Counties-Manukau essays

Murray C. Freer: a photographer’s life - Part 2


Many of the photographs in the South Auckland Courier during the 1960s and 1970s carry the name of Murray Freer. For almost thirty years Murray Freer chronicled events in Manukau, first from 1958 as a freelance photographer, then as a reporter, and finally as an editor. Murray was also a Manukau City councillor from 1965 to 1968. This is Murray’s own account of his years behind the camera.



At Mangere airport

As a kid I used to ride my bike out to Mangere aerodrome to watch the biplanes taking off and landing on the grass airstrip and racing around a course marked by pylons. Years later, after I was elected to the first Manukau City Council, I was among the group of councillors invited to the Mangere airport for a courtesy flight on Air New Zealand’s about-to-be introduced DC8.

The flight was great and so was Air New Zealand’s hospitality. The sparkling wine flowed like water. When I finally got back to the studio my wife and the staff ordered me to go home. I still don’t know why …

Auckland International Airport was the source of some very dramatic photos I took after the crash of an aircraft on a training flight - from memory also a DC8. One day in July 1966 I received a phone call from Vic Williams, then Courier editor, who said a plane was down at Mangere. I grabbed a camera, jumped in the car, picked up Vic, and drove out towards the airport. Roads were closed all around the airport, but the Press were allowed through - amazingly. When we arrived at the airport we were allowed to walk straight out onto the runway among the debris of the plane - a remarkable sight and some amazing photos.

Downed DC8, Auckland International Airport, 4 July 1966.

Downed DC8, Auckland International Airport, 4 July 1966. (Photograph by Murray Freer, reproduced courtesy of Fairfax Media)

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The Auckland Centennial Cavalcade

In 1971 I was asked by Manukau County Council to photograph aspects of local life and provide twenty 72 inch (1.8 m) photos for the council’s float for the Auckland City Centennial Cavalcade.

I used a slide projector to project the negative images on to rolls of photographic paper taped to a wall. (The widest roll of paper available was 60 inches so a second piece had to be butted to it to give the required width). I built large troughs to roll the paper through - the extra piece had to be developed to match the large one in each case - and a ‘swimming pool’ out in the car park to wash the prints.
The float was huge, in fact so large that Council did not have a building large enough to house it. It had to be put together outside in the weather. It rained non-stop as we worked right through the night mounting the photos on the float.

About 3 a.m. we reached the point of starting to paint on the plasticised protective coating. This was a recent innovation and not available to the public, so the tin was unlabelled. When we opened the tin, the contents looked and smelt like white latex paint. Dare we risk painting white paint all over the photos just hours before the parade?

A check of the phone book revealed an after-hours number for technical enquiries. We phoned and a very unhappy gentleman told us that the white appearance disappeared as the material dried - a bit of a laugh considering how heavily it was raining.
Two council staff members, Len Jeffs and Colin Dale, helped considerably throughout the night, and the float finally took part in the Auckland parade; while my wife and I went home to Maraetai for some sleep. (Colin Dale was later to become Manukau City Manager.)

Manukau City Council float in the Auckland City Centennial Cavalcade, 24 April 1971.

Manukau City Council float in the Auckland City Centennial Cavalcade, 24 April 1971. (Photographer unknown. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Fairfax Media)

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Saving Murphy’s Bush

As mentioned, as a four or five year-old I was raised on the Knapping farm, Chapel Road, East Tamaki (now Barry Curtis Park). Just up the road was Flat Bush, now the Murphy’s Bush Reserve. This was, and is, a delightful bushed area with a stream running through it - a real treasure.
Many years later, in 1972, I was shocked to find a small advert in the Dominion newspaper advertising the property for sale and suggesting it was suitable for a residential housing development by bulldozing out the trees. It had apparently been offered to Manukau City Council, but turned down.
I immediately phoned Sheldon Brown, the South Auckland roundsman for the Auckland Star and arranged to take him out to have a look at the area. We spent most of a day there and he came away convinced something had to be done to save the bush. He wrote a story, which appeared on the front page of the Star, saying how this gem was about to be lost forever. I lobbied Mangere Ward councillor Colin Bidois, who just happened to be my next door neighbour, and things started to happen. Some councillors could see the benefit of retaining the bush, especially considering the development which was due to take place in the Otara area.

Finally, a majority decided to purchase the property. I have always thought of it as ‘Murray’s’ Murphy’s Bush. I firmly believe that, if I hadn’t acted, the bush would not have been there today.

 Ormiston Road, East Tamaki, 1970.

Ormiston Road, East Tamaki, 1970. (Photograph reproduced courtesy of Murray Freer)

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Auckland Society of Arts

I had always been fascinated by light, the effects of it and what you could do with it. I carried out many experiments with it, which greatly improved my photographic knowledge and led to me being asked to address the New Zealand Photographic Society’s annual conference - my topic, ‘Painting with Light’.
Gerald Mahon, Director of the Auckland Society of Arts’ School of Art asked if I would be interested in tutoring a photographic class for the Society. I quickly agreed to this, as it was a very significant step. It was the first time photography had been ‘officially’ recognised as an art form. This was just the start of several ‘firsts’ brought about by my association with the ASA.

I was asked to do an exhibition of my work in the Society’s Eden Crescent gallery - the first time in the Society’s 100 years that it had hosted a photography exhibition. What an honour! As part of the exhibition I mounted photos on cubes, some internally lit using large format colour transparencies for the eyes in otherwise black and white portraits. I think this use of cubes was a world first.

It was also the first time one of the Society’s exhibitions had featured, with photo, on page one of the New Zealand Herald, September 1, 1970. References I believe I have every right to consider myself a ‘Father’ of creative photography in New Zealand. No one can deny my work brought an acceptance of photography as an art form in New Zealand.

A few years later, another ‘first’, as a second one-man exhibition of my photos was held. I tutored part-time at the ASA for seven years, was elected as a councillor to the Society’s Council and enjoyed the experience. I also taught photography at night school and did a series of lectures for the Auckland University Photographic Club.

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Courier Newspapers Ltd

I ceased operating the photographic business in Otahuhu about 1971 when faced with a 33% rent rise for the premises. To cover this I would have needed to employ another staff member and the premises were too small to cope.  We had recently purchased the Mangere East property which included a glasshouse and decided to set up a photographic workroom and darkroom at home. From here I did commercial/industrial photography and the processing of Courier photos, plus grew tomatoes and cucumbers commercially.

During this time I continued doing photography for Courier Newspapers. I also began writing a column for the Courier, which later led to me joining the staff, covering Manukau City Council. Once I was employed by the Courier full-time, I ceased the photographic business. I later took up the position of editor of the Courier’s southern editions - five papers per week.

One of the many major events was the poll we ran on the Police Task Force. This ended with huge support for the police, a bomb threat from an unhappy individual, and police protection for a couple of weeks.

Staff of the Samoana newspaper visit the Courier offices in Otahuhu, November 1982.

Staff of the Samoana newspaper visit the Courier offices in Otahuhu, November 1982. Courier editor Murray Free is fifth from left. (Photographer unknown. Reproduced courtesy of Fairfax Media)

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Read more about Murray C. Freer: Part 1, Part 3

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