Excerpts from opening of Marti Friedlander exhibition, Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth

In 1969 when I was working on a book on Maori tattooing, I at last met Marti at that year's Labour Party conference in Wellington. She had not long before photographed Rauwha Tamaiparea at Parihaka, in the company of Dick Scott, and she showed me some of those prints. I was overwhelmed with admiration. These were precisely the kinds of photos I had hoped to have for my own book. So I asked her if she would photograph other kuia moko for me, for what would become, for each of us, our first major publication.

 Last year I was in Hawke's Bay for the Montana Book Awards, as a finalist in the history and biography section. Marti too was there, as a finalist in the photography category. And an ope from Parihaka was present in support of another history and biography finalist, Gregory O'Brien and Milton Hohaia's book on Parihaka. This party included Pare Tito, niece of that same Rauwha who had brought Marti and me together professionally thirty years earlier; and Pare was by this time as old as Rauwha had been when Marti photographed her, and looked uncannily like her. And of course the Parihaka book, which shared the category prize with mine on Janet Frame, included photographs by Marti.

 Tonight I am privileged to be opening this exhibition and celebration of Marti's life and work, and it takes place under the shadow of Taranaki Maunga, that same mountain that was a presence in and backdrop for the photographs of Rauwha that brought Marti and me into collaboration.

Certainly I could not have been more fortunate than I was to meet Marti in 1969, at the very time that I was looking for a photographer-collaborator. The period we spent together on the road in 1970, photographing nga kuia i mokotia, was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a thirty-year writing career. It turned a publishing idea into a publishable book. And it launched my career as an author.

I look now, with admiration and gratitude, at some of the photographs which emerged from that expedition and which are exhibited here tonight:

Tepo Petera standing like a weathered stone in front of the wharenui and the Urewera forest that nourished and nurtured her; Karu Mohiti, who had walked with Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki, sitting under the shadow of a balustrade only days before she died; Kirikino Kohitu, one of the official mourners at King Tawhiao's tangi, crouched on her bed in the dirt-floor whare she kept spotlessly clean with a manuka broom; and Rauwha, looking at us out of a past that had included living under the mana of Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

Born into Te Ao Maori, wearing their moko like a diploma of accomplishment in that world, these women were exemplars of ways of living and thinking that had almost disappeared by the time Marti photographed them. But her photos capture the imprint of experience on their faces and their character, along with their dignity, their authority, their very ethos. They look back at Marti calmly and trustfully, woman to woman, some of them allowing themselves to be photographed for the first time in their long lives.

If I draw attention to these photographs, you will understand, it is because of my own association with the making and the taking of them. But there are so many others that engage and move me too, as they will do you:

The series of artists' portraits; that of Gerrard Friedlander in the Matukituki Valley, upright despite the crushing weight of bush and boulders which seem to press in on him from above and below; the Ruapekapeka cannon, symbol of imperial might, which now points at nothing more threatening than a curious cow; sheep in the Eglinton Valley, emerging on a beech forest road from mist or dust; Jim Baxter, his face half in darkness, half in light, acting as a window into his troubled soul. And so on, and so on. I find I have something to say, some kind of vigorous, vibrating response, to each and every one of those wonderful photographs.

What they have in common is that they were made by an artist of extraordinary sensibility, and one whose most interesting and most revealing effects often arise from the fact that she uses only natural light. Just as Robin Morrison's photographs have come to seem emblematic and iconic, so too for different reasons, out of different techniques and preoccupations, have Marti's. And at least part of her vision arises from the fact that she initially saw our people and our landscape from the outside. She saw them as one who had a heightened sense of New Zealandness, a heightened sense of comparison and contrast between New Zealand and the rest of the world, for the very reason that she was not herself, initially, a New Zealander. This gave her an ability to recognise contours and textures that eluded the rest of us until we saw them in her photographs. And then we said, Yes, of course, that's how it is, why didn't we notice those things before?

I have no doubt that when our descendants want to know what kind of country New Zealand was in the twentieth century - what we did that distinguished us from other peoples, what we looked like, what our character was - then one of the major sources for that kind of information and understanding will be the photographs of Marti Friedlander.

I have two other things I want to mention, which may perhaps trespass on acknowledgements Marti herself may want to make - but I'll do so anyway.

Anyone who knows Marti well also knows Gerrard - knows him as a friend of patience, warmth and generosity, but also as the person who has been the anchor of Marti's life in the Antipodes. And so to Gerrard I want to say, Thank you for bring Marti to us from the other side of the world; and thank you for giving her the primary reason why she chose to remain among us and become one of us.

I also want to acknowledge the Auckland Art Gallery and Ron Brownson for taking the initiative in assembling and presenting this outstanding exhibition; and the Govett Brewster for having the foresight and the good sense to bring it to Taranaki - thus reminding us that it is no longer necessary to live in the major metropolitan centres to see the country's major exhibitions. In particular, though, I want to thank Ron Brownson for the exquisitely sensitive manner in which he has midwifed the birth of the exhibition as a whole and the production of the accompanying book, and hence given us this superb revelation of Marti's work, and of ourselves.

But it is to Marti herself that I must direct my final observations.

Marti: You are one of the most exceptionally gifted artists to have interacted with this country and its peoples, Maori and Pakeha. You are a valued and fiercely loyal friend. And you are, now, a great New Zealander. I salute for all these qualities. And, with pleasure and pride, I declare this exhibition open.

23 March 2002,  Michael king