About a decade and a half ago, after 30 years as a photographer of people for the New Zealand Listener, photographer Jane Ussher developed a new focus for her practice. She had just left the magazine, which she had joined as staff photographer in 1977, straight out of the photography course at Wellington Polytechnic, when she had a chance meeting with Helen Clark. The then prime minister had recently been in Antarctica and had fallen under the spell of the South Pole. “She talked about going into [explorer] Robert Falcon Scott’s hut, and got very choked up about it,” Ussher recalls.
The photographer seized the moment. “I think you need to send me down there immediately,” Ussher told Clark. Eighteen months later, over the summer of 2008-09, Ussher was in Antarctica, taking photographs of the huts built by Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their early 20th-century polar expeditions.
For Ussher, the experience was transformative. “I knew that I had a body of work which was so much more than a documentation of the huts,” she says. “Once I got back to New Zealand, I had the confidence to go and start shooting interiors, and I knew how I wanted to photograph them.” She determined to treat the photography of interiors — rooms, really — as she had treated the photography of people. That is, as portraiture, but expressed not explicitly, as personal representation, but suggestively, as personalised space.
Since Ussher’s initial essay in still life – she used the term, evocative of the paintings of interiors and objects consumed by the Dutch Golden Age bourgeoisie, as the title of an exhibition and book of her Antarctic photography – she has gone on to shoot scores of spaces around Aotearoa New Zealand. She has found her subject matter in a wide variety of residential settings — big and small homes, heritage houses, converted churches and apartments.
Ussher has selected some images from her archive in publishing her latest book, Rooms, but most of the photographs are the result of recent shoots. What unites the disparate interiors she portrays is the effort that has been expended in creating domestic environments that express the sensibility of their inhabitants.
Of course, another sensibility is also realised in Ussher’s images of interiors: that of the photographer herself. Ussher’s enthusiasm for photographing interior spaces became entwined – it was a natural enough progression – with her interest in the practice of collecting. She explored museological aspects of the phenomenon in three books published in 2020: House of Treasures: 150 Objects from Canterbury Museum Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho; Nature — Stilled, which portrayed specimens from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s natural history collections; and Endless Sea, which presented objects held by the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui te Ananui a Tangaroa in Auckland.
Now, in Rooms, Ussher turns her attention to the domestic realm. Her room portraits are evidence both of her fascination with the urge to collect objects and curate their display, and her masterly framing of the “thing worlds” that result from this urge, a passion that is a close cousin to compulsion.
Rooms: Portraits of Remarkable New Zealand Interiors
Jane Ussher and John Walsh, Massey University Press, $85.