‘Inevitably provocative and striking in her technique’ is how Anne Kirker described Di ffrench in 1986, and again in 1993.1 Today, with the resurfacing of many of the artist’s photographs last exhibited in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s retrospective in 2000, Kirker’s statement still rings true.
Born in Melbourne in 1946, ffrench arrived in New Zealand in 1963 aged 16 with her parents. While finishing her high school studies in Auckland, she encountered the work of Scottish expressionist and American colourfield artists such as Morris Louis, sparking a life-long interest in art and art history. Her passion eventually lead her to the Auckland Technical Institute, where she garnered the skills necessary to pursue a professional artistic career. Over the next twenty years ffrench traversed a broad range of mediums in order to confront and carve out new ways of thinking about gender, aggression, the environment and conflict, as well as art itself. Her innovative approach made a lasting contribution to New Zealand art, and secured her a reputation as one of the country’s preeminent feminist artists. Standing in front of ffrench’s captivating photographs, subject to their textural charm and sophisticated exploration of concepts, it is easy to see why.
The striking technique Kirker speaks of is immediately apparent. One is unlikely to have encountered a photograph similar to ffrench’s, and in their contemporary context they were certainly unlike anything seen before. By 1985, she had developed her own photographic process which radically blurred the lines between sculpture, performance, and photography. Employed for one of the first times in the self-portrait The Useful Idiot and Arnolfini’s Hat (1985), the technique consisted of ffrench photographing an original image (in this case of herself) and projecting it onto a bed of ruptured matter usually consisting of coal dust or coke breeze. After sometimes adding in other elements in the manner of collage, or reflecting herself into the image by means of a mirror, she would then precariously posit herself above the projection and rephotograph the whole to produce a cibachrome print – itself an unprecedented artistic material for the 1980s in New Zealand. ffrench referred to the technique as ‘a lengthy process of light and illusion,’ well-illustrated by the incredible luminosity and haptic allure for which her photographs are known.
Like her earlier performance works out of which her photography evolved, ffrench conceived of this new process as a means to “activate ideas.” She saw the camera, however, as enabling greater creativity, providing a vehicle to explore the more complex ideas that captivated her interest. Although the themes ffrench dealt with are diverse, her fascination with the body and vision is perhaps the most enduring thread running throughout her photography.