Brian Brake was primarily known as a documentary photographer; his work appeared regularly in iconic photo journals Life, Paris Match, and National Geographic. But before heading overseas to work for photo agency Magnum, he was also an accomplished composer of moving images. He shot or directed many classic films for the National Film Unit in the late 40s and early 50s.
Te Papa photography curator Athol McCredie argues that Brake's early experience of making films at the NZ National Film Unit "had a lasting effect, establishing in him a documentary habit of seeing photography in storytelling terms, with opening shots, close-ups and protagonists". Brake's NFU work also taught him much about using colour film, a medium which was far trickier to work with in the 50s than it is today.
Brake was born in 1927. When his mother died of pneumonia, six weeks after his birth, Brian was adopted by his mother's great-aunt and her husband. Brian attended school in Christchurch, but spent weekends and holidays in the spectacular setting of Arthur's Pass, where his adoptive father ran the general store. By the time he hit high school, Brian was a member of the school camera-club and the Christchurch Photographic Society. At age 20 he had already achieved the honour of being an Associate of Britain's Royal Photographic Society (ARPS).
From 1945 Brake apprenticed with Wellington portrait photographer Spencer Digby. Brake learnt much with Digby — not least the value of trusting his instincts — but by 1948 had tired of the flattery and retouching that were part and parcel of portrait work.
After attending a talk by National Film Unit director Michael Forlong, Brake decided to try out motion pictures. In 1948 he joined the Government filmmaking body as an assistant cameraman. Brake would work on around 20 films at the NFU, and directed two, plus an item for a third.
The Film Unit's short documentaries were traditionally heavy on scenery, and usually filmed outdoors. As a result Brake's skills with studio lighting were valued and utilised; fellow NFU cameraman Randal Beattie has spoken of Brake's talent for "painting with light", and his skills at lighting faces. Brake's studio skills are demonstrated most clearly in this New Zealand Mirror performance piece featuring pianist Richard Farrell.
Having said that, the majority of Brake's NFU work was shot outdoors, most notably a series of ‘snow' films set in the Southern Alps, a landscape he had a particular affinity for. Prelude to Aspiring (1949) was the first moving picture Brake both directed and shot; ostensibly about the opening of a Mount Aspiring hut, but essentially a beautifully filmed alpine tramp.
After bad weather forced the abandonment of a second, colour film about Aspiring, Brake took colour footage for Mount Cook (1951); worked with cameraman Bob Kingsbury on a film about the rigours of high-country farming life, The Snowline is Their Boundary (1955); and directed and shot the Oscar-nominated Snows of Aorangi (1955).
Aorangi and the Oxley Hughan-directed Snowline were the first NFU films shot on a new 35mm Gevacolour film stock — thanks partly to an international research trip Brake had made in 1951, to learn about developments in colour cinematography. An edited version of Aorangi would later become the first New Zealand film selected to compete for an Academy Award, in the 1959 Best Short Subject (Live Action) category.
Brake also shot NFU films involving agriculture (Farming in New Zealand), the scenery and People of the Waikato, and in 1950 captured what is thought to be the first professional colour footage taken of the caves at Waitomo.
Brake left New Zealand in 1954, after mounting frustration at the NFU over what he saw as bureaucratic intervention into the filmmaking process. Unable to break into the heavily unionised British film industry, he turned again to still photography.
By chance, he met Ernst Haas and Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Leica factory in Germany. The two were sufficiently impressed by Brake's portfolio to offer him a place in the Magnum corps of photojournalists. In 1955 Brake took his well known images of artist Pablo Picasso, pictured in the audience at a Spanish bullfight. He travelled on assignment for Magnum to Europe, Africa, America, and then to Asia. Brake was one of three Magnum photographers allowed into China in 1957, and the only western photographer to cover the tenth anniversary of Chairman Mao's revolution celebrations in 1959.
In 1960 Brake persuaded Life to back his landmark Monsoon series, one of many projects for the magazine. Monsoon established his international reputation, receiving the Award of Merit from the American Society of Magazine Photographers. It was also exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and prompted the Indian leader Nehru to say: "I do not know how you have come to know India so well."
By the mid 60s Brake could see that television would eclipse the picture magazine as the image medium du jour. He based himself in Hong Kong and founded documentary film company Zodiac Films. Over the next six years Brake worked on both promotional pieces and cultural films about Indonesia — including Hindu dance piece The Ramayana — some of them broadcast on NZ television.
In the mid-1970s Brake returned to New Zealand, where he was instrumental in founding the Centre for Photography in 1985. Two years later he was the subject of Peter Coates-directed documentary Master of Light, from the television series Inspiration.
His New Zealand photographic work includes the books Craft New Zealand, Art of the Pacific, Te Maori and breakthrough photobook New Zealand, Gift of the Sea (1963). A collaboration with writer Maurice Shadbolt, the latter book remained in print for more than a decade.
Brake died of a heart attack in 1988, the same year that the bestselling Reader's Digest Guide to New Zealand arrived on book shelves.
In 2006 director Yvonne Mackay completed documentary Aspiring, which revisits the abandoned colour film Brake started working on in 1949, with an all-star NZ art team (Lilburn, Baxter, Drawbridge). Mackay followed it in 2012 with Painting with Light - Brian Brake Rediscovered. Presented by cinematographer David Paul, the doco explores some of the groundbreaking methods used to achieve Brake's images.
In October 2010 Te Papa Press published Brian Brake: Lens on the World, the first book to both display and critique work across the breadth of Brake's career. The book accompanied a touring exhibition of Brake's photographs, which began at Te Papa.
Athol McCredie, 'Introduction' in Brian Brake - Lens on the World. Editor Athol McCredie (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2010, page 1
Lissa Mitchell, 'Formative Experiences 1945 - 1954' in Brian Brake - Lens on the World, page 21
Randal Beattie (Audio Interview) Ngā Taonga. Conducted 10 March 2006