10 Questions with Paul Moon, author of Ans Westra



Q1: For how long had you been aware of Ans Westra and what made you decide that you wanted to commit yourself to this project?

I had been aware of and admired Ans’ work for about 20 years. Around 2019, a friend gave me a copy of Washday at the Pa which he had rescued from being destroyed in 1964. It occurred to me then that although Ans’ photographs were well known, she was still an enigmatic figure. I therefore approached her and suggested a biography be written about her. After several months with no reply, I assumed she was not interested, but clearly the suggestion had been burrowing through her mind, and I eventually received a call from David Alsop, her agent. He and I met, and following that chat, he arranged for me to meet Ans at her home in Lower Hutt the following month. After spending some time with Ans, she consented for me to wrote her biography.

Q2: By the time you met her she was in the last year of her life and in indifferent health. Talking to a biographer take a reasonable commitment of energy. But was she up for it?

When I met her, it was clear that her health was in decline. Fortunately, I was able to interview her (and some of her colleagues who are of a similar age), and was also able to utilise a large quantity of previously unreleased interviews with her. Had her biography been written a decade later, Ans, and many of those who worked with her from the 1960s, would no longer be alive, and the work would have not been able to draw on their insights. I think that she realised that it was time that some account of her life be produced. This was significant concession, because even just a few days before her death, she was still making plans for a new book she wanted to produce, and a biography might have appeared to her as a stamp of finality on her career (which may account for why one was not written earlier).

Q3: The book describes her massive body of work as ‘New Zealand’s photo album’. How so?

So many writers have been confounded by the challenge of describing New Zealand’s national identity, and with good reason. However, Ans’ corpus of work comes closer than just about anything else to depicting the essence of ‘New Zealandness’ in the half century from the 1960s. Like a photo album, the numerous images she took serve as a usually candid reminder of ‘how we were’ and what New Zealand life was like in previous decades.

Q4: So many achievements but also so many barriers and difficulties. Her life was tough, do you think?

Ans’ life was extraordinarily tough, materially and psychologically. Most people faced with the combination of circumstances she endured might have persisted with professional photography for a few years. She overcame so many barriers, largely through the force of her personality and her absolute commitment to her art, and consequently produced a volume of work over a period that is unmatched in New Zealand history.

Q5: You describe an ability she had to seemingly ‘move on’ and put difficult things behind her. Was this just part of her drive and key to her success?

Ans faced a complex and broad range of challenges in her life. It seems to me that her tendency to put difficult things behind her and ‘move on’ was partly a coping mechanism. It also seems that photography was an activity she used to abstract at times herself from the difficulties of her day-to-day life.

Q6: Is there a photograph of hers that moves you above all others?

There is no single image of hers that moves me above others because she was not a photographer who was confined to a narrow subject matter or particular style. As I began working through her photographs, I did find one or two that really stood out for me, but then the next day, as I continued to go through collections of her images, there were new surprises, and this series of constant revelations continued throughout the time I was researching her work.

One of the startling things that occurs to those examining her body of work is that she was so accomplished in such a broad range of styles.

Having said this, some images do stick in my mind. One is from her book Maori. Like so many of her photographs, it seems straightforward at first sight: in this case, it is a scene of a teacher and a student in a classroom. However, as you spend more time looking at it, you can almost feel the cold, sterile atmosphere, with gleaming surfaces, stark light emanating from the windows, and the absence of any decorative features at all. The student stares directly at the camera, fingers interlocked in a tight clasp, and the face seemingly whittled into an image of uncertainty. But Ans does not stop here. The photograph contains a clever play on reflections. Firstly, the angle of the window frames draws viewers’ eyes to a vanishing point to the left of the picture. However, this is an illusion created by a mirror effect in the background of the image. And what is more, the beams of light contracting to that vanishing point are hemmed in above and below by the darker tones of the rest of the room, giving the effect of the light dying as it reaches its termination point. The theme of reflections and reality refract through the image. There are the actual reflections, but also the cultural ones. This extraordinary intricate image is actually typical of so many of Ans’ works.

Q7: That was an unfair question when surely there are so many. So, and another?

Another example from Maori revealing Ans’ mastery of composition is of a youth staring blankly out into a street on a rainy day. Instead of a photograph of the entire subject in profile, Ans positioned her shot in a way that made the back of the youth’s head, along with his shoulders, visible though a shop’s corner display window. This had the effect of obscuring partly the clarity of the outline of the youth, while simultaneously projecting reflections of the traffic and buildings on the window that his back faces onto. This virtuosic composition does not allow the viewer simply to take a quick glance before turning over the page. Instead, it demands contemplation. There is a theme in these images of the urban ‘Promised land’ of 1960s and 1970s New Zealand not quite delivering for Māori in the way that assimilationists of the era believed it would. Ans saw this at the time. In this particular photograph, the city-scape looks superficial and even life-depleting. It offers the youth no joy or optimism — just an awning to shelter from the drizzle. Above all, though, the viewer is drawn to the solemn stillness of the subject’s face, which conveys a sense of overpowering loneliness and concentrated gloom.

Q8: Will we still be looking at Ans Westra images in another hundred years and seeing our nation, seeing ourselves, there?

For most of us, the images Ans produced resonate with our own memories of New Zealand. In another hundred years from now, I think they will resonate in different ways — almost as part of a collective prosthetic national memory — not a memory based on direct experience, but one that has been appended to the culture, and helps prop it up.

Q9: She often mentioned that by the later stages of her career times had changed and that the innocence that surrounded her practice and her subjects had gone. One gets that. Would it be impossible now for anyone to do what Ans did?

There were a number of ingredients that went to make Ans’ works so successful. These include her determination to continue to work as a photographer in spite of all the obstacles in front of her, her highly-refined eye for composition, her ability to dissolve into the background when taking photographs of people so that they were usually unaware of her, and the fact that she was operating in what generally can be seen as a slightly more naive, less suspicious, and less fractious society. It's very difficult to imagine this combination of ingredients occurring again.

Q10: What do you hope readers will take from this biography?

An appreciation of how significant Ans’ body of work is, the way that work holds up a mirror to the essence of New Zealand society over several decades, and the extreme extent the artists have to go to in order to satiate the demands of their calling.