Kuldeep Kaur, Punjab India, Grape Pruner, 2019 by Richard Brimer

Harvest – Richard Brimer

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Exhibition of photographs, floor talk and book launch / 
Hastings City Art Gallery / 
16 Nov 2019 - 1 March 2020 / 
By Anna Soutar

Richard Brimer is a child of Hawke’s Bay. He was born here, grew up here and found an occupation which in turn complemented his homeland. His eye and the various boxes in his hands have captured people here in all seasons, all weathers, every time of day. He does take photographs in other parts of the world, make no mistake: Philippines, South America, Brisbane, Vanuatu, Waiheke Island even! But one has the feeling he is looking with the eye of that Hawke’s Bay boy. And the Hawke’s Bay folk are very fond of him.

Several of the dozens of people who surge into the gallery for the book launch and the many who attend his floor talk the next morning will have been in his photographs. It is a very personal occasion. Not evident are the very people who feature in this book being launched – their work is done and they have left, for it marks the seasonal employment of workers from many Pacific countries who come to Hawke’s Bay to harvest the fruit this place is known for.

A speaker during the opening evokes the idea of a wave of people coming from across the Pacific, with Richard Brimer being the board rider coming to the beach ahead of the swell. In the opening korero to formally acknowledge Brimer there is a slight distraction when a call comes for the establishment of some event to mark this time of harvest gathering, a time which brings a harvest of people along with the grapes and fruit, and right on cue, our new CEO Nigel Bickle announces there would be a public festival on Easter Monday 2020 to mark the harvest.

If this is how the newly minted Hastings District Council is going to carry out the public face of its operations, we are being shown a fine brand of leadership which is inclusive, culturally confident, participatory. Crowds piled in to the Gallery entrance, greeting each other amid laughter and cross talk. We all knew each other and we were pleased to be there. A CEO confidant with his reo ready to engage with individuals in the support team. The formal details of the mihi rolled along, each element carried out firmly and without any awkward false embarrassment of an earlier time. It followed loosely a model from te ao Maori, but in a way that is becoming a particularly local form.

It is foremost, a book launch and an exhibition of the pictures of the people who in gangs and groups arrive from the Pacific, or interrupt their back packing journey, or travel here from the subcontinent of India. Along with the subject of his work it is a public acknowledgement of a job of work.

He makes an acknowledgement of earlier masters: Robin Morrison, and Brian Brake. To them I would add Marti Friedlander and Ans Westra as skilled at depicting people doing what they do rather than placed posed in a studio or more formal setting. If our times are remembered in the future it will be because of these pictures, the look in these eyes. As Richard Brimer said at the floor talk, “The eyes tell a story. They glow”.

Over the years his photographs have changed. There is less of the context of their lives in these portraits than there was in Other Lives for instance, 1991, all monochrome, a work of reportage, or Any Old Iron the collection of corrugated iron hillside roadside pieces a sense of humour barely hidden, chuckles on the roadside.

This event, book and launch was brought into being by the wine makers of Gimblett Gravels, which employs some of the 5000 short-term employed who arrive in the Bay, work hard – very hard – in order to return to their home countries better off bringing first world benefits.

All is not gushing endorsements, my neighbour in the floor talk muttering about ‘they treat them like slaves’, when Brimer talks of them taking many thousands of dollars to build churches in their villages in their faraway island homes

The tangible elements that mark the gathering of a harvest provide punctuation marks in this suite of portraits of the workers. A thermette, that universal gadget to signal a brief stop for a cuppa, a load of apples captured across the top of a crate-load like a rolling landscape.

Occasionally, almost as a cutaway or reminder of more simple times, there is a black and white image. It is made more dramatic by being held back  – the portrait of Clinton Nicholson is one such, his eyes squinting in the sun, his a face of character-filled lines and the furrowed and folded geology of the land he tends. Whereas once upon a time black and white was the only alternative, now it’s a daring choice for a sophisticated result. Monochrome removes the distraction of colour from the photograph. The sharp contrast means the face becomes a study in textures.

Caught in a moment of time is a senior Sikh with the small pickers’ scissors in his hand while behind him stretches a long line of trees still to attend to. He greets the camera with the wisdom of patience. In vigorous contrast, arms flung out, Bailene Maruaao hails the camera in a friendly shout.

Brimer is measured, courteous, in his approach. He explains his process, asking the property owner first, he waits until smoko is over, he does not take too much time (time is those precious dollars).He respects the cultural implications of each shot.  At a technical question from the floor, he taps his wide forehead – it’s all in here!

He finds power through a depth of field: the subject caught sharply and the background blurred, the result providing a blurred carpet of leaves stretching in wait for the picker/ packer/ pruner. This is the signature shot of this exhibition and seems to mark a decisive moment in Brimer’s development.

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