George D Valentine: A 19th Century Photographer in New Zealand
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.95,
Travel to new places, whether as regular tourist or long-term visitor, carries with it a powerful urge to record and share the exotic experience with family or friends. Today video-wielding tourists and stiff-armed digital photographers seem a permanent fixture of places like the Parliamentary lawn in Wellington. But imagine the excitement of the first European settlers in New Zealand and their need to send evidence of the new and strange back home.
For much of the 19th century, photography meant a large-format camera combined with processing glass plates. Image-making belonged to the commercial photographer or in some cases, the serious amateur. With this came a business often based on photographs of scenic wonders, “exotic” inhabitants or portraits that eager settlers collected as personal records or to send to the mother country. The Burton Brothers, the Tyree brothers, James Bragge and George Valentine, among many others, were all part of this context.
In George D Valentine, A 19th Century Photographer in New Zealand, Ken Hall provides the first comprehensive publication of Valentine’s New Zealand work and makes the case for regarding him as an image-maker out of the ordinary. Writing of Valentine’s work in the thermal regions and New Zealand bush, Hall says:
Regularly his photographs extend beyond the merely topographic into works which are convincing as consciously artistic, expressive statements – results which were possible only through his enormous facility with the medium.
Hall’s excellent selection of Valentine’s images supports this claim. It showcases the photographer’s feeling for the form and rhythm of landscapes along with his sense of the iconic, apparent in studies of the Waitomo Caves and the Pink and White Terraces. Post-eruption photographs of Mt Tarawera and the surrounding landscape in 1886 have an austerity that is reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley images by 19th century American photographer Carleton Watkins.
Unfortunately Hall’s formal discussion of Valentine’s artistic significance is crammed into the final section of the book’s epilogue. This is a curious decision considering the regard that Hall clearly feels for the work. Obviously there are few clues about Valentine’s inner drives or, as Hall says, “inherited memories” of the photographer. But what a different book this would be if a chapter or two had been spent discussing Valentine’s work in relation to his New Zealand and international contemporaries.
Another unexplored topic is a discussion of the claim that Valentine was making “consciously artistic, expressive statements” (clearly a contemporary viewpoint of the work). Does this mean that Valentine’s work leads to today’s art statements about nature and culture or are these images the precursor of New Zealand’s scenic and tourist photography?
Books and catalogues about historic photographers help build the picture of New Zealand’s recent and distant photographic past. But a larger question is, do individual bodies of work link to each other, and if so, how? Does the present sit on the shoulders of the past? This question requires more breadth of vision and confidence than many publications over the last 20 years have shown.
Although Ken Hall’s book does great work in bringing a significant photographer to public attention, the reproduction lacks the beauty and colour of the 19th century albumen prints. The technical note on the photographs states that the “duotone printing aims to reproduce nineteenth-century albumen print colour and tone”. In fact the book’s taupe-coloured reproductions with their rather muddy highlights come nowhere near the beautiful reddish-purple tone of the original Valentine prints. For an example of well-reproduced albumen photographs it’s worth looking for a copy of Samuel Bourne, Images of India (1983). Better still, ask to see the Valentine prints at the Alexander Turnbull library in Wellington. The ethereal delicacy and tonal range of the original works is truly compelling.
What Hall’s book does do well is give a sense of the colonial society that Valentine lived in and the context for his photography. Valentine left a thriving family photographic business in Scotland to seek better health in New Zealand’s climate. Although, as Hall suggests, he wasn’t totally dependent on photography to support his family, he clearly visited New Zealand’s emerging tourist areas to make views to sell to the public. The Pink and White Terraces, the thermal region, the newly opened Waitomo Caves, along with the landscape following the eruption of Mt Tarawera, were all part of his territory.
It’s interesting to realise how, even in the 19th century, image-making such as Valentine’s must have helped set the scene for New Zealand’s domestic and international tourist industry. Unfortunately, living in New Zealand didn’t save George Valentine and he died in 1890 of tuberculosis at the age of 38. Although the significance of his work has been noted before in books like New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present (1993), Ken Hall has done great service in researching his life and images. The book, despite missing opportunities with the reproduction and narrative, is well worth seeking out.
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer and poet. She thanks John Sullivan of the Alexander Turnbull library and Mark Strange of the National Library for assistance with research for this review.