Into the Light: A History of New Zealand Photography
Craig Potton Publishing, $59.99,
A history of New Zealand through photography: at long last the poor cousin of art and literature has crawled out from the black hole of its inferiority complex to announce a proud history and to show that this Cinderella of the arts really does deserve a gorgeous hardcover book on the best paper money can buy.
Poet, arts reviewer, music writer and researcher David Eggleton has turned his eye lovingly onto the photograph and delivers an unabashed, personal, idiosyncratic interpretation of the photographic image in New Zealand, and its creators, since the first daguerreotype in 1841. But Into the Light is more than a history of photography, it’s a history of New Zealand as seen by some of the most astute observers who have had the ignominy of being ignored.
What a refreshingly different view David Eggleton gives us to all those prose histories when he uses the photographer and the photograph as the lens for his psychosocial-historic narrative told in 70,000 words and 162 photographs. Dipping into the book, like a dapping mayfly, we find Alfred Barker’s photographs (1858-73), showing a community stamping its mark of British civilisation and Christianity on a supposedly heathen land. A hundred years later, “pictorialism might in the end be seen as reflecting a kind of cosy narcolepsy”. Then in the 1970s we have “the rise of the flax roots movements – women’s liberation, gay liberation, Maori sovereignty, nuclear-free Pacific, an anti-authoritarian and hedonistic youth movement, a gang culture”. These heroic struggles of people against forces of ignorance and oppression, Eggleton tells us, were the contested territories that became “synonymous with photography, the preeminent means for establishing recognition and hence identity”.
Given the current preoccupation with identity and culture in New Zealand, the importance of photography cannot be overstated, especially as the place of the photographer in establishing and identifying our heritage has been mismanaged by publishing houses, editors, libraries and museums. Eggleton’s idea of the photographer as historian, recording social, cultural, industrial, agricultural and scientific history must be a novelty for today’s writers and academics who scratch around cadging make-do images to use as unsourced space-fillers in their articles and papers rather than treating them as essential and integral parts of their arguments.
Eggleton is an astute observer, yet his reasoning is sometimes a little awry – for example, when he laments the state of documentary photography:
The ubiquity of photography has dulled and conditioned our response to it. It is no longer a fresh and vital way of seeing. Traditional photo-documentary, for example, struggles to maintain its credentials as it provides images that have been told too many times.
It is not the consumer who has turned away from good stills documentary, rather it is the cowardly policies of controversy-averse editors abetted by budget-squeezing management. What gives the lie to Eggleton’s statement is the popularity of publications like Time and National Geographic and the thousands who queue around Wellington city blocks hungry to see World Press Photo’s annual exhibition. The clamour to see my own photo essay on carers for the elderly, published last year in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, could hardly be described as dull.
New Zealand is awash with meaningless, cheap photographs chosen by visually illiterate editors, who subscribe to the conceit that everyman, including themselves, is a photographer, and the act of publishing the work somehow bestows authority on its creator. These editors, of magazines like The New Zealand Listener, North & South, Metro, Sunday or Investigate, insult their readers with irrelevant photographs from overseas libraries and shallow, bland local offerings. I include here the editors of New Zealand Books for the tiny, unsourced smudges that masquerade as photographs in their publication.
The decline in the quality, source and subject of photos published in New Zealand has been so insidious that most subscribers and advertisers are unaware they are being ripped off. Making good photographs is difficult and time-consuming, hence expensive. Photography is not helped by institutions and newspapers insisting their name be reproduced with photographs but not that of the photographer. Denying the existence of a photograph’s creator (or any creative person) is a symptom of the low esteem in which photographers are held and is tantamount to castrating history.
There are many talented, brave, committed and deep-thinking documentary photographers in New Zealand, such as Bruce Foster, Ann Shelton, Glenn Busch, Bruce Connew, Glenn Jowett, Ans Westra, David Cook and Peter Black, who struggle to have their work seen. They are still around but mostly making a living elsewhere, teaching or consulting, and their photography has morphed onto the gallery wall as art. David Eggleton scoops them up in this History of New Zealand Photography for deserved mention.
This brings me to the plaint of the bemused camera club photographer who will say of the photographs reproduced in Into the Light: “I could do that.” Indeed, they probably could as a mechanical act with a camera. But it is the ideas behind the photograph that interest Eggleton: “The ‘accidental masterpiece’ is a convenient myth; but the intention of the person making the image is everything.”
Eggleton talks of staring into a photograph and wanting to know what story it is telling and whose story is being told. Whose story indeed, we might ask, incredulous, at the thought of Peter Peryer photographing cream-filled doughnuts with jam blobs, and musing on “their suggestion of bandages and wounds, the images might be of martyred foodstuffs – a proletarian emblem arrayed as powerfully as a flag”. Or Bruce Foster in the Chelsea sugar refinery finding an analogy for “his own sweet lyricism among the shiny empty cans and golden syrup”.
I can forgive such hyperbole for it makes us think and adds to the mythology surrounding specific, generally “art”, photographs. The language of the photographer is the finished image, offered as a delicate visual poem or wielded as a bludgeon of protest. Words are seldom the forte of the photographer who struggles mightily to produce the briefest statement about themselves and their work. Thus, Eggleton’s poetic prose and his fresh and original phrasing are two of the strengths of this book.
There are enough thoughtful insights and interpretations of our history for this book to stand proudly alongside all those other histories of New Zealand. For example, the new feminist photographers’ “gynocentric view of the world” was a protest at magazine advertising that reduced women to “identikit body parts”. They expressed their protest by “going inward, and allowing self-scrutiny to access states of feeling”. Eggleton’s statement that for feminist art to be more than propaganda it needed to alter our perceptions, could be applied universally.
One of the book’s eight interconnected essays explores photography’s contribution to nation building, and is titled “Dominion: The Nationalists”. Here Eggleton deals with the work of James McDonald (1865-1935), Leslie Adkin (1888-1964), John Pascoe (1908-1972), Eric Lee-Johnson (1908-1993), Les Cleveland (1921-) and others. After describing nationalism as a “testimony to a New Zealand essentialism”, he brands Pascoe and Adkin as closet nationalists – their “ideological stance a subtext of their photographs” – who sought to portray everyday New Zealand, the bush and mountains, without the “high flown gauze of Pictorialism”.
He points out that Cleveland’s work shared the aspirations of those seeking a national identity derived from their own circumstances, at a time when New Zealanders were prone to do-it-yourself boosterism, referring, no doubt, to their mythical ability to fix anything with No 8 wire and binder twine. We are reminded of Cleveland’s words that he had to “invent photography with an axe and saw” when he went to Westland in pursuit of authenticity and the last remnants of the frontier.
When Les Cleveland heard I was reviewing Into the Light, he shot me a copy of a letter he wrote to the publisher, objecting to being reduced to a nationalist when he was engaged in a more demanding exercise. He said there was more to be extracted from the documentary labours of Pascoe and himself by realising they were both engaged in identity quests concerning the “integratory relationship between past and present, man and nature, unexplored wilderness/present day occupancy as a counter to the sour literary mythology of alienation as an explanation for NZ art and literature.” Such feisty communications should be welcomed by Eggleton, and indeed all librarians, academics and historians, but I fear they are seen as attacks on their professionalism and hence disparaged and discouraged. It is easier for a researcher to spurn the living in favour of the quiet life of dealing with dead photographers who don’t argue back or hold strong views on how their work should be used.
Eggleton and Craig Potton Publishing are to be congratulated for tangling with the living, and introducing many photographers who didn’t feature in William Main’s and John Turner’s New Zealand Photography from 1940 to the Present (1993) or Paul Thompson’s New Zealand: A Century of Images (1998).
The beautiful backlit photograph in a golden rectangle, perfectly composed into thirds, diagonals or triangles, has no place in Into the Light. The rules of good composition have been conspicuously ignored by the chosen photographers to good effect, but such a diet of content over form can quickly stonker the appetite of those used to coffee-table picture books. But it’s worth persevering with these photographs and their makers, as this is a serious and scholarly work (it weighs 1.5 kg!) without being impenetrably academic.
Alan Knowles is a Wellington photographer and books editor of the New Zealand Journal of Photography.