Into the light, Paul Thompson

Early New Zealand Photography, Images and Essays
Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf (eds)
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781877578168


I must admit that I don’t usually go around thinking of photographs as “culturally conditioned visual communications systems” but, on a little reflection, that’s what they are. In Early New Zealand Photography, Images and Essays, 23 authors present pieces originally delivered at a symposium, “The Rise of Photography in New Zealand 1839-1918”, held at the Hocken Collections, University of Otago, five years ago.

The editors state their purpose clearly:

While there is a growing body of popular literature and scholarship on photography in New Zealand, much of it is dedicated to recent art photography or limited to the study of individual photographers. Often this scholarship follows art historical conventions that are not entirely reconcilable with the broad range of photographic production, much of which occurs outside of the context of fine art.

Quite. Early New Zealand Photography takes a more modern, cultural-studies approach, and views the photograph as a material object located in a series of changing contexts or, to use a photographic metaphor, with a panoramic regard towards its subject.

Peter Turner, editor of the internationally important journal Creative Camera, spent the last years of his life in New Zealand. He once remarked that there were “more photographs than bricks in the world”. The work under review is not overly concerned with the details of the singular image, but rather what that can tell us about the architecture and surrounding landscape of photography itself.

Most of the authors are academics or doctoral candidates, others have positions in public institutions, such as libraries, museums and art galleries. Consequently, some of the essays are written in what I would term a “public history style” – that is, informed and accessible – while others veer toward the academic, using jargon and tending towards cultural-studies complexity in writing, even while expressing straightforward concepts.

That said, as all the pieces are shortish (mostly four or five pages), the overall effect is one of readability. As the intention is to treat the photograph as an object, emphasising its materiality, the inclusion in the captions of the actual size of the images aids our understanding of the authors’ analyses when, of course, for practical reasons, some of the images cannot be reproduced at their original size.

This matter of size and reproduction in differing contexts could be a study fitting well with the intention of the overall work and, indeed, as will be mentioned later, raises all sorts of possible research questions. The book will certainly contribute to the thickening of knowledge around New Zealand photography.

It’s a tricky business concentrating on the materiality of a photograph rather than on its image (the content), and some of the authors play for both sides. But that’s not a bad thing as it deepens reader involvement. Other pieces are more aligned to conventional description and interpretation. But all gesture towards placing their selected image into a wider framework.

There is a fascinating range of coverage. The book examines the years from the first photographs taken in New Zealand up until the Great War. But within this restricted period there is certainly enough food for thought, or rather, variety of photographs, to make for a healthy diet. Considered are cultural, economic, ethnological, technical, sexual, medical, military, ethical and museological perspectives, colonial power relationships, and conjunctions with fine art and reportage. While all fit within the current broad intellectual consensus on matters such as gender and race, there are a few surprising nuggets.

Brian Moloughney comments on a photograph of a river scene in Canton circa 1910, and taken for the Presbyterian Mission. He observes that, contrary to the accepted notion that Chinese goldminers in New Zealand were largely isolated and impoverished outsiders, some operated through extensive and profitable networks. Ken Hall, while considering the linkages between Lindauer’s painting and commercial photography, poses the question to what extent the portrayal of Maori in traditional garb (when they would usually have been wearing European clothes) contributed to Maori being consigned to a mythic past. It’s relevant to not only how Pakeha regard Maori, but also how Maori regard themselves.

A careful reading raises as many questions as are addressed. This is a good thing, for there is much work to be done in the fertile field that is photography, and the materialist approach is a good fit. It is a relief to move on from the standard art-historical approach which was developed for a totally different medium. Even in the introduction, which notes that photography has only recently been accepted into the mainstream of intellectual and aesthetic regard here, there are issues to be explored.

Soon after the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui was opened in 1919, for example, local photographer Frank Denton was commissioned to assemble a collection of pictorialist photography. However, the bigger metropolitan institutions largely held off until the 1970s and 80s when, following overseas trends, they admitted photography in a meaningful way.

Why was this? Do our cultural commissars need validation from abroad or are there other and more local reasons? Whatever the factors, this is an area of examination that would respond well to the methods and approaches promulgated in this book, and such a study would sit very happily alongside the other pieces.

I am unsure who Early New Zealand Photography is aimed at. I imagine, given the credentials and interests of most of the authors, that it will find a place in photographic, art, media, history and cultural studies courses. It has detailed end papers comprising the contributors’ biographies, a directory of New Zealand photographic collections, a select bibliography and notes.

That it is dedicated to the late Hardwicke Knight, an Otago identity and the person who really initiated study of the history of New Zealand photography in 1971 with his Photography in New Zealand: A Social and Technical History, is most appropriate. Thus it recognises that just like photographic imagery, analysis is subject to fashion or “development”, that changing modes of inquiry are part of an intellectual continuum. I think Knight would be pleased at how the discussion about photography and its myriad meanings has come out of the darkroom and into the light.


Paul Thompson’s new book, 7:34, will be published by Wai-te-ata Press later this year.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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