On the cusp: Gary Baigent’s Auckland as seen in the 1960s

Gary Baigent’s 1960s street photography captures the dawn of Auckland’s counter-culture.

In the early 1960s, Auckland’s population was still under half a million, but the city was changing fast. Christchurch art student Gary Baigent had driven his old G3 Matchless motorbike to Auckland to train as a teacher and start a new life. “Auckland was different, tropical, with mosquitos and the sound of shunted railway wagons clanging through the warm night air,” he wrote in an essay in Metro magazine in the mid-1980s. He moved into an old Mount Eden villa with friends. “People arrived and departed at all hours wearing t-shirts and jeans on rattling machinery while Bob Dylan’s voice filled the area with sound, over systems turned to high volume.”

He soon dropped out of teaching and worked as a wharfie and labourer with a bunch of other writers and artists. In his spare time, he roamed the city with his camera, sometimes taking photographs from the passenger seat of a friend’s car. They’d often drop into the Kiwi Tavern for conversation and cold beers afterwards. “The Auckland I knew was a large number of houses spread about Grafton, Parnell, Mount Eden and Ponsonby, all filled with students, artists, pseudo-intellectuals, layabouts and bums, both bohemian and hobohemian,” he wrote. He shot pictures quickly, sometimes mid-stride and with fast shutter speeds, looking for “the magic of the natural moment.”

These photographs were collected in the 1967 book The Unseen City. Now many of them have been republished by fine art publishers Baker+Douglas in an online photobook. 1967 also marked the New Zealand release of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, about a hip London photographer. Baigent had happened on a moment. “Suddenly,” he wrote in Metro, “everyone was buying cameras and photographing the streets”.

The streets in Baigent’s photographs have an energetic tension. Robert Leonard, who curated a 2015 exhibition of The Unseen City photographs (along with a film by Rodney Charters and drawings and a painting by Robert Ellis, which also appear in the new photobook), says Baigent’s pictures show “a lost Auckland, its geography and culture – they capture a city in transition, contrasting a conservative, older generation with the beautiful people. It was the dawn of the counter-culture.” He notes how Baigent – who still lives in Auckland, and sells work through Peter McLeavey Gallery – “avoided the beautiful and the picturesque, preferring to dwell on bleak, neglected aspects of the city”. The bestsellers of the time like Peter McIntyre’s New Zealand, a book of landscapes and everyday life by the painter, or Brian Brake’s scenic New Zealand: Gift of the Sea, sold a glossy, scenic vision of the country. In contrast, Baigent’s Auckland seems gritty and dilapidated, and on the cusp of exciting change.

The Unseen City is available digitally at bakerdouglas.co.nz


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