Graham Kirk, New Zealand

Graham Kirk

"I was born in Hawera in 1948. Around the age of nine I began making comic strips - collections of short stories with titles like "Buttercup and Butch on Mars", and "Olley and Lazy in the Time Hat". The rest of the time I was drawing ships.

I bought my first camera in 1968 en route to England. It wasn't until several years later however that I began to take any decent photographs. By then I'd seen the work of photographers like Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson. At this time I was living in Auckland and spending most of my spare time taking street photographs with a 35mm camera and black and white film. I bought an enlarger and learned how to print. There was a vibrant photographic scene in Auckland in the early seventies and in 1977 I co-exhibited with Paul Hewson (an old school friend from Hawera) at Snaps Gallery, and later had some work published in Photo Forum magazine.

Towards the end of the seventies I decided to have a go at doing a comic strip again, using the camera as a tool and drawing directly with a brush from a projected negative in my enlarger. I used Letratone for tone.

I invented a character called Dick Sargeson, an intrepid photographer working for World Pictures Agency, now semi-retired in New Zealand, but soon caught up in new adventures working for the Daily Mail in New Plymouth. The Dioxin Man character (born out of a chemical spill at Ivan Watkins Dow) was incorporated into the Dick Sargeson strip which ran for three years in The Listener in the mid eighties.

In 1988 I had an exhibition of panels from the comic at the Govett Brewster Gallery. These took the form of air brushed gouache on paper. (I had been experimenting with an air brush as a means of putting down flat, even, colour for comic strips.) Seeing the individual panels done to a larger scale prompted me to make them larger still by switching to acrylic on board. About this time I was considering doing a series of paintings of Hawera, my old home town. I began taking photographs of the place (and the water-tower, inevitably) but realised that something else was needed. It turned out to be Superman. "Superman and the Hawera Water Tower', followed shortly after by "Batman and the Catholic Church", began a series of "Superheroes in New Zealand" paintings which currently number around 90.

By the end of the nineties, the Superheroes were being phased out and replaced with other elements, objects, people, statues etc. From a repertoire of images from newspapers, books, television and my own photographs I would look for interesting juxtapositions. A New Zealand stamp series (also ongoing) was one outcome and from my father's WW2 negatives, a collection of paintings called "Maadi and Beyond".

In 2003 I began drawing Superheroes again. By 2006 the "drawn" comic form was being replaced by the silver screen version along with other movie and television icons (of Superhero status).

In May and June of 2007 I spent six weeks travelling and photographing in the UK. The outcome was an exhibition of paintings; "Superheroes in the UK" at the Walrus Gallery in Wellington. These images are now available as A2 sized archival prints.

In 2016 I was invited to participate in the exhibition " My Hero" - Contemporary Art and Superhero Action, curated by The Bedford Gallery in San Francisco. I attended the opening and stayed on for a month taking photographs.

I've never wanted to be a painter in the traditional sense, working from sketches or painting from life. I've always preferred the immediacy of the snapshot image, and there has always been something about the photographic 'truth' that appeals to me.

CV and Selected Exhibitions
1948 Born in Hawera, New Zealand
1957 Began making home-made comic books.
1968/69 Living in London. Taking colour transparencies with first camera and doing some drawing.
1973 Took first 35mm black & white photos during 6 week trip to Israel.
1974 Exhibited in various group shows in Auckland. Included in "The Active Eye", an exhibition of contemporary N.Z. photography organised by the Manawatu Art Gallery.
1975 Portfolio of photos published in Photo Forum magazine.
1976/77    Participated in various group shows.
1977 Co-exhibited with Paul Hewson at Snaps Gallery, Auckland
1978 Began "Dick Sargeson" comic strip.
1981 Returned to Taranaki. Exhibited at "Renonsense" (exhibition organised by Taranaki Artists Co-operative).
1983 Began "Dioxin Man" comic strip, inspired by IWD chemical leak at New Plymouth.
1984 Dick Sargeson comic strip begins running in The Listener.
1985 Exhibition at Words and Pictures Gallery, Auckland. Panels from comic.
Two works selected for the 24th World Exhibition of Comics, Belgium.
1986 New Dick Sargeson story begins in Listener.
Exhibition with Ces Hill at King St Gallery, New Plymouth. Panels from comic.
Commissioned to illustrate Barry Crump Book: Bastards I Have Met.
1987 Change of direction toward painting for exhibition. Link with comic form still strong.
1988 Exhibition of Dick Sargeson panels at Govett Brewster Gallery, New Plymouth.
1989 Exhibition at Gallery Seventy Nine, Hawera.
1990 Exhibition at Words and Pictures Gallery, Auckland.
Exhibition at Gallery Seventy Nine, Hawera.
"Kirk Work" exhibition at Kudos Gallery, Wellington.
1991 "Superheroes in Wellington" exhibition at Kudos Gallery.
1992 "Superheroes in Auckland" exhibition at Oedipus Rex Gallery, Auckland.
1994 "Superheroes in Dunedin" exhibition at Dunedin Public Gallery.
"New Work" exhibition at Oedipus Rex Gallery, Auckland.
1995 Work in "Elvis in Geyserland" exhibition at Rotorua Art History Museum.
Work in "About Town" exhibition (images of Christchurch), Robert McDougall Gallery, Christchurch.
"Kirk Work" exhibition at Wonton Gallery, Wellington.
1996 "Icons and Artifacts" exhibition with Wayne Morris at Art Gallery, New Plymouth.
Eight Taranaki Artists exhibition at Govett Brewster Gallery, New Plymouth.
1997 "Two Real" exhibition with Kees Bruin at Robert McDougall Gallery, Christchurch.
1998 Artistamps International, Barraca Vorticista, Buenos Aires, Argentina (via Internet).
1999 "Kirk Work" exhibition. Paintings and lithographs. Muka Gallery, Auckland.
Waiouru War Museum: "Maadi and Beyond" Paintings by Graham Kirk from the Photographs of Jock Kirk.
Taranaki Museum: "Kirk Work" exhibition.
2000 Auckland City Gallery: "The Cartoon Show" (two works).
2002 "Kirk Work" exhibition, Portfolio Gallery, Auckland.
2002 "Kirk Work" exhibition, Victoria Henwood Gallery, New Plymouth.
2004 "Superheroes in Auckland" Letham Gallery, Auckland.
2004 "New Paintings" Letham Gallery, Auckland.
2006 "New Paintings" Walrus Gallery, Wellington.
2007 "Kirk Work" Kina Gallery, New Plymouth.
2007 May - June. Photographic trip to the UK.
Started producing inkjet, archival prints from scans of photos of selected works.
2007 "Paintings & Prints" Letham Gallery, Ponsonby, Auckland.
2008 "Superheroes in the UK" Walrus Gallery, Wellington.
2008 "Superheroes in Taranaki and the UK" Kina Gallery, New Plymouth.
2010 "Kirk and Carter" Kina Gallery, New Plymouth.
2011 Three works in "Renegade" exhibition, Puke Ariki, New Plymouth.
2011 "Kirk Work" Paintings by Graham Kirk & prints by Glenda Kirk, Kina Gallery, New Plymouth.
2012 Organised and contributed to "FRACKED", an exhibition by Taranaki artists at the Village Gallery in Eltham.
2013 "The Living Room" - five paintings. Pop Up Show, New Plymouth.
2016 "My Hero:" - four works. Contemporary Art and Superhero Action. Curated by the Bedford Gallery, San Francisco. Opening at the Bedford January 14th to March 20th and then touring the U.S. For three years to early 2019.
Attended opening and stayed on in San Francisco for a month taking photographs.
Click here to see the video of that show.
Show extended a year, (popular demand) to early 2020.
2017 Organised and contributed to FRACK OFF, an exhibition in New Plymouth by Taranaki artists and writers, at The JD Reid Gallery.
2017 Work in Art Taranaki - de retour à Paris, an exhibition of Taranaki artworks, at Galerie 59Rivoli in Paris, France.
2017 Work in "Home Work", an exhibition by Taranaki artists at Puke Ariki, New Plymouth.
Dick Sargeson - the comic strip connection
I can still remember the comics on display in the bookshops in Hawera when I was growing up. Superman with a car hoisted above his head, animals that talked, bright colours... it wasn't long before I was drawing them myself.

The comics that I grew up with in the late 50s and early 60s were Disney characters: Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey and Louie. I also remember Spooky, Richie Rich and the Phantom. I could see that the Phantom was well drawn, but for some reason never read it. Superman probably had the most appeal. I remember Tarzan.

For years, our family (from the local bookshop in Hawera) subscribed to the Listener, the Weekly News, the Australasian Post, (Lion and the Beano for me) and my sister got Schoolfriend. I was aware of Tiger and Eagle, but for some reason settled on Lion.

When Tintin first arrived in Hawera around 1960 I was 12. That was a revelation and a real influence. My first Tintin book was ‘King Ottaker’s Sceptre’.

Apart from Tintin, I wasn’t influenced by much else until the 70s when I discovered Robert Crumb, Wil Eisner (The Spirit), Richard Corben, Jean Girand (Moebius), Frank Miller (Barney Baxter), Raymond Briggs, Alex Raymond (a favourite) and Milton Caniff, who did ‘Steve Canyon’. Regrettably, most of these titles only existed in comic book anthologies for me. They were before my time and were never seen in New Zealand anyway.

Dick Sargeson probably owed something to these artists, particularly Alex Raymond, whose drawings and cinematic style I really admired. I guess I like my stories to be grounded in reality - essentially - but allowing for a bit of absurd fantasy and humour. There’s not always a lot of humour in comics.

Episode 24 of ‘Dioxin Man’

A television series that I enjoyed during the 70s and 80s that might have had an influence was ‘Public Eye’, a British programme about a private investigator who operated out of a shop like a corner dairy where a bell rings every time someone comes in. Brilliant in a low key kind of way. Everybody assumes the worst about him because of his line of work, but his morality - which only becomes evident as the story progresses - makes this programme special. I’m hanging out to see it rescreened.

Lou Grant (with Ed Asner in the role), about an American newspaper editor, was also really good.

In terms of New Zealand comic artists, I met Colin Wilson in Auckland in the late 70s. He showed me his work at the place where he was living in Ponsonby. He was a great admirer of ‘Lieutenant Blueberry’, who, he said, was a great influence on his own personal style. Colin introduced me to ‘Strips’, a sort of underground magazine printed by Colin and friends, showcasing the work of NZ comic artists (most of whom I never knew about). I showed him some of my early Dick Sargeson stuff. I don’t know what he thought. He probably didn’t approve of me working from photos.

Colin was a real talent, (even if some of his stories were a tad depressing for me) and I believe he now works for one of the major comic agencies in the US.

I wasn’t in contact with any other NZ comic artists at the time. I received no feedback from the NZ comics community. In more recent times, Tim Bollinger has shown some interest and Steve Braunias has always been supportive, being the first reviewer to review ‘Dick Sargeson’. In the Sunday Times, I think it was.

The Dioxin Man strip was a response to the Ivan Watkins Dow chemical company in New Plymouth leaking herbicides into the sea from their plant behind the port. I was walking in that area with Michael Smither (we worked together on a beach reclamation scheme in New Plymouth in the early 80s), and we discovered rock pools with no marine life and a nasty smell. Surfers were complaining of rashes. I thought it was bloody outrageous, and the idea of a comic strip about a creature created by this ‘stuff’ came fairly quickly. The environmental issues were prime reasons for the strip, particularly with ‘Dioxin Man’. I had some dealings with Greenpeace in Taranaki at that time, mostly seeking information and talking to a Scandinavian activist who was a biochemist and was able to simplify for me what was going on at IWD, particularly with regard to herbicides, 245T in particular. I had a sense that the Listener was getting a bit edgy at the time that episode 43 of ‘Dioxin Man’ went to print and I was keen to ensure that the ‘newscast’ was an accurate reflection of what was going on in New Plymouth with IWD. The Health Department were totally ineffectual. Witness the cases of cancer that have emerged around Paritutu since.

My own father worked for about a year at IWD as a handyman. I believe that it contributed to his early death from a stroke at the age of 64.

I was told by a close friend who knew someone who worked at the plant that IWD had a file on me. It made me feel like Dick Sargeson...

Episode 11 of ‘The Stone of Glotte’

The location of Taranaki as a backdrop for the comic was more to do with the fact that I was living there at the time. I did take the story to Auckland and to Wellington at different points, but it was always easier to locate it in my home province where the actors lived. And of course, Taranaki has the mountain, rivers, bush, beaches, the port - plenty of good locations to draw. Plus I was born here, and don’t intend going anywhere else.

That’s why the fracking in Taranaki is so painful. When I was out photographing fracking sites and talking to affected parties, I thought briefly that Dick Sargeson was about to resurface. It would make a great story.

There was never much of a problem gaining access to places for filming. In ‘Sir Jeremy’, three of us went down to the ammonia urea plant in South Taranaki and were free to shoot just about anywhere. The same went for the New Plymouth Power Station. People and institutions were a lot more relaxed back then.

A few months ago, I was detained by police in the Auckland CBD for taking photos, because someone had complained. After about half an hour of questioning and looking at everything that I had taken, I was allowed to go. Other photographers I know yearn for the good old days. It’s kind of funny that as pressure goes on the individual’s right to take pictures in a public place in the name of ‘art’, more and more cameras spring up overhead and everywhere else, ostensibly ‘protecting’ the individual. I used to spend a lot of time taking street photographs in Auckland in the early 70s. I never had a problem.

I always regarded photography as just a tool to get the best drawings that I could. When I first started the original Dick Sargeson, set in Auckland in the late 70s, I used images of people from books and magazines as a basis for drawing the characters. I very soon realised that continuity of character likeness was a priority and thought, why not photograph friends portraying different roles? The beauty of this process was the ability to get those ‘nuanced’ expressions that are very hard to come up with out of one’s head.

The character of Ben Skull, played by my friend Steve Chadwick, (sadly departed from this world in 2010), owes a lot to his interest in history, religion, mysticism, etc. Steve was an interesting character, very clever, but ‘troubled’ in lots of ways. He was Dux of Nelson Boys College back in the late 50s, where, curiously enough, he became friends with Burton Silver, who was a few years younger than him. I first met Steve at the Post Office in Auckland in the early 70s where we both worked as postal assistants. Kind of funny, really, considering that years earlier, as a high flyer in the corporate world, he had written speeches for the then Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake - complete with jokes.

He then went through a series of other jobs, including working for IBM, acting at the Mercury, cleaning the mall at the bottom of Queen Street and working as a meter reader on a motorbike around Auckland. He also trained as a naturopath. He did quite a bit of writing (his special skill) but where I wanted him to write fiction, he was more concerned with trying to put the world to rights with a political philosophy he was inventing where there would be no leaders. He called it Organic Democracy. Doomed from the start, I thought, but he persisted with it.

In episode 14 of the Glottestone, I asked him if he would write his own script for his character, Ben Skull, in his own inimitable way, which he did. Mike Smither chided me at the time for letting him briefly take the writing reins. But I think that the result was well worth it. The Bone Woman was a friend of Steve’s, who I’d never met until I arrived with Steve at her house in Mount Eden to begin filming. The dialogue that he attributed to her I thought was classic Steve and could just about be inscribed on his tombstone. Then I had the job of connecting it to Motunui. Steve was very interested in Maori mythology and I was more than happy to have that aspect incorporated into the story.

Episode 14 of ‘The Stone of Glotte’

I have to make mention of Barry Wiseman, who played Sir Jeremy and died suddenly in 1994. He was an intermediate school deputy principal in New Plymouth, introduced to me by my teacher sister as a contender for the role. He did a lot of amateur theatre in NP. He relished the role of Sir Jeremy, wherever that took him during filming around Taranaki, and was always brilliant. So too were local artists Lee Morgan (Lurgan), and Wayne Morris, my wife Glenda who played Sola Poward in ‘Dioxin Man’, and others. They were all great and filming, shooting 35 mm black and white stills, was always a hoot.

I started out playing Dick Sargeson with my wife Glenda taking pictures, but I was such a terrible actor and just wanted to be behind the camera. At the beginning of ‘The Stone of Glotte’, I had enlisted a reporter at the Taranaki Daily News, Allan Ramsay, as the new Dick Sargeson. He was keen and looked the part. Unfortunately, after a few episodes of good service, he relocated to Wellington to work for the Dominion. I decided I could do without him and shifted the story on to the other characters, who were much more fun.

In order to assist readers who were wondering what the hell happened to him in episode 65, I put an asterisk next to his name when it was mentioned in the story and another at the bottom of the page with the text ‘Sickness beneficiary - former Daily Mail photographer’. His demise, as observed by Skip Hogan, editor of the Daily Mail, was due to the fact that he had been in the region of Hodgekiss’s chemical plant at the time of a spill.

In the case of Dioxin Man, the last episode reveals how Dick Sargeson, disguised and with a change of identity, had gone undercover at the chemical plant as a handyman to obtain photographs and evidence implicating top management.

Skip Hogan, the editor of the Daily Mail in ‘The Glottestone’, was a New Plymouth city councillor and former bomber pilot for the RAF in WWII, Len Hannon. He was introduced to me by the artist Michael Smither. You’ll note the Lancasters in a picture hanging in his office. He had a great face that I really enjoyed drawing. He was a good actor too, just quietly playing himself. He died a few years ago.

Episode 49 of ‘The Stone of Glotte’

Michael Smither played the role of Orlando. A number of Taranaki artists played various roles, including Wayne Morris who was Leo Lovegrove, Hodgekiss’s business partner in the Boomerland development. My wife Glenda played Sola Poward. She was great in that role and I have to say, has been invaluable in providing a second opinion in just about all of my artistic endeavours since we married. She has a great eye and is doing her own art now.

The other Dick Sargeson story, ‘The Stone of Glotte’, was more to do with an ancient ‘power object’, offering a lot, but not delivering very much. Jeremy Hodgekiss was definitely the ‘star’ in this one. I may have been unconsciously writing Dick out of the picture by this time.

I think that Sir Jeremy, as a man with lots of money but no morals, is a great character to be confronted by the Glottestone. Unlike Lurgan, he’s not interested in the magical power that Ben Skull says it possesses. It’s an inconvenience that’s thwarting his attempts to lay waste to fifty acres of native forest on the bushline of the mountain, so that he can build ‘Boomerland’.

There was an earlier version of Dick Sargeson in the late 70s. It only ran to four pages and was set in Auckland where I was living at the time. I was halfway through this when I found that I needed to photograph real people (my friends, usually) to play the various roles. I used letratone for the first time, and the last page was done in colour. Colour seemed to be the way to go. I was optimistically thinking about publication, and so I had to begin again with a new story which I called ‘The Stony River Affair’. (Very Tintin.)

I got several pages into this (Dick sees a flying saucer while taking photos on the Stony...) when I learnt about Ivan Watkins Dow’s misdeeds down at the port, and decided a new story was required: ‘Dioxin Man’. This was to be done in a freehand style but with reference to 35 mm contact sheets to assist in drawing the various locations.

I’d done about three pages in this style, which I rather enjoyed, when the call went out in the ‘Listener’ for a new cartoonist. I took both stories and styles down to Wellington to see what they liked best. They liked the realistic style, but they also liked the Dioxin Man character. Tom Scott and Burton Silver’s opinions were sought by the ‘Listener’ management and in the end an amalgam of ‘Dick Sargeson’ and ‘Dioxin Man’ ensued.

I have to say it was a bold decision by the ‘Listener’ (David Beatson in particular) to take me on. I’d never done a comic before that went further than about four pages.

David Beatson was very supportive of the strip. Somebody once said that he was a ‘closet comic strip artist’ himself, but I’ve had no confirmation of that. He did say that the comic had a ‘cult following’ which was reassuring. I got a sense that he enjoyed the politics of the story, especially the ‘we’ve had a change of government’ episode where Dick appeals to Dioxin Man, disappearing into the sea.

Episode 15 of ‘Dioxin Man’

When Dick Sargeson ended in the Listener, I sent the first few episodes of a new strip called ‘Snap Harris’ (another photographer). Nothing happened. Eventually I got in touch with David Beatson and went down to Wellington to discuss what now. He wasn’t so keen on another photographer, but did like the idea of turning Jeremy Hodgekiss into a key character. I was very happy to do that, and suggested that it could be in colour, to which they agreed, It was to be called ‘Sir Jeremy’.

I plotted the story from beginning to end. In the past I had been working just a few episodes ahead of publication. After quite a few months and no money coming in (I should have applied for the dole), I had completed 11 episodes. My best comic so far, I thought.

Unfortunately, the Listener was going through some ructions of its own. At the same time, David Beatson left and several other editors came and went. Eventually I submitted ‘Sir Jeremy’ but it was turned down. I vaguely remember them saying that they didn’t think it was right for the listener. Whether it was the sexy Maori cat burglar that provided the wrong type of racial stereotype I can’t be sure, but that particular burglar would have ultimately turned the tables on Sir Jeremy - given the chance.

So that pretty much ended my career as a comic strip artist. Where to after the Listener? So I started painting, a decision I don’t regret for a moment. But I have to say, I did love doing that comic strip! I would be laughing to myself as I figured out dialogue in each episode. And then, seeing it in the news stands ... It was a real buzz.

The Listener paid me about the level of the dole, which was just enough to pay the mortgage and live on. I was very happy to receive that for the three-year duration of ‘Dick Sargeson’. Had I been painting instead, I might have been richer. In the late 80s, artists were doing better than I ever remember. And then came the crash... I’m quite sure that I would have introduced that to the storyline, should ‘Dick Sargeson have continued.

Episode 5 of ‘Sir Jeremy’

Dick Sargeson was a great vehicle to explore the motivations of different sorts of people under pressure. I miss all that. A painting may be equivalent to a thousand words, but a story...? I think that was why I was attracted to comic strips as a nine-year-old. Simple pictures and an unfolding story What fun! Had I been able to afford to shoot lots of Super 8 back in the late 70s, I would have liked to have given movie-making a go. Working with the characters of Dick Sargeson was just like a movie shoot.

I took ‘Dioxin Man’ to a publisher shortly after its run in the Listener. I think that it was Hodder and Stoughton in Auckland. They were keen, but hesitant. In the end they felt that a comic book was too much of a risk. They said that had it been about cooking or gardening, it would have had much more of a chance. I didn’t feel too dispirited. I knew that it had lots of flaws.

The drawings were all done from projections from my enlarger, using a brush. Sometimes they had to be repeated several times to get a spontaneous fresh look - uncluttered and with good shadow tones. An enlarger is much better than a projector as it shows the tones clearly, especially dark shadow tones which are seen as white. I preferred FP4 film. Not very fast, only 125 ASA. But it delivered a great negative image. The image is steady and the enlarger doesn’t make any noise. The only sound would be National Radio in the morning and recorded music in the afternoon.

I travelled to Auckland at least a couple of times taking actors with me. Steve was living there then, so that wasn’t a problem. The Wellington images were taken without actors present. Sometimes I used images from magazines and books, or even from the television. Mr Nikolayevskiy on page 33 of ‘Dioxin Man’ is from a Henri Cartier Bresson photograph in his book on Russia. I really enjoyed putting him in. Elfraeda Haelberend, on page 34, was New Plymouth resident Ida Gaskin, Shakespearian scholar and New Zealand’s ‘Mastermind’ at that time.

On page 44 of ‘Dioxin Man’ the man with his head on his hand is based on a famous 1955 photograph by American photographer Dorothea Lange, titled ‘The defendant’. The ship’s captain in the last panel is another famous portrait of an actor or writer. The helicopter and the frogman were taken from the TV.

The ship on page 45 was at the Port of New Plymouth. We managed to get aboard for all those pictures. Nowadays you can’t get within half a mile of the place. The Power Station images were shot locally using one of the workers who becomes Dioxin Man’s first unintended victim.

The creative process for a single episode centre around how much of the story could be contained within five to nine panels, usually at a single location. Like any movie maker, I would try to use the best locations possible. I would usually storyboard the episode with simple drawings set in panels to try and get a feel for how the page might look. The photos wouldn’t always match the drawings. That didn’t matter. The important thing was that I knew what type of photos were required. A single photograph here, two characters facing off there, a long shot...

Episode 40 of ‘The Stone of Glotte’

I took still photographs from all angles and we would usually repeat the scene several times. Unlike digital, I never knew what I had until I got them home and developed them. I made proof sheets and then picked out the best eight or nine pictures, then enlarged them to the required size, relative to one another. Depending on how the filming went, what the light was like, etc, I had images that were easy to draw from, or not so easy. It was rare that we had to reshoot, as generally I was able to make do.

Interior shots were always difficult using film. Unlike digital, which is really light-sensitive, film was very slow. Even using high speed film, it was difficult. There was quite a bit of inside shooting done for ‘Sir Jeremy’, and I had to set up studio lights to get the job done. I remember an actor tripping on a cable sending a light stand crashing down, narrowly missing a valuable antique table. Using flash was a non-starter.

Most shots were taken between 35 and 75 mm on a zoom lens, but I got more speed out of my 50 mm lens which had a 1.8 aperture. I always used black and white which I bought in bulk and loaded onto cassettes to keep costs down.

I do feel that the photographic approach to producing ‘Dick Sargeson’ worked well, although I’m sure there would be some purists out there who would disagree. Nowadays, I paint from photographs that I’ve taken, inserting elements and people into backgrounds to come up with something that for me, works. Again, I know that there will be those who disagree with this approach, for whatever reason. But I actually like taking photographs. You can take a bunch of images home and then decide what to do with them. I want to record the world as I see it now, and as other people see it, but with a twist. (A Kirk-quirk, if you like.)

The reason I used letratone in the first instance was because it offered the best way of conveying tone on the printed page, and is synonymous with newspaper and magazine production. When I used it for the first time, it was quite a buzz to see the professional look it gave to the drawing. Almost as though it were already halfway to the publisher. It would be much easier today to do the Photoshop equivalent, but back then I really liked it, even though it was expensive to use and required lots of exact cutting. I did try cross-hatching as an experiment, producing the same image by both methods, but letratone won out.

Episode 34 of ‘Dioxin Man’

An episode took about a week to prepare. I worked generally about three or four episodes ahead of publication, The important thing was to have the shoot wrapped up well in advance, because I couldn’t control things like the weather and someone not being available. But the actors were always keen and never let me down. I couldn’t pay them They were just happy to do it, and, I think, really enjoyed seeing themselves doing daft things in the Listener.

The strip gave me the opportunity to highlight things that were happening in New Zealand at that time which for me were markers of where we were at as a nation. Background signs and hoardings were often good value. I still look for them in my paintings today. Wherever I could, I tried to find a backdrop that said something about who we are. Billboards define us, I think, as do the types of buildings we construct, and the street signs we erect. I’m always conscious of all of that. On page 50 of ‘The Glottestone’, Ian Fraser went from being a good broadcaster to ‘selling’ the Bank of New Zealand, and on page 13, an ad stuck behind a pile of milk crates enticed us to spend a day on ‘fabulous Pakatoa Island’. I went there once - very boring. The hydrofoil ride was the best thing but now that’s gone.

In terms of political commentary, I did have Dick calling out to Dioxin Man ‘There’s been a change of government!’ in a desperate attempt to stop him running off and jumping into the sea. It was a pretty ridiculous line but I couldn’t resist it. With David Lange and the Labour Party sweeping the Nats aside, suddenly it seemed like New Zealand might become a better place... nuclear free, etc.

It’s hard to know how the political references were received. I’ve never been active in politics or a member of any political party. I do know that the only two times I’ve ever been proud of something that a governing party in New Zealand has done was when the Labour Party under Norman Kirk protested the French tests in the Pacific and when the Labour Party under David Lange made the country nuclear free.

Episode 1 of ‘The Stone of Glotte’

In many cases it was the surreal quality of the work of photographers like Bresson, Robert Frank, Elliot Erwitt, and from New Zealand, Glen Busch, that first got me into photography. I like pictures where I find the bizarre in the mundane, either through juxtaposition (Bresson was good at this) or just putting something a little odd in the frame. It often doesn’t look odd until it is in the frame. In the 70s, seeing this kind of work for the first time was pretty exciting for me. Previously, my concept of a good photograph was defined by winter show competitions, camera clubs (I was never in one) and the stuff from the Professional Photographers’ Society. So this was pure liberation, and surrealism was at the heart of it.

I recently came across a great quote in a book on photography, from George Bernard Shaw. He always wanted to paint and draw and had no literary ambition. Considering the camera a wonderful substitute for the paint box, he began ‘pushing the button’ in 1898 with such a lack of success, he made the comparison: ‘The photographer is like the cod, which lays a million eggs in order that one may be hatched.’

Having someone sit for a portrait, which may take hours, days or weeks, will produce an image of that person (if it’s any good) like a distillation of everything that’s unique to them, as observed over time. A snapshot captures an instant in time and records subtleties of expression in a way that a sitting cannot. The same thing applies to landscape. I’m not saying that one method is right and the other is wrong. The art world should accommodate all methods of making pictures. To me, the end result justifies the means, whatever those ‘means’ might be.

Taking a surrealist approach always appealed to me because it was like bending or distorting what should be ‘the truth’. I love that side of it.

On trumpet at the Puke Ariki Centenary - 2019
The studio/gallery of Graham Kirk is at 2747 Carrington Road RD 37 New Plymouth 4381 New Zealand
phone (64) 6 752 4479
email Graham at

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