Obituary: JOHN FIELDS

February 8th, 2013

John B. Turner: John Fields, Tony's Restaurant, Wellesley Street, Auckland, 27 May 2009.

John B. Turner: John Fields, Tony’s Restaurant, Wellesley Street, Auckland, 27 May 2009.

JOHN FIELDS (1938-2013)

It is with a real sense of loss that we note the death of John Fields on Monday 4 February, 2013, at his home in Guyra, NSW, Australia. A major influence on post World War II photography in New Zealand, John was an inspiring founding member and one time President of PhotoForum Inc. He wrote distinctive technical reports for PhotoForum magazine in the mid-1970s as well as contributing his own photographs, before he left for Australia in 1976. John’s presence and his lively (hand-written) correspondence will be missed by many friends, but his legacy as an exemplary and influential photographer will continue.
Our condolences go to John’s wife, Patricia, and their daughters Kerry and Helvi and their families.
-John B. Turner, Beijing, 7 February 2013

We attach below John Turner’s 2008 tribute to John Fields and his legacy from our PhotoForum blog of 11 November 2008.

Here also are links to further tributes, PhotoForum has been asked to share:
Harvey Benge
Ron Brownson (Senior Curator New Zealand and Pacific art, Auckland Art Gallery)
Peter Ireland


John Fields. Forty Years Ago Today: selected vintage photographs.
PhotoForum November 11th, 2008

Photospace Gallery, Wellington, in association with Galerie Langman. 12 November to 2 December 2008. Opening: Tuesday 11th November, 5.30 pm.

A selection of 38 vintage prints by John Fields, the US-born, Australia-domiciled photographer who worked in New Zealand from 1966 to 1976 is now showing at Wellington’s Photospace Gallery. Fields will attend the opening.

John Fields: Chimneys, Onehunga, 1968.

John Fields, now 70, did much to raise the standards of New Zealand photography during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Excited by guns, hunting and the sea as a youth, Fields, who was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, joined the US Navy on his 17th birthday. It was while he was on duty in the Pacific and Far East that he became an avid photographer. He subsequently attended a course in colour photography at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a freelance photographer and studied expeditionary filmmaking at Harvard with Robert Gardener. In 1965 he became a photographer at Massachusetts General Hospital, working under Dr Stanley Bullivant, a noted English cell biologist. When Bullivant transferred to the University of Auckland in 1966, Fields accepted the opportunity to join him.

Used to working in both commercial and personal photography (he had his first one-man exhibition in 1966, and was used to visiting photography galleries in the U.S.), Fields noted that he felt that he had arrived in a “cultural vacuum” in New Zealand, where so little seemed to be happening in the art and photography scene. He was forced to reconsider his U.S. photography experience and clarify for himself the fundamental differences between personal and commercial (or professional) photography, and the photograph as a document, or as a work of art. Coincidentally, at the time, these were issues confronting local photographers such as Gary Blackman, John Johns, Ans Westra, Gary Baigent, Richard Collins, Marti Friedlander, John Daley, Max Oettli and John B. Turner, for example, who were also seeking outlets for their personal work.

As well as working full time at the University of Auckland’s medical school, Fields’ explored New Zealand with his cameras. He was a prolific photographer by New Zealand standards and his exemplary 35 mm technique set him apart from most New Zealanders who discovered how much they had to catch up. Inspired by his discovery of Walker Evans’ classic American Photographs in 1969, and especially Lincoln Kerstein’s seminal essay in that book, he had his old 5×7 inch view camera, previously used for commercial colour photography, shipped to Auckland. Large format view cameras were a rarity in New Zealand outside of some commercial studios, and so it was by Field’s example and generosity that Laurence Aberhart and Richard Collins, among others, had their introduction to a classic view camera approach. Not content with contact printing alone, Fields also made enlargements from his early 5×7 inch negatives. Later he acquired an 8 x 10 inch camera for views and interiors, while continuing his 35 mm work.

Impatient to improve the local photographic scene in Auckland, John Fields organised the collaborative group publication of Photography – A Visual Dialect: 10 Contemporary New Zealand Photographers in 1970. It included, for the record, three works each by Gary Baigent, Simon Buis, Richard Collins, John Fields, Ken Foster, Alan Leatherby, Roy Long, Mac Miller, Max Oettli and John B. Turner. For July 1972 he organised an invitational exhibition to be shown at Auckland’s prestigious Barry Lett Gallery, which included Gary Baigent, Simon Buis, Richard Collins, Mac Miller, Do Van Toan, John B. Turner, Ans Westra, and Fields himself.

In 1973 his collaboration with the architectural historian John Stacpoole, Victorian Auckland, was published to acclaim. That year 25 of his photographs were also included in the Auckland City Art Gallery’s exhibition and catalogue, Baigent Collins Fields: Three New Zealand Photographers.

John Fields was an influential teacher at the University of Auckland’s Elam summer photography workshops. He was also a major figure behind the founding of PhotoForum Inc in 1973, and contributed photographs and technical reports for PhotoForum magazine.

Fields was the recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant for photography in 1975, to enable him to do an extensive documentation of the goldfield town of Thames, on the Coromandel Peninsula. Well into the project, for which he contributed much of his own savings, he was frustrated to find that the New Zealand Department of Inland Revenue would not budge in its insistence that his photography was a mere “hobby,” and therefore not eligible for the kind of tax concessions U.S. photographers received.    Consequently, with his wife Patricia and their young daughters, Kerry and Helvi, Fields upped and left for Australia in 1976.

In Sydney, New South Wales, he first taught workshops at the Australian Centre for Photography, then became Chief Photographer at the Australian Museum, Sydney. His work is in the notable publication, Minerals of Broken Hill (1982) and he made the prints from the original glass negatives for the book Frank Hurley in Papua: photographs of the 1920-23 expeditions (1984), for which he  collaborated with Dr. Jim Specht who researched and wrote the text.

Fields moved to Armidale, NSW, in 1987 to become Photographer-in-Charge at the Media Resources Unit of the University of New England. For five years prior to his retirement in January, 1998, he was the Liaison Officer with the University’s Publicity Unit. Since retirement, among other things, he has taken up painting. He now lives in the rural town of Guyra, N.S.W.

John Fields can be seen as both a realist and a romantic. His early work weaves between the picturesque on one hand and classic modernism of the kind associated with Edward Weston and Walker Evans on the other. In his hands metaphor can be used for aesthetic, lyrical purposes, but is just as likely to be used to drive home an ironic social critique, especially in regard to conservation of the land and man’s increasing alienation from nature. That his work is of a superior technical standard is an added bonus.
-John B. Turner.

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One Response to “Obituary: JOHN FIELDS”

  1. Louise Lonsdale-Cooper Says:

    I was sad to learn of John’s death. I have a signed copy of the book Victorian Auckland which he produced along with John Stacpoole. I remember John coming to Thames to do some research in 1977 when I was teaching art at the High school there. I was asked if I could put him up for a few days at my little rented cottage in Pollen Street. We had some lovely evening talks over dinner and I will always remember those few days as a special time in my life. We met again many years later at a gallery opening in Auckland and it was nice that he remembered his stay with me. His book is even more dear to me now.

    Louise Lonsdale-Cooper

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