Self Portrait

Who would have imagined that a three-year-old girl left at a London orphanage by her impoverished Jewish refugee parents would go on to become one of New Zealand’s most illustrious photographers? In Self-Portrait Marti Friedlander tells oral historian Hugo Manson the story of her remarkable journey. 

As a young woman Marti found a job in a photographer’s studio. She fell in love with Gerrard, an expat New Zealander. He persuaded his young bride to come home with him and the couple settled in West Auckland. Getting used to a new environment was difficult and to make sense of it, Marti began to take pictures of people, places, and protests that were part of her new world. And so began a long creative journey in which she traced our cultural and political history and took iconic photographs of many famous New Zealanders. 

The book is built around a series of themes: childhood, being Jewish, Parihaka, moko, politics and personalities.


Marti feels she may have been interested in photographing children because she lost her own daughter and regretted not being a mother. Taking sentimental photographs of children lying on their tummies in a studio did not appeal to her. She preferred to show them in all their moods: sad, laughing, weeping, and screaming with cuts and bruises and smudges. Marti’s studio career was short lived; parents wanted smiling photographs of their children. 

Marti was friends with many well-known New Zealand artists and writers and revealed their characters through her photographs. In Self-Portrait she speaks candidly about them. She had a soft spot for Karl Stead but found him insensitive. Historian Keith Sinclair was handsome and always had women falling in love with him but could be self absorbed and immodest. Maurice Shadboldt was at times a very fearful and grumpy sort of person.

Great opportunities

There were plenty of opportunities for Marti to photograph political events such as protests – there were many going on at the time, for example, the anti-Vietnam War protests and the 1981 Springbok Tour. She especially loved the slogans. 

Although Marti was a Labour party supporter, she was happy to take photographs of leaders from both sides of the political spectrum (with Robert Muldoon a notable exception). There is a rather charming one of John Key at home holding an anxious looking fat cat. She thought him very handsome.

During a trip for Wine Review magazine, Dick Scoot took Marti to Parihaka, at the time a deserted village and the site of Te Whiti’s grave. Here she took her first photograph of a kuia, Rauwha Tamaiparea. The experience of taking this photograph changed her relationship to New Zealand. She discovered a history that she hadn’t been aware of before.

The chapter that spoke to me most is the one describing her journey with Michael King to record the stories of kuia. She felt an immediate love and affection for these old women whose lined faces showed their life experiences. 

Photographer’s manual

Nearly all the photographs in this book are black and white. She feels that  “ black and white images seem to have a lasting mana. The essential elements of photography are intensified because one is not distracted by elements of colour.” 

Self-Portrait is not a photographer’s manual but I learnt a great deal about how to take a great portrait from her descriptions. She explains how she positioned her subjects and made the best use of natural light. 

But it is her questioning eye behind the camera (that she attributes to her Jewish heritage) which makes her portraits so exceptional. This allowed her to capture the essence of each person with respect, honesty, and an open heart.

Marti was born in 1928 and is now in her eighties. At the end of the book she talks about how it feels to grow old.  

“Energy is the thing I miss most. I get tired more easily, but then of course I’m still trying to do as much as when I was in my twenties or thirties. You just can’t help it. You want to still fully engage with life” 

So there’s a different world we’re moving into, not entirely negative. One in which there is still lots to learn and lots to look forward to.”

Self-Portrait by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson is published by Auckland University Press ( RRP $59.99)

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