About a decade and a half ago, after 30 years photographing people for the New Zealand Listener, Jane Ussher left the magazine and developed a new focus.
It started with 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 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.”
The dining room of this villa in Grey Lynn, Auckland, features ginger jars and a Burmese puppet head collected by the owners.She was 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 inside spaces around Aotearoa New Zealand.
This apartment in central Auckland is full of artwork collected over many decades, including pieces by Bill Culbert, Darryn George, John Reynolds and Don Driver.
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 this book, but most of the photographs are the result of recent shoots.
What unites the interiors she portrays is the effort that has been put into creating domestic environments that express the lives of their inhabitants.
Of course, another sensibility is realised in Ussher’s images of interiors: that of the photographer herself.
Her enthusiasm for photographing interior spaces became entwined with her interest in the practice of collecting – it was a natural enough progression.
She explored museums 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.
This 1913 Mount Victoria villa in Wellington was extensively renovated by architect Chris Kelly, who gave its interior a suggestion of Japanese architecture. The painting in the bedroom is by Catherine Clayton-Smith.
Now, in this book, 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.
This turn-of-the-century square-fronted Grey Lynn villa in Auckland – extended some years ago by architect Malcolm Walker – features the work of its artist owner.
Extracted from Rooms: Portraits of remarkable New Zealand interiors, by Jane Ussher & John Walsh, Massey University Press ($85 RRP). https://www.masseypress.ac.nz/books/rooms/