Down by the river, Paul Thompson

Te Awa: Partington’s photographs of Whanganui Maori
W H T Partington
Godwit, $39.95,
ISBN 1869620992

In the introduction to Te Awa, a book of photographs of Whanganui River Maori taken by William Henry Thomas Partington at the start of the 20th century, Sharon Dell says, “This collection belongs to a particular time and place”. She is probably referring to the circumstances in which the photographs were made but I suspect it applies to the present as well. The book is like a photo album in that for those connected by whakapapa or whenua it will have a more heightened meaning than for us, its general readers.

As well as family and geography, there may also be a cultural divide between some Maori and Pakeha viewers.  In many wharenui, photographs of tupuna (ancestors) have as important a place as the more traditional arts of carving, kowhaiwhai and tukutuku. Tangata whenua often consider these images as more than merely photographs: they are seen as an embodiment of that person. This regard means that many individuals and institutions dealing with photographs of Maori have a heightened sensitivity about their use. It was this that prompted the Wanganui Museum, the Whanganui River Maori Trust Board and other community groups to acquire the Partington Collection when a proposed auction was called off because of fears of disruption by Maori opposed to the possible commercialisation, dispersal or “inappropriate” use of the images.

I couldn’t get a firm grip on this book. It’s like the river itself, the way mists and clouds soften its physical power and add a layer of diffuse meaning that we wrap up in the portmanteau term “spirituality”. The book is a sampler only: there are many more images in the collection. Some studies are historically fascinating, with detail such as a cloak apparently made of peacock feathers; others are standard studio portraits or “type” pictures that reveal little about sitter or photographer.

There is a skein of reasons for my hesitancy. From the visual evidence, W H T Partington (1855-1940) seems to have been a journeyman commercial photographer who took the occasional successful picture that rose above the straightforwardly competent. Perhaps the visual codes of Edwardian studio photography are now so remote that we can’t overcome our current preference for looking at the world with “natural” and less formal images and poses. I feel the book fails overall to integrate individual portraits and wider genre scenes, studio-based work and more telling pictures taken on location. Unfortunately no pictures of the river are included to give a wider context.

Or is the very chameleon-like nature of photography itself the problem? At times its intentions are commercial or documentary; at others, expressive, aesthetic and creative. Of course both poles of objectivity and subjectivity can coexist in a single image. Then we usually acknowledge we have a successful photograph. But here we waver between the extremes, often without a resolution. Some of these pictures are very good, none are really great, although in a wider analysis they are certainly a remarkable and coherent collection.

John Perry’s comment in the auction catalogue that “When a collection of this magnitude comes into the public arena the world of historical photography, as we know it, changes” is perhaps a trifle optimistic. While the discovery of the collection in an old suitcase in a garage and the subsequent political machinations that stopped it being dispersed certainly set the scene, the book needs a little more work to make obvious the historical significance claimed for the collection. It could do with some authorship or editorial presence.

Additional information in the introduction and a more considered use of captions would have enhanced its meaning for outsiders. The introduction contextualises the times in which the photos were taken and reinforces Maori regard of the images as simulacra of tupuna. However, information such as that Maori were seen as a dying race or the concurrent co-opting of Maori imagery and culture to legitimise settler culture would have given us more to chew on, assisted in our analysis and enjoyment of these pictures, and expedited a “documentary” reading.

Captions create heated debates. There are those who wish to mine an image unswayed by any interpretation a caption may induce. However, without overwhelming the individual images, factual details such as those given for the spread on pp34-35 would add depth to a reading. There are abbreviated captions listed at the back of the book but constant page-turning interrupts the natural flow, with each image building on the one before.

The book is nicely produced (apart from a few quibbles, such as the same portrait reproduced twice with different captions and then an erratum noted); it will become a taonga for the descendants of those pictured, and deservedly so. Notwithstanding the importance of photographs to some Maori, as far as we know no Maori photographer was working at this or any other momentous time, such as the New Zealand Wars or the move to the cities after WWII. Indeed many of the images of Maori in the 1960s and 70s were taken by Dutch immigrant Ans Westra. Some of the portraits in Te Awa were commissioned by the sitters; all were taken by Partington, a Pakeha and newcomer to the Wanganui area.

This is now an historic situation. These days a handful of Maori-identified photographers are working to both Western art and documentary models. Rather than being restricted to an outsider’s view of Maori culture, we will have a visual record and commentary from the inside. This, along with other perspectives, will signify a maturing of our visual culture in the most populist and accessible form – photography. This book makes a significant contribution to that development.


Paul Thompson is a photographer and writer currently preparing for an exhibition of his work in Zurich.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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