Anne Noble: Throwing New Light

Lauded as one of New Zealand’s finest contemporary photographers, Anne Noble interrogates our complex relationship with the natural world.

Words: Briony Downes

Photography: Russell Kleyn

The photographic series, created over years of pro- longed study and observation of a specific subject, has always been a mainstay for New Zealand-based photographer Anne Noble. Originally becoming involved with photography during her time as a student at Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s, Noble is known for producing exception- ally large bodies of work, particularly her focused collections documenting aspects of New Zealand’s Whanganui River, Antarctica, and the honey bee.

“I like the preoccupation of working slowly on projects for long periods of time,” Noble says. “I have just completed a whole series of works about bees. It began by chance in my own backyard – I keep bees. My love of beekeeping just found its way into my work as I observed bees and came to understand a little of the complexity of the hive as a living system.”

There is no doubt Noble is fond of bees and the natural world. At Sydney Contemporary 2017, Auckland gallery Two Rooms exhibited photographs from her 2015/2016 Dead Bee Portrait series. Devoid of definitive colour and seeped in shadow, the portraits deconstructed the romanticised image of bees by focusing on the tiny details and textures of their anatomy – spiky antenna, furry thorax, disembodied wings. Noble’s images carry both a majestic beauty and a brooding melancholy.

The process Noble undertakes to photograph these tiny subjects is meticulous and hauntingly reverent. Using a re- purposed electron microscope she learnt how to use in the laboratory of French physicist Dr Jean Pierre Martin, himself a keen beekeeper, the bees are first coated in a thin layer of gold. This allows the electron beam to trace and ‘photograph’ each bee, a process that accentuates elements standard photography does not. As a result, works like Dead Bee Portrait #11, 2015 possess a ghostly perspective. The bodies of the bees appear dusty and flightless with legs curled and void of movement, like antique specimens found in an attic; a chilling precursor to the precarious position bees currently hold within the natural world.

The Dead Bee Portrait series stems from Noble’s long-term interest in nature and how we perceive it. Before the bees, Noble produced the Antarctica series, a varied sequence of images analysing the distinctly masculine mythology of the uncharted landscape. One of these sequences was Piss Poles, 2008, a collection of images where Noble documented the locations of flagged areas visitors were permitted to urinate in the snow. A contrast to the grand yet common images of ice cliffs and emperor penguins we regularly associate with Antarctica, the circular rings of yellow pee connect the landscape to simpler realities – basic bodily functions, colour and light.

“My project was to problematize how it is we know and understand a place through the photographic image, and how much images of Antarctica are influenced by narratives of heroism and adventure,” Noble explains. “I took a feminist perspective to try and see the place differently. I didn’t want to heroicize Antarctica as the ‘last wilderness on earth’, I found it much more interesting to look at failures of human perception and cognition when encountering it, and to record the appearance of human action in and on the environment. I am always fascinated by how much we need images and metaphor to interrogate and communicate those deep feelings of connection to place.”

Since 2002, Noble has completed three visits
to Antarctica and continues to travel widely and
often. Much of her research into bees was nurtured
during a Fulbright Senior Scholar fellowship at Chicago’s Columbia College and throughout her
career she has been the recipient of numerous
awards for her photography. In 2003, she received
a New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to photography, in 2009 she was awarded an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award 2. and in 2015, she became the 31st recipient of the coveted Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Award. Noble is currently Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts (photography) at New Zealand’s Massey University.

Noble’s latest work remains focused on bees and she will be exhibiting a series of light filled photograms of broken wings alongside a suite of pristinely white three-dimensional printed bees in Umbra, her solo exhibition at Two Rooms. Her photographs are also part of the Melbourne Festival in An Unorthodox Flow of Images, an exhibition of still and moving images curated by Naomi Cass and Pippa Milne for the Centre For Contemporary Photography. Hinting at new directions, in early 2018 Noble will be an artist-in-residence with the Bundanon Trust where she plans to develop new work “reflecting on human and insect architecture.”

Freelance curator and writer Wellington

“I first became aware of Anne Noble’s work in the early 1980s. Two very different groups of work from this period initiated twin trajectories that have continued to this day. One was her Night Hawk series, with its tender and playful eroticism; the other her first photo essay on the Whanganui river (The Wanganui, 1980-82—a second essay followed in 1990-91). Noble has continued to work largely with the photo essay format, which allows her to research and explore a given subject in depth.

“I’m drawn time and again to the beauty of Noble’s images: the luminous simplicity of In the Presence of Angels (1988), the sensuous depth and shimmer of her Whanganui River images, the exquisite fragility of bees’ wings in her recent works. The personal nature of much of her work also engages us—be it through her Catholic upbringing, the elegiac images responding to the death of her sister Debbie, or the large-format close-ups of her daughter Ruby’s mouth taped shut, spewing gum or stained with luridly- coloured sweets.

“Concern for the natural environment has informed Noble’s work from the start. Since 2002 she has focused her camera on Antarctica, that vast wilderness whose susceptibility to human activity has potentially devastating implications for our planet. Most recently she has turned her attention to another worldwide issue, the decline of the European honeybee.

“Aspects of Noble’s work are in the traditions of documentary and landscape photography. Yet, even here, she brings a very particular intimacy to the work. In My Father’s Garden (2001), a profoundly moving response to the death of her father, takes the documentary photo essay to a place few would dare to venture, and makes it intensely personal. Her series Ice Blink (2002- 8) juxtaposes images taken in Antarctica with photographs of Antarctic museum displays in a deliberate challenge to the way we visualise, imagine and represent a place most of us will never see.” – Paris Lettau


 Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland

Two Rooms Gallery began representing Anne Noble in 2004, when she produced her Ruby’s Room series. Jenny Todd describes initially being drawn to Noble’s methodological approach to photography and distinct photographic aesthetic. “She fully immersed herself in researching and literally living alongside her subjects”, Todd says, while also producing a “formal portrait study with a strangely visceral dreamlike narrative, utilising amplified colours and surfaces that gave the works an abstract quality.”

Todd notes that Noble’s current exhibition, Umbra, currently on display at Two Rooms Gallery, “was initiated by Anne’s passion for beekeeping and explores the plight of the honeybee and its significance in our ecosystem.” As part of the project, Noble worked alongside academics and scientists in Chicago to produce The Bee Photogram Series and the Dead Bee Portraits, which Todd describes as a “thorough investigation into the potential loss of bee colonies worldwide; a haunting and poetic homage to the honeybee.”

Two Rooms Gallery has a reputation for working with the most significant New Zealand photographers. For Todd, Noble’s practice is at the forefront of this. “She is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed photographers and photography academics, and has been the recipient of many international awards and fellowships.”
While a doyen amongst photographers, Noble’s work also has a wide appeal with international collectors and public institutions. Todd believes this is because Noble’s exceptional photographic talent is combined with an ability “to develop narratives that resonate with both curators and collectors. By being so immersed in her subjects and presenting such a level of research, she draws in the viewer and shares these stories, while being able to partake in a broader debate that she presents around our planet’s biological systems and environmental issues.” – Paris Lettau

Anne Noble’s exhibition, Umbra, will be held at Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland until 21 October 2017.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 82, OCT-DEC, 2017.


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