Max Oettli’s Historic Photographic Storytelling
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Tāmaki Makaurau was a city undergoing massive change. In 1966 the Auckland Airport was officially opened and the city became home to 19% of the Māori population as migration to urban centres peaked. Protests against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War were held in Albert Park (1969), and in front of Town Hall (1971). The Harbour Bridge expanded to have four whole lanes in ‘68 and ‘69; and beloved Hector, the Hobson Street Farmers Cockatoo, died in 1977.
During this period, photographer Max Oettli was often wandering the streets of Auckland’s urban centre at night, clutching his 35mm film camera. In Visible Evidence, Photographs 1965-1975, he captures this time in the city, as it swelled and changed. This practice might seem familiar to us now, as we stumble around Karangahape Road taking blurry snaps on phones, or digital/film cameras, but back then, Oettli’s use of the camera wasn’t widespread.
By documenting his everyday life, and not focusing on landscape or portraits or any other subject specifically, Oettli blurred the lines between public and private. He created a unique visual diary that captured both wider urban history and intimate, personal moments.
In terms of that wider Tāmaki history, Visible Evidence has a few photographs that capture protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. ‘Māori Family at New Zealand Soldiers Return from Vietnam’, taken in 1973, is particularly striking. The woman in the centre frame stares intensely down the barrel of the camera, as others in the frame look urgently into the distance. Oettli was out protesting against the war when he took this photo and says that it was a “tense situation where I did nothing to ease the tension, with a family presumably watching a relative march by as part of the returned New Zealand contingent in the Vietnam War.” It’s an image that’s uncomfortable to look at, and amplifies the complications and tensions of the time—as well as Oettli’s place in it.
‘Troops return (2)’ captures a younger boy throwing his hand up in the air at the same event, with two women standing behind him looking distressed. It’s unclear exactly what the boy is calling out for, or signalling with his movement, but, shot in a low angle, he looks strong and immovable against the solid building in the background.
‘Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration (1)’ captures a similar event from the year before. Oettli presumably stands within the crowd he captures, and the frame is crammed with the faces of protestors showing mixed emotions. However, the man standing centre is stoic, and this mood radiates strongly from the image.
A more abstract history of the city also starts to come together in the collection. Oettli has wandered to find quiet, nighttime locations of Auckland’s infrastructure, capturing high school rugby sheds, a timber mill, the Tip Top bread factory that was once in Kingsland, and a brightly lit, yet empty, Freeman’s Bay. One of the most recognisable shots for students might be ‘Night Out, 5am Grafton’, as Oettli snaps a photo from the Wellesley Street bridge. The lights flare and the image gives the impression of motion, and it’s likely that the feeling of lightness and disorientation is one felt by many driving under Symonds St.
The absence of people in these shots, and the darkness of the frames, encourages you to lean in a little closer, and examine the infrastructure that may or may not still exist. It makes for an intriguing portrait of Auckland City, both familiar and alien.
The other stand out pieces from the exhibition tend to capture quieter, more intimate moments on the streets. ‘Silver Star (2)’ is a striking example, as the camera quietly observes a man standing on a train platform, bidding a goodbye to a woman who looks out the window of the carriage as it pulls away. It’s mysterious, romantic, and almost feels intrusive on their dramatic farewell.
‘Bus Queue, After 10pm’ is another quiet, yet exciting moment. Oettli frames a queue for the bus from behind, so that the passengers’ faces are obscured. There’s one couple in the queue cuddling, perhaps on their way home from a date or K’Rd boogie, and they contrast all the other singles standing in line. It’s tender and funny, and, again, dramatic.
Often, Oettli shoots through glass—like that train window in ‘Silver Star (2)’. He captures people through the windows of cafés, fish shops, retail stores, even the glass of a museum case. In his observational approach, it’s like he’s window shopping, watching human behaviour as if he’s a permanent visitor to a large zoo. The quietness with which he takes some of these images is liberating, giving the viewer a sense of curiosity, allowing us to view the city through his eyes.
These observational frames, and immersive shots give us a peek into a time and place from a unique perspective. While Oettli captures a period that feels very far away—with the long gone parts of Auckland and the unassuming subjects donning wide 70s ties and handlebar moustaches—the observational, personal, and wandering gaze of his camera feels familiar.
Now, with people constantly documenting their own lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, plenty of personal and public histories are being recorded. Max Oettli’s work is exciting, 50 years on, because it shows us how to amplify these special moments constantly happening around us.
Max Oettli: Visible Evidence, Photographs 1965–1975 will be on display at the Auckland Art Gallery until 18 September.