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A room of one’s own

Ancient New Zealand Auditor Photographer Jane Ussher has spent the past 13 years photographing interiors.

More than the houses themselves, Ussher is fascinated by the human urge to collect and preserve the objects found there. “Put me in a room…and I don’t see the architecture,” she says. “I’ll be lured into the corner with a bunch of stuff.”

About a decade and a half ago, after 30 years as a people photographer for the New Zealand Listener, Jane Ussher developed a new direction for her practice. She had just left the magazine, which she had joined as a staff photographer in 1977, straight out of photography class at Wellington Polytechnic, when she had the chance to meet Helen Clark.

The then prime minister had recently visited Antarctica and fell in love with the South Pole.

“She talked about going into Robert Falcon Scott’s hut, and she choked up a lot about it,” Ussher recalled.

The photographer captured the moment. “I think you need to send me there immediately,” Ussher told Clark. Eighteen months later, in the summer of 2008-2009, Ussher was in Antarctica, taking photos of the cabins built by Scott and Ernest Shackleton during their early 20th century polar expeditions.

For Ussher, the experience was transformative. “I knew I had a job that was much more than documentation of the cabins,” she says. “Once back in New Zealand, I had the confidence to start shooting interiors, and I knew how I wanted to shoot them.”

She decided to treat photography of interiors as she had treated photography of people. That is to say as a portrait, but expressed not explicitly, as a personal representation, but suggestively, as a personalized space.

The hundreds of people photographed by Ussher, over several decades, may have been surprised to learn that any discomfort they felt was shared by their photographer.

“I would walk into a portrait session with tremendous anxiety,” Ussher says. “There are so many things I can’t control.”

This is one of the reasons photographing the interiors of historic Antarctic huts has been such a liberating experience. With the people – the moving parts – out of the picture, the stress of a shoot eased and Ussher could really take his time. “I spend hours behind the camera in a room,” she says. “And when I say hours, I mean hours.”

There were also craft reasons behind Ussher’s career change. Photographing interiors, she says, “plays to my strengths and my camera strengths.”

The pieces, with their straight lines and right angles, suit Ussher’s discipline of composition. “I like things that are square and I like to dig tunnels,” she says. “It’s almost like I have blinders on.”

Using a large-format megapixel digital camera, mounted on a tripod and set to an exposure of two to three seconds, allows him to focus on “the details, and the details in the details” that grab his attention when she walks into a room.

A figure appearing in plan at this level of exposure would be a hazy, transgressive presence among the objects, fixtures, and furnishings that make up what Ussher calls the “tapestry” of his chamber portraits.

Since Ussher’s first essay on still life, she has gone on to photograph dozens of interior spaces around Aotearoa in New Zealand. She found her subject matter in a wide variety of residential settings – large and small homes, heritage homes, churches and converted apartments. What unites the disparate interiors she depicts is the effort that has been made to create domestic environments that express the sensibility of their inhabitants.

Of course, another sensibility is also realized in Ussher’s images of interiors: that of the photographer herself. Ussher’s enthusiasm for photographing interior spaces intertwined with his interest in the practice of collecting.

Ussher captures pieces at some point but, as she notes, these are changing environments. Collection and conservation are processes that do not stop.

There is a restless aspect to the management of cultured interiors; the collections are invariably enriched and their presentation is frequently adjusted. This flow warrants creative photographic license. Ussher doesn’t bring items to dress a room, but she will move things around — with permission, she points out — if she thinks a little relocation will improve a shot. There is a beautiful irony in the thought of a photographer so resistant to image interference moving furniture from the positions to which it was assigned with millimeter precision.

Ussher is impressed with the prevalence and depth of the collecting impulse.

“I think New Zealand is full of individuals who are going off on a tangent and filling their homes with amazing things,” she says. “Once they get interested in something, they can’t help it. And, of course, I love it. I was brought up in a Presbyterian in Dunedin, and in all the homes where I lived, the rooms were painted white.”

Maybe you have to be minimalist to fully appreciate maximalism: “When I walk into these rooms, I fall completely in love with them,” she says. “I don’t need to collect. I can just enjoy it in other people’s homes.”

Ussher moves away from the suggestion that his photography should be defined and capitalized as “Art”. She has the reluctance of the professional photographer to interfere in artistic territory or to assume the status of artist.

Ussher composes images. She does not manipulate them; it makes no abstraction, hyperrealism or ironic homage. His interior portraits invite speculative interpretation, but are not overtly provocative; it does not seek to shock or disturb. Her ambition is simpler and she is not afraid to appear ingenuous to affirm it: “I have a passion for creating images that I find beautiful.

The book: This is an edited excerpt from Bedrooms: portraits of remarkable New Zealand interiors by Jane Ussher and John Walsh (Massey University Press, $85).