts. Decades later they are echoed in the tessellation on a Conus shell in After Rembrandt (1996) and the grid of windows on a Rotorua hotel   in Television.

Peryer’s identification with poetry is also reflected in the ability of both poet and photographer to capture just an instant in a life time through their own subjective lens. As New Zealand photographer Paul Thompson puts it, photography and poetry are

 …carefully selected and isolated distillations of reality through the filters of subjectivity, a sort of creative shorthand for the relationship between the individual and the world. Importantly both also leave plenty of space for the viewer/ reader to insert themselves in a dynamic and involving response.[6]

While apparently instinctive, Peryer’s inner compass for composition is also a technical skill he has acquired over his career, enabling him to make well balanced images.  But there is also something more visceral that draws us to his photographs. Peryer’s images offer a personal glimpse of a much bigger picture. This gives them their mysterious quality, leaving us wanting more and providing a scenario where we can decide for ourselves, as with Neenish Tarts or Hunua, what their story could be.

 Taken from life

From early on in his career Peryer drew inspiration from a modernist aesthetic, particularly in terms of the formal vocabulary he employed.  His acknowledgement of art history can also be seen in his nod to other artists, for example, in his work Frozen Flame. This photograph shares its name with an iconic painting by Christopher Perkins, who was making a 1930s comment on New Zealand identity and the individual’s place within the social and physical landscape.[7]

Peter Peryer,  Frozen Flame , 1982. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the artist.

Peter Peryer, Frozen Flame, 1982. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Mars Hotel series not only reflects Peryer’s interest in composition, it shares his view of the world and how he relates to it. It was a definitive step in a journey he still continues on, in that his images are drawn from his surroundings. In a 1984 interview with Jim Barr, he said

I rather like the way my photographs, and possibly all photography in general, has quite a close relationship with life. You couldn’t put a photographer in a windowless room and say now make an image ….”[8]

Television, another concrete block gridded by windows, this time occupied instead of empty, is made 30 years after Hunua. Reflecting a lifetime of discernment, Television is composed with precision, and epitomises the qualities Peryer looks for when taking a photograph. Within one of its windows, a solitary television screen gleams back at us, leaving us just as intrigued as the words “Mars Hotel” tagged on that abandoned building.

When you come across a Peryer, instead of asking “What is this work about” take a moment to contemplate what you see.  The first time I looked closely, Neenish Tarts captured my imagination with those sweet but dark pastries that swirled on the picture plane, transporting me back to high school and that dodgy cafe.  The potency  in Peryer’s photographs develop out of a combination of two things. These are the utmost of care with which he composes his images, and his acute observation of life. In sharing his subjective view on the world with us, he creates images that encourage us to think twice about what we are seeing; to move beyond his subject and beneath the surface of our own everyday experiences.



This essay was written for the exhibition and catalogue Peter Peryer: White Noise at The Dowse Art Museum  in 2014.  



[1]  Emily Perkins, Erika: A portrait by Peter Peryer. Pg 12. Published 2001 by The Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin.

[2] Interview with Jim Barr, part 2. 2 February 1985

[3] David Eggleton, Into the Light. Pg 130 Published 2006 , Craig Potten Publishing, Auckland.

[4] Jim Barr and Mary Barr, Peter Peryer: Photographs. Pg 27. Published 1985 Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui.

[5] Peter Peryer: Portrait of Photographer. Produced 1994 T.H.E Film , Auckland.

[6] Paul Thomson, Shards of Silver Paul Thompson's Images On Language New Zealand Poets On Photography. Pg   

  12. Published 2000 Steele Roberts, Wellington.

[7] Gregory Burke, Second Nature: Peter Peryer, Photographer. Pg 13. Published 1995, Edition Stemmle AG,

   Zurich, Switzerland and Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt Am Main, Germany.

[8] Interview with Jim Barr , 12th December 1984