Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Remembering UNE's photographers - Bill Webster, John Fields

Bill Webster UNE photographer

  Both the University of New England and New England in general have gained from UNE's official photographers. I was reminded of this with the death of John Fields. John died at his home in Guyra on 4 February, 2013.

In this post I want to record a little of two of those men, Bill Webster and John himself. This a shot of Bill.

Bill was appointed to the University of New England as photographer in July 1959. He stayed in Armidale for the rest of his life, dying in September 1989. During his time as UNE photographer, he took shots of all UNE activities, including some archaeological digs that I was on.

We all know slices of people. In Bill's case, I knew him through his work. He was a familiar figure, one I liked, but not one that I knew well. I had no idea, for example, of his fascination with astronomy. 

This fascination was not unusual in Armidale. Several Armidale people had high-powered telescopes, including the mathematician Wes Taylor. Bill had his own observatory. Upon his death, Bill bequeathed this to the University of New England. In March 1990, the Webster Observatory was dismantled and re-installed at the Kirthe websterby Observatory  outside Armidale.

The photo from the UNE and Northern Tablelands Astronomical Society shows the Webster.

John Fields's life is recorded in poet Michael Sharkey's obituary, Photographer used his gift to travel, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1987, John arrived in Armidale to became Photographer-in-Charge at the Media Resources Unit of the University of New England. For five years prior to his retirement in January 1998, he was the Liaison Officer with the University’s Publicity Unit.

I met John and wife Patricia after their arrival in Armidale. At the annual Drummond memorial dinners he was always there, taking photographs. New Zealand friend Peter Ireland wrote of John:  John was a lovely man. Gentle, modest, generous and with a quiet but devastating sense of humour. He was a remarkable human being and great company.

That fits John Fields UNE photographerwith my own impression, quiet, gentle, but very good company.

I said earlier that we only see slices of people. I had no idea of the variety of John's life, nor his achievements. 

John James Fields was born on January 18, 1938, in Rockport, Massachusetts, son of Ludwig Fields and his wife, Sara Mae (nee McDonald). He seems to have been an adventurous boy according to John Turner, excited by guns, hunting and the sea. He joined the US Navy on his seventeenth birthday, serving in the Pacific and the Far East. It was there that he acquired his love of photography.

After leaving the navy, John studied photography and worked as a freelance photographer. In 1965 he became a photographer at Massachusetts General Hospital, working under English cell biologist Dr Stanley Bullivant.  When Bullivant transferred to the University of Auckland in 1966, John followed.

The New Zealand period was a remarkable one. I had no idea of it, although I do understand some of the milieu that John was involved in because I visited New Zealand each year to see family, backpacking and travelling widely. I will only sketch the New Zealand experience. You will get a better feel for it if you go to this page on Photoforum and then follow some of the links through.   

New Zealand was a strange mix at the time John arrived, It was still a very small and in many ways conservative society. It was also localised; each major centre had its own approach, its own elite;  yet it was also a society strongly affected by new trends. I covered one aspect of this in a 2012 post,  "Things were a lot looser then" - the New Zealand hippie movement.

In 1966, John married Australian-born Patricia Hazelton (known professionally as the singer Kerry Bryant).John Field Allen The couple quickly became part of the New Zealand cultural scene, with John's spare photos of the natural scene and the built environment becoming nationally recognised.

looking at the various photos on-line, I chose this one because of its composition and because it captures so well that one aspect of New Zealand that I referred to earlier. I don't know whether the Allen in the photo was a hippy, but the photo really resonates.

John's impact in New Zealand was remarkable.  In 1971, his work set a New Zealand record when his photographs were the first to sell for the then extraordinary sum of $100 each. Today, his works are held in many galleries and still referred to because of their quality, because of the way they captured New Zealand life.

In 1976, frustrated by lack of official support for photography, the Fields moved with his family to Sydney to work at the Australian Museum and then in 1987 to Armidale. There he continued to do as he had done before, photograph and educate.

Michael Sharkey records that part of the New England's appeal for John was its beauty, up close and in its vistas. He photographed the spectacular electrical storms of the region as well as the bird and plant life of its lagoons and open country. Images of lightning strikes, of tranquil waters and of snowbound natural features are among his enduring legacy.

As in New Zealand, he encouraged and actively supported fellow artists and craft workers, teaching photography at Armidale TAFE, attending exhibitions and recording events, mentoring young photographers. He was also active in community activities.

In 2008, a major exhibition of John's work, Forty Years Ago Today: selected vintage photographs was mounted in Wellington. John attended the opening. It seems a fitting tribute.

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