In his current show at Snaps Gallery, Bruce Foster has played and won with a 'no trumps' hand. The exhibition is an eclectic display of style and mastery of craft. Foster has virtually presented us with a group show, showing as it were the work of a number of photographers who have a sympathetic relationship with each other, and who apparently have mastered a number of different levels of the craft and the styles of photography.
There was an almost bewildering display of work: good examples of the best of black-and-white and colour photojournalism; black-and-white photography that is sympathetic with the current vogue of obscured vision (where the photograph conveys an impression rather than an explicit content); and colour work that matches the best that America, or anywhere else, can offer.
The black-and-white photo-journalist area was perhaps the least engaging. In the first photograph of the show - a light-streaked image of a Bastion Point protester being escorted away by police - the light smears and sprocket-hole edges were a too symbolic interpretation of the reality. Other prints in this area included a flash-photo of a dancing couple; a child peering out from the back of a car; and a man entering a country tea-rooms: all showing us that the photographer has a sharp eye and good camera-trigger co-ordination.
Watchmaker, Auckland, 1978
There seemed to be little to link this area with the other black and-white work, where observed people appeared from outside the frame of the photograph: the sunbathers leaning back, eyes dosed, senses veiled; or the monumental figure of a woman seen from behind, standing on a beach - all oblivious of the photographer who causes people to appear as a bleak and emotionally uninvolved group of images.
With the first set of colour work in the show, we viewed landscapes and interiors where the composition provided by the landscape itself is broken up by people - people who lean across and break up the symmetry of a red and green mini-golf-course, who offer contrapuntal shapes to that of a petrol bowser, or sit and stand dispassionately in a pool-hall, a pub and a tea-rooms. But they do not engage us with that subtle coup d'oeil of 'the decisive moment'.
Standing outside of these is a strange surrealist statement, Watchmaker, Auckland, 1978, where isolated forms, easily read as a man with a beard and hat, a clock, a sun-dial and a sign reading 'closed' float out of an enclosing field of black shadow. It is an enigmatic image that stands by itself and with its haunting quality leaves one wishing for more.
At various points in the show we are offered some images which are so private that we, as the outside spectators, are not engaged at all: photographs of a daughter; various friends and relationships from a private world that we are not allowed to enter.
In a composite, twelve-photograph image of buildings on an industrial estate in Wanganui, and a beautiful ethereal seascape, where the viewer is at once drawn out over the water and at the same time almost pushed back with the feeling of light flowing from a cloud formation, reinforced in the negative by the black-and-white markings of a parking-lot underneath, we are faced with the quandary presented by Foster's work. And it is this question that is exposed in the last sets of photographs.
These are in colour and move from a set of very austere and beautiful wall-scapes, through a group of three contemporary urban landscapes, to a most moving group of five seascapes, Seaviews I-IV. From the first sequence, one image in particular, Palm, is initially engaging in that it appears almost monochromatic: and yet gradually a very subtle blueness from a group of windows seems almost magically to seep out of the surrounding grey-green of the wall behind the palm-trunk.
Finally, though, it is the Seaviews that carry us away from some of the puzzles provoked by the patchiness of the main body of work. Here, the vision, the craft of the photographer, the analytical nature of the seeing and the power to witness and make a beautiful scene out of minimal content, come together. This is reinforced by the use of a square format that manages at once to tighten and deepen the space contained within the frame. The precision and control that Foster has invoked to separate every subtle shift in colour, from wave-edge, through deepening sea, horizon-line, sky, and cloud formations, put this set of images apart from others in the show. They stand at what I would hope to be a point of resolution in his work.
Obviously Foster can work as well as a number of photographers in a wide variety of areas. Accepting that this show is of only one year's work by a photographer about to come into his own, it is evident that in the Seaviews series his vision and his craft have merged to a point of synthesis, and he has opened up a vast area from which to draw further work.