Singular vision: New film spotlights queer New Zealand photographer who broke the mould

Whether documenting the crackling raw energy of Auckland’s fledgling punk rock scene in the 1970s or the hedonistic glamour of Karangahape Road’s queer culture, renowned New Zealand photographer Fiona Clark’s vibrant photos evocatively capture people and personalities in subcultures many people wouldn’t even know existed.

Seen as too confronting and radical by the New Zealand art world in the 1970s, Clark’s work was met with resistance from major art dealers who told her “we’re not handling your work”, and some of her images mysteriously disappeared from the Auckland art gallery. But Clark has never let this distract her from her singular vision.

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland filmmaker Lula Cucchiara was fascinated by Clark’s exquisitely produced photo book, Living with Aids, which documents the devastating and quiet journey of four of her friends, and wondered: “Why is Fiona not famous for her images? Why is it that not many people know about her photos?” She decided to make a documentary examining Clark’s remarkable life and work and the result, Fiona Clark: Unafraid, screens as part of this year’s Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival.

Behind the scenes of Fiona Clark: Unafraid
Behind the scenes of Unafraid. Filmmaker Lula Cucchiara became interested in the work of Fiona Clark (right) when she saw her book Living with Aids.
Shiela at Mojos nightclub, Auckland, New Zealand. 1975
Shiela at Mojos nightclub in Auckland, 1975. Fiona Clark’s early work was rejected by major art dealers, who regarded it as too radical. Photograph: Fiona Clark

Using photography to capture her friends and community in ravishing colour, Clark’s images capture Auckland’s burgeoning gay liberation movement and the dynamic queer, homosexual and transgender scene. The common thread in her work is the documentation of hidden cultures. There’s a strong sense, though, that instead of photographing her subjects from a distance, she is documenting from the inside. Clark has maintained close friendships with her subjects decades after photographing them, and in Unafraid, some of them affirm what an ally she was during a time of hostility, when men were still being arrested for being homosexual.

Born in 1954, Clark grew up in a farming family in the small rural Taranaki town of Inglewood. She says her time there taught her about survival as a young woman. “It was very violent. We had two murders at high school when I was there. It’s not a nice place.

A young Fiona Clark
Fiona Clark photographed at Elam School of Fine Arts in 1972. She grew up in a small farming family in rural Taranaki, New Zealand.

“But it did teach me about survival. I learned to run pretty fast!”

At Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 1970s, Clark found that colour photography was frowned upon and associated with commercial studio and wedding photography, not contemporary art. “But I didn’t see the world in black and white. We were flaming creatures who needed to be seen in colour,” she says.

“Showing a colour image in 1975, people were outraged and they thought they were garish.”

Clark learned to develop her own colour film after friends who had summer jobs at Kodak informed her that in a form of censorship, the company covertly destroyed any images they saw as subversive. “We knew that if we sent off colour film [to be developed] it would be very rare to get it back.”

A young bodybuilder
Fiona Clark documented New Zealand’s burgeoning bodybuilding community. Photograph: Fiona Clark
Perry and Diana at Miss NZ Drag Queen Ball, 1975.
Perry and Diana at Miss NZ Drag Queen Ball, 1975. Clark’s early work documented Auckland’s queer community and the 1970s punk rock scene. Photograph: Fiona Clark

In 1977, when Clarke was 23, she was involved in a horrific motor vehicle accident. All the bones in her face were shattered and her jaw was broken. In Unafraid, a friend bluntly describes the facial impact as being “like a teaspoon hitting an egg”. One of Clark’s eyes was fully inverted and she required bypass work on her arteries and brain.

“I don’t underestimate that. I’m lucky to be alive,” she says. “When people at the hospital spend that much time looking after you and you realise the amount of resources that are used to keep you alive, it’s extraordinary.”

Bianca at Miss NZ Drag Queen Ball, 1975.
Bianca at Miss NZ Drag Queen Ball, 1975. Clark has maintained close friendships with the people she has photographed over the decades. Photograph: Fiona Clark

But in her staunch manner, it wasn’t unusual for Clark to catch the train immediately after treatment in the plastic surgery unit at Middlemore hospital to take photos capturing the nervous energy of legendary central Auckland nightclub Zwines, the heady hotbed of Auckland’s punk scene, where groups like the Idle Idols (fronted by fellow Elam student and Clark’s friend Paul Gibbs) played.

Since 1975, Clark has lived in a former dairy factory in the small Taranaki town of Tikorangi.

Inviting the viewer into her home in Unafraid, we see Clark surrounded by boxes and piles of ephemera and archival material that must have been a goldmine for Cucchiara as a documentary filmmaker. While she says the documentary took her only eight days to film, editing it took two-and-a-half years. She was meticulous about finding the right images and footage, right down to making sure the colours were right. Cucchiara navigates the perfect balance between showing Clark’s images, home and personality in a way that is unobtrusive but still gives an intimate sense of the woman behind the work.

A cabinet of cameras
Clark has lived in a former dairy factory in Taranaki, New Zealand, since 1975.

Cucchiara says she was wary of the film being too “archival”. “I just wanted to make it very earnest. It’s about showing a part of New Zealand history that has been erased.”

Clark says the only thing frustrating her is the increasingly failing sight in her one good eye, in which she developed a macular hole five years ago. Despite that, she has never stopped taking photographs.

“It sort of changes your depth of field, you don’t have straight lines any more. But it doesn’t matter, I know they’re there. It just means I see slightly differently now.”

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