Counties-Manukau essays

Murray C. Freer: a photographer’s life - Part 1


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.



Starting out

I was born on 28th September 1940 in Epsom, Auckland, and educated by correspondence school and at Auckland Grammar School. As a four or five year old I was raised on the Knapping farm in Chapel Road, East Tamaki, and when I was about seven we moved to Mangere Crossing.

My photographic career began in 1951 when my parents bought me a Kodak Box Brownie camera. That soon led to me acquiring a Kodak processing outfit so I was able to develop and print my own photos.

I left school aged 15 and took up a position at United Portraits, Auckland, where I was given one month’s training to take up the position of photographer. The company specialised in the reproduction of old photographs. I was also trained to do all the company’s picture framing. My pay was £3 ($6) a week before tax.

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A racing photographer

It was during this period that I began doing race track photography every weekend at all race meetings in the Auckland province, one of a team of three photographers.

Two of the highlights of my career as racing photographer were as follows. The type of hurdles being used on race tracks were extremely controversial at the time, with many claiming the solid footed hurdles had no ‘give’ in them and were therefore dangerous to both horse and rider. I happened to be in the right spot at the right time to photograph a hurdler, ‘Kauri Heart’, crashing through one of the hurdles. The photos were published widely and contributed to such fences being banned on race tracks.

My most embarrassing moment was when we arrived at a race track - I think it was Matamata - a little late. The first race was a hurdle race, and I decided to get some photos at the double fence at the back of the race course. I needed to hurry, so took a short-cut across the middle of the course. When I was about half way across I saw I had a problem in the form of about 60 steers running toward me. I took off ...!

It was raining, so fortunately I had my umbrella with me to keep the rain off the lenses (I had two cameras mounted on top of each other so I could get two different pictures for different publications). Although I was a good 880-yards athlete, the steers caught up to me, so I turned round and flapped the umbrella open and shut, which caused them to stop and back off so I could take off again.

This I repeated many times before I reached the safety of the fence. As I jumped the fence the crowd in the stand gave me a huge ovation and I could hear the laughter from across the track - and yes, after the race I walked back around the track.

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Murray C. Freer, Photographer

While working at United Portraits Ltd, I purchased a Minolta 2¼ inch square camera, and with this I launched my photographic business, Murray C. Freer, Photographer. The flashlight I used was a Courtney. It was all in a large wooden box and powered by a large, lead-acid cell motorbike battery. It had a wide leather strap to go over my shoulder - and it was HEAVY.

Apart from knocking on doors making appointments for home portraits, I did whatever general photographs I could, plus the racing and other sports photographs, including local athletic meetings. A few months on I was offered the business of Cyril Lee-Johnson (brother of the artist Eric Lee-Johnson). My father had recently passed away and I was fortunate enough to purchase the business - I think I was 18 at the time.

The equipment I was now using was the 2¼ Minolta, two Leica 35 mm cameras and a 5x4 Linhof - the flashlights were Multiblitz. The Leicas occasionally delivered a real ‘boot’ to the head when the flash was fired, I really ‘saw the light’.  The Multiblitz flashlights were high voltage, low amperage – but it still hurt.  Later I was offered one of the very first single lens reflex cameras to come into the country. It was a Canon and was brought in by a visiting Australian. I purchased the camera, which was a very solid, heavy camera, and took more than 600,000 pictures without it needing any service.

This was the time of import restrictions and new cameras were not easy to obtain – nor was film. When I bought the Minolta the film allocation was 50% of the previous year’s purchase.  As I had no record of previous purchase I had no allocation, so I drove throughout Auckland and the Waikato calling on every chemist’s shop and corner dairy buying up all the outdated film. (The 620 film for Box Brownies was more readily available than 120, and this also I bought as I could drill out the spool centre to make it fit.)

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Murray Freer Photos

I renamed Lee-Johnson Photos Murray Freer Photos. The business was very busy. We photographed up to six weddings a weekend, also 21st birthday parties and balls, including school balls; plus child and adult portraits and passport photos during the week; and did an increasing amount of commercial and industrial photography. Saturday could be a long day – start about 9 a.m. with winding on film and checking equipment, then weddings, evening functions and home about 2 a.m. for the second meal of the day.

School reunions were all-night affairs as we set up a dark room at the school and had proofs from Friday and Saturday ready to view after the Sunday church service. Also for weddings, after photographing the cake cutting and speeches we developed and printed the 250 photos taken, hand-numbered each small print, and mounted them in an album to take back to the dance.

Transport for the first few weddings was a bicycle, then a 250 cc BSA with the photographic equipment in a Gladstone bag balanced on the petrol tank.  Then an Austin Seven, complete with quite large holes where the pedals were connected through the floor of the car. These caused very wet trousers when I drove through puddles and the water splashed up. The windscreen wipers were also tricky. They worked by vacuum off the motor. In a downpour the driver had the choice – accelerate and drive blind as the wipers stopped, or take your foot off the accelerator and the wipers worked well.

One interesting photographic job (out of many) was photographing Auckland’s Queen Street footpaths. Around 1960 stiletto heels were big on the fashion scene, but Queen Street footpaths were made of flagstones laid close together. The problem was that the stiletto heels slipped into the narrow gaps and jammed, either breaking the heel, or injuring the lady’s ankle. I was asked to photograph the footpaths, showing the gaps. This I did; the photos were presented to the City Council; and very promptly the paths were dug up and replaced with tarseal. Thanks to my photography the heels of Auckland’s women were safe.

Later I also became a ‘stringer’ for Television News using my Bolex 16mm camera. I was the Auckland sports photographer for the Sunday News, the first New Zealand Sunday newspaper, and was asked to photograph the ‘Page 3’ girls for the same.

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Shooting the Queen Mother

In 1958, while still working at United Portraits, I went to the Auckland Domain to get a photo of the Queen Mother during a visit to New Zealand. She was to view a display by school children at the domain. I arrived early and worked my way through the huge crowd to an area where press photographers were gathering. I climbed under the barrier holding back the crowd and joined the photographers. A few minutes later I was confronted by a policeman and told to get back behind the barrier. As the Queen Mother’s car slowly approached I climbed back under the barrier and again joined the photographers. The same policemen quickly appeared, grabbed me by the ear, and marched me back behind the barrier. He very clearly told me that if I tried it again he would arrest me.

It was very obvious I wasn’t going to get a photo of Her Majesty arriving at the domain, so I looked around for other options. Several hundred metres away I spotted a very shiny, black, open-topped car with just one person standing by it. I made my way over to it and was pleased to see Her Majesty’s standard lying on the front seat. I spoke to the person by the car, who turned out to be the driver, and he told me which side of the car she would be getting in. I stood on the other side and waited, and waited - and waited. Eventually the Queen Mother and the crowd came up to the car, she gave me that glorious smile and a wave, and I had my picture.

I phoned the South Auckland Courier and asked if they were interested in the picture. Editor Eric Horan said “yes”, and that they would be interested in any other photos I had. In the same issue they published photos of my father and brother, who had been successful in an Auckland Photographic Society competition. And so began a long association of almost 30 years in which I became first a photographer, then Manukau City reporter, and finally editor of the Courier’s Franklin and Manukau editions.

Rugby league presentation, Papatoetoe, 1963.

Rugby league presentation, Papatoetoe, 1963. (Photograph by Murray Freer, reproduced courtesy of Fairfax Media)

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The murky Manukau

In 1959 Otahuhu MP Jimmy Deas asked if I would photograph the Manukau Harbour, particularly the upper reaches. This I did. The harbour at this time was unbelievably revolting, with all the effluent and rubbish that was being tipped into it. The mud in the upper reaches, in the Mangere Inlet, bubbled away just as in Rotorua - and the strong smell was worse than the sulphur of Rotorua.

So offensive was it, I added my stomach’s contents to the harbour’s collection. Despite numerous baths the very offensive smell lingered on and in me for days. The photographs were published in the South Auckland Courier, and Jimmy Deas tabled the newspaper and photographs in Parliament. References

This graphic evidence helped convince the authorities to proceed with the building of the Manukau Sewage Scheme.  Once the scheme and associated oxidation ponds were in use, the harbour quickly improved.

Interestingly, one of the contributors to the bad state of the Manukau Harbour was a Maori settlement beyond Kirkbride’s Road, Mangere. The bridge over the [Oruarangi] stream was used as a public tip by both Maori and Pakeha for both organic and inorganic rubbish. Houses scattered across the settlement had rubbish up to their windows and the whole place was a total shambles. After cases of diphtheria were discovered the whole settlement was closed down while it was being cleaned up.

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Read more about Murray C. Freer: Part 2, Part 3

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