Popular parlance, Peter Ireland

New Zealand: a century of images 
Paul Thompson
Te Papa Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 909010 45 5

There is sometimes a phrase, a picture or a juxtaposition of both in a book that inadvertently clarifies its nature more than any eloquent preface or introduction. In discussing an image of George Chance’s, the author writes: “Nowadays the Mt Egmont of the title is officially known as ‘Mt Taranaki or Mt Egmont’ (a double-barrelled pedigree), and in popular parlance, Taranaki/Egmont.” Popular parlance? Setting aside the question whether this is an accurate description of usage, the phrase itself provides a key to the likely genesis of this particular compilation of photographs.

The Museum of New Zealand / Te Papa Tongarewa holds about 650,000 photographic images collected principally by the former Colonial, Dominion and National Museums and the former National Art Gallery. This huge, diverse, rich and immensely illuminating collection – belonging to us – has never before been made accessible through publication in a way that might hint at its qualities, arouse a wider interest and perhaps maintain it. To initiate this access, a century of images appears to have been conceived as a collection sampler aimed at a perceived popular market. Selecting 82 images from those 650,000 to somehow represent the whole would be an impossible task, and the author does claim that the book “concentrates on the pictures themselves to see what they have to say, rather than … trying to make them fit an overall framework.”

What impression, then, does this compilation make? There is such a diversity of imagery and discrepancy in the quality of reproduction that the qualities individual images may have are shredded by the incoherence of the book as a whole. As a series of postcards, it may have succeeded, but as a book it has no point. Market-driven projects, however well-intentioned, have an inherent flaw: they are driven, not by passion, but by a perceived need. Nowhere does this flaw reveal itself so relentlessly as in art. The images in this book were made by individuals with focus and passion, and are privileged primarily for being so; yet in trying to cover so many bases the book lacks any individual stamp, any detectable passion and any measurable focus.

Having renounced a framework, as we have seen, the Introduction, oddly, immediately provides one: “upon viewing the thousands of images in the Museum’s photography collection, it was apparent they did seem to fall naturally into broad thematic areas: the land, the people, the culture, the times, and the personal view” – as “naturally” as water assumes the shape of the glass when poured into tumblers. This lack of rigour in critical thought extends also to the selection of images and the writing accompanying them. When so little of the collection has been reproduced, the fact that over half the images in the book already have been suggests a certain lack of energy and enterprise in the selection. This may explain the absence of that freshness and surprise apparent in instances of popular parlance such as folk art.

The chatty, speculative tone of the text reflects the overall market orientation. But no amount of marketing strategy
or editorial control can excuse such banalities as “Concrete rather than wood could be said to be the material that built New Zealand in the twentieth century and is now a material with which most males and many females are familiar”; “Interest in Maori matters is not new”; and “After Modernism came Post-Modernism”, to choose three random examples. This depressing instance of education by condescension says less about these images than about the institution’s regard for them.

This under-researched approach trips over occasionally, but nowhere more obviously than when the author waxes lyrical about “the warm glow in the sky” in Fiona Clark’s “Waiongana, Puketapu”. The colour image may well have deteriorated over the past dozen years, but there is a reproduction of it showing a less than glowing sky in the National Art Gallery’s 1982 catalogue Views/Exposures

The discrepancy in the quality of reproduction is not just disappointing in Te Papa’s first major photographic publication, it is inexplicable in terms of the standards set by the Museum’s earlier institutional manifestations, and especially in terms of the claims made for Te Papa’s superiority to them. After a decade of claims it’s delivery time, guys. A dozen images are excellently reproduced (on pp9, 11, 13, 35, 49, 79, 87, 99, 115, 121, 125 and 161), leaving 70 that are not. Allowing for the probable deterioration of Clark’s, other colour images to suffer are Hannken’s (p69) and, especially, Robin Morrison’s (pp137 and 149); the colour distortion and cropping reducing the image to a travesty of the photographer’s intentions. Four images are crassly and pointlessly overscaled: Aberhart’s (p27), Douglas’s (p31), Peryer’s (p29) and Bayly’s (p141), this last being an SX-70 Polaroid. The only other SX-70 reproduced (p153) appears, rightly, actual size: why the inconsistency? Many images suffer a significant loss of detail from over-inking, six in particular being highly compromised: Pascoe (p45), Westra (p53), Collins (p91), Cleveland (p117), Black (p61) and Noble (p169). In Black’s case there is a double irony: the over-inking pays dubious homage to his name and the title of the photograph Black Power, Wellington. In Noble’s Night hawk the loss of detail is such that the image is, literally, in popular parlance, knackered.

Both the collection and its stakeholders deserve better than a century of images. For an institution that claims to have gone boldly where no man has gone before, it’s as if Captain Kirk had suddenly got cold feet.

Peter Ireland is a Wanganui-based painter who has had a long-standing involvement with photography.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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