Sharyn Smart talks with Margaret Bake

Pixels to Paint: Artist Margaret Bake displays her paintings alongside her photography. Photo by: Sharyn Smart

Pixels to Paint: Artist Margaret Bake displays her paintings alongside her photography.
Photo by: Sharyn Smart

Prominent retired Taranaki Photographer Margaret Bake proves that she has many strings to her artistic bow as she shows her work in an exhibition aptly titled “From pixels to paint” with friend and artist Derek Hughes.

“The idea for the title “From Pixels to Paint” is simply that I’m exploring the idea of doing some painting in a very amateur way while still having the passion for photography.

“Derek Hughes and I are sharing the Fitz Reuter Art Gallery in Inglewood.  He’s going to be exhibiting new photographic work and I’m going to be showing some photographic work and also some of my paintings because of the art that I’ve been attempting to do for the last 12 months.  We’re also going to give space to the Inglewood Photographic group to hang some of their work.”

Margaret explains her move from photography to oils as a “dabble” into the painting world.  She is certainly as capable with a brush as she is a camera.

“A year on I think I’m making a bit of progress.  I don’t how far I will take the painting or how long I will do it.  I always thought I would like to work with clay.  I’ve always wondered about pottery, ceramics and things like that. 

“At the moment I’m happy with oils and I would be very, very keen for people who know so much about art to give me a real critique and tell me ‘Am I heading down the right path or am I not?’ I’m happy to listen to what anybody has to say about my attempts.”

Married to husband John for 51 years, working and sharing so much of their lives together, Margaret struggled as alzheimers stole her husband from her.

“John’s health really started to deteriorate not long after we shifted in October 2011 and by March 2012 he was having day-care once a week at Chalmers Home.

“My retired photographer friend Shelia Connell told me about this art group that she belongs to in Lepperton called Ackworth Art.  I joined because I needed some relief and to also relieve the tension that was in me as John’s health deteriorated.

“I thought I don’t think I want to pursue photography to the same extent that I have done in the past.  I was invited to join the group and thought why not, I’ll give it a go.”

“He (John) went into full-time care at Chalmers on the 20th of March 2013 and passed away sixteen weeks later on the 3rd of July from complications from the Alzheimers.”

“I have found that my art group and the painting has been a great help.  It is something that I can lose myself in here at home when I’m here on my own, that doesn’t involve photography.

“It’s been a safety valve for me to keep myself on track because I have in the past suffered from depression.  I got terribly depressed when I lost the business and I wasn’t very nice to be around actually.  I don’t think my family understood what was happening to me.  I have had one or two depression bouts since then too.  At the moment I’m in a pretty good space.”

The business Margaret refers to is Margaret Bake Studio, New Plymouth where up until 1998 she was highly respected for her wedding photography and family portraiture.  The main reason for shutting the doors was her failing eyesight.

“It will be 25 years on Sept 15 2014 that the shingles attack happened at a photographic conference in Taupo and I didn’t know what it was.  It came down through the facial nerve and only attacked my eye it didn’t go anywhere else.

“The irony of it is that the virus attacked my sighted eye and didn’t have a go at the unsighted one.  That was a really cruel blow.  I’m only sighted from birth in my right eye the left one had a congenital defect in it.  It was never sighted.  There is no sight in the left eye.  I’ve been mono monocular all my life.

“Most people have stereo vision, but anybody who only has the use of one eye will understand what I’m talking about because we see things in a different way.”

Closing down the Margaret Bake Studio was very traumatic and has left some deep scars.

“I closed the studio in 1998 because the prognosis for my vision was pretty bad. I had Tony Carter and Roger French working for me but in the beginning of 1993 Roger branched out and set up his own studio.

“I can understand why because the future from my staff’s point of view didn’t look rosy.  They had an employer who had a severe visual disability which was probably going to get worse.  It was pretty clear that the titanic was going to sink at some stage.

“So Roger branched out on his own and then shortly afterwards Tony Carter did as well. They made independent careers for themselves.

“As my staffing situation reduced I decided to phase the studio down as well and I already had a facility at my residence up in Vogeltown but I needed to modify it and to add extra work space to it.

“But unfortunately by the time we got fully operational in the November / December 1997, my sighted eye ulcerated over the Christmas New Year period.   I didn’t realise what was happening and when Kevin Taylor (Ophthalmologist) took one look at me he said ‘I want you up at Base Hospital NOW’.”

It was quickly discovered that Margaret had a ‘virus of some sort in the cornea which had got underneath a contact lens’.

“I didn’t realise what was happening and I nearly lost my vision there and then. The damage was so severe.  I just walked back into my room and said to the family who were gathered ‘This is it.  I have to close the studio’ (it still makes me cry) I don’t relive it very often.  That it was in the January of 1998.

“My personal assistant Julie Wright was absolutely brilliant. She was probably the best office person I ever had.  She also drove the car because at this stage of my life I didn’t drive for 8 years because of my eye sight.  She would drive us and make herself available to be my personal assistant at the weddings.  She helped me wind up the studio and phase it down.

“I just rang Tony Carter, Fay Looney and Roger French and said to them ‘I need to see you. I have to walk out of my business. I have to stop taking photographs.  I want to hand you all my bookings and all my weddings.  They came in and interviewed people and sorted things.

“During the wind down phase, for nearly a year, we just gradually phased it down, phased it down and then we had a giant garage sale.  People came from all over and I was absolutely staggered at how all my equipment and all my backdrops and everything went. I used to paint all my own backdrops hence my painting now of course.

As part of the wind down phase the public were given the chance to buy their negatives for a very small fee as Margaret had nowhere to store them and knew that she would have to otherwise destroy them.

“We notified the general public by advertising extensively and said because of the closure of the business I was no longer able to store the negatives.  People were able to pay a very, very small fee and take their negatives.  Sadly less than 15% of people actually came for them.

“I went through my records and anything that I felt that was of significance to the community, such as the last commercial work I had done for the St Marys 150th celebrations, I approached them and asked if they wanted the negatives.

“My own personal award winning images are going to be looked after by PukeAriki.”

“So then the heart wrenching decision had to be made with regards to the remainder of the negatives.  We had to dispose of them.  I arranged for them to be properly disposed of.  But that was a sad day I won’t forget either.”

Margaret has seen many changes to photography over her 57 year career which still continues and shares a few of her insights.

“It’s really is important to get an image into a physical print like books and well printed stuff on high quality paper with high quality inks. To actually have a physical print in your hand as far as I can see at the moment is one of the few ways in which you can actually guarantee the image survives because digital images and electronic images only have a certain life.

“The appreciation of photography now is that so many people can create images for themselves at home that I think a certain respect for it as a profession has been eroded by the fact that technology has allowed people to become their own photographers.

“People create an image, look at it and say it’s got no value.  They push a button and it’s gone.  There’s no way you could ever bring it back.  You actually have to have something physical that you can sleeve and put away.

“What’s going to happen in years to come is there is going to be a gap in our history.  Because people haven’t taken it seriously enough the fact that electronic imagery can be very fickle, very unstable and it can be very easily lost.”

Over the years Margaret has had some deep lows with regards to her diminishing eyesight and in 2005 was even considering having a guide dog.  Thanks to advancements in technology every low seemed to be proceeded by a new procedure enabling her to remain in the sighted world a little longer.

“Science processes and medical procedures have been available every time I’ve needed something.  The world of eye surgery appears to be continually developing and seems to catch up with my needs.”

The pinnacle of her photography career was in 2001 when she came out of retirement to have one last lash at gaining her Fellowship.

“I dropped out of competitive photography in 1993 as basically it was over for me because of my eyesight.  I still did some, changing from a long lens to a wide angle lens. The reason was with the wide angle I could get closer to my subject to basically see enough to know what was going on.

“My style of photography changed because of my eyesight. During the February, March and April of 2001 I set myself a target and I started to shoot specifically for the awards looking at things differently through the wide angle lens.”

“I was just totally focused on entering these images.  If it’s over for me … If I’m going to go blind … If I’m not ever going to be able to pick up a camera again … this is my last chance to see if I can do something.  Even if I only get part of the points the merits that I need to go towards the fellowship.  Even if I only get some of them I might be able to finish it the following year if my sight holds.”

Margaret’s entries were so successful she came away with multiple awards including Photographer of the Year easily attaining her fellowship.

“Because I had changed my style of photography nobody had a clue whose photographs they were looking at in the judging.

“I did my fellowship in one hit. I won the Kodak People Award, The Prism Black and White Award, Anne Geddes Champion Print and I was a finalist in two other categories.

“When they added up my score, I was just so far out in front there was no one near me.  That meant I became photographer of the year.  I’ve only ever done that once.  The structure of the awards system is totally different now compared to back then.”

Margaret is still very active within the photography circles even though her camera isn’t used as much as it once was.

“I’m still judging and doing presentations for photographic groups as well as mentoring those wishing to take up the challenge of doing their letters with the Photographic Society of New Zealand.  Painting is something that I’m trying whereas photography is still my passion even though I’m not out there shooting.”

Margaret has many achievements earned over the years and admits to being very competitive along with being particular about tiny details which has resulted in such success.

“I’ve got a fellow of the Royal, I’m now a life member of that.  I’m a fellow of NZIPP and a life member.  I’m a fellow of the Photographic Society of NZ but I’m also an honorary fellow of that society and there can only ever be 7 living at any one time.  I’ve got my standard FPSNZ as well. I’m a life member of the NP Photographic Club and I founded the Inglewood Photographic Group which is now 14 years old and I’m a life member and patron of that.  I’m an honorary ambassador to the city for photographic achievements.

“I’m proud of my achievements over my career and when asked I’m happy to talk about them.  I’m very appreciative of the fact that so many people value what I’ve done because sometimes I bump into people and they say I’ve still got that beautiful family portrait that you did up on the wall.  So if people value and are still very happy with what you’ve done, I think that’s where it really ticks the boxes.

“I look at what happened to John with his alzheimers.  I know of people younger who have mental and memory issues and I’m just so grateful that what I’ve got upstairs still appears to be working reasonably well and the wiring between the ears hasn’t let me down so far.

“But from a health point of view the eye is not going to improve.  We’re not going to get any more than what I’ve got now.  What I’ve got now is all I’m ever going to get.  It will go backwards as I’m getting older.   If I can get say another 4 or 5 years of sight and hang onto my licence for another few years that will be great.”


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