Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 9, 2012
Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf, eds. Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press, 2011. 208 pp. Paper $50.00 (9781877578168)
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Over the last decade there has been a quiet but persistent revolution in scholarship on photography. The growing popularity of the medium as a focus of academic study, coupled with the desire by some researchers to explore histories of photography beyond the mainstream, has seen a groundswell of work being undertaken in regions outside of the United States and Europe. Pushing beyond the limited and generally imperialistic boundaries still apparent in most world histories of photography, Australasian photo-historians are actively contributing to a more global understanding of the medium. This is most evident in Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf’s notable edited volume, Early New Zealand Photography.

Derived from the symposium, “The Rise of Photography in New Zealand (1839–1918),” held at the Hocken Collections, University of Otago, in December 2007, the chronologically arranged anthology comprises twenty-four short essays, most of which focus on one singular image. Although some of the essays can be frustratingly brief, their brevity does allow the authors to cover an ambitious range of photographic technologies, formats, genres, and approaches. As contributing author Chris Brickell notes in his essay concerning some remarkable photographs of male friendships, “the history of New Zealand’s photographs is a history of individuals, families, places and activities, certainly, but it is also a history of ideas, gender relations and social change” (68). This publication may be more predisposed to the former history than to the latter, but in its breadth it provides valuable insights into current research concerns, a sense of how photography evolved in New Zealand, and also a tantalizing view of the country’s archives.

The book concludes with a select bibliography of publications on New Zealand photography and a directory of its collecting institutions. These inclusions alone would be worth the effort of compiling the volume, as they point the researcher to where and how to access early New Zealand photography. It is tantalizing to note, for instance, that the Hocken Collections hold two million photographs related to New Zealand and the Pacific. Of course, knowing that such archives exist is one thing; interpreting them is quite another. As Wanhalla and Wolf note, the large collections listed in the volume still remain “a valuable yet under-utilised resource . . . rarely subjected to critical scrutiny” (9). Indeed, scholars including Hardwicke Knight, William Main, and John B. Turner have done groundbreaking work since the early 1970s uncovering many of the gems in New Zealand’s collections and, as a consequence, have charted the early history of the medium. Early New Zealand Photography thus marks the efforts and perspectives of a new generation of researchers.

As is apparent from their essays, photography came comparatively late to the colony (around 1848), and relatively few securely ascribed daguerreotypes are now extant. As opposed to its more populous neighbour of Australia, where surviving daguerreotypes count in the low hundreds, in New Zealand there are only around a dozen images identified. This is not to say that photographs were not taken: one newspaper report of 1856 tells of a daguerreotypist (John Nicol Crombie) who took 1,088 portraits in Auckland alone over 15 months. It can only be presumed that, with some notable exceptions, these small objects either accompanied colonists when they left New Zealand, were disposed of, or now reside anonymously in collections.

Several of the essays in the anthology focus on the important issue of attribution but adopt diametrically opposed methodologies. Keith Giles utilizes a sleuth-like approach to one daguerreotype, making a compelling case for its authorship as Issac Polack—one of five photographers known to have visited Auckland from late 1848 to early 1850. In contrast, Ruth Harvey focuses on social context. She considers the lack of information about her chosen ambrotype to be a positive fact that “helps avoid the tendency that commonly plagues writing around early photography in New Zealand—the inclination to follow the biography of the photographer at the expense of a critical discussion focusing on the photographic objects themselves” (160). Harvey uses an anonymous nineteenth-century ambrotype as the starting point in her discussion of a contemporary ambrotype by New Zealand artist Ben Cauchi, seeing links in the materiality of both images, if not also in their intents.

Harvey’s enterprise is a useful reminder of the need to reanimate early photographs in the context of contemporary concerns. This pertains especially to those images that feature Māori people. It is clear from the volume that the colonial desire to visualize and often categorize the indigenous people of the region has left behind a substantial body of work that is a major point of distinction in early New Zealand photography. Today, these images are being reclaimed actively by descendants who consider them to be a living link to ancestors. As is the case in Australia, cultural permissions are necessary from the relevant families before such photographs can be reproduced.

Wanhalla and Wolf’s volume contains essays that reflect the range of colonial attitudes toward the Māori people, including a discussion of the most celebrated of New Zealand’s daguerreotypes. Attributed to Lawson Insley, this stunningly beautiful image shows Caroline and Sarah Barrett, two well-dressed young women (born to a Māori mother and European father), photographed in 1853. The daguerreotype forms the basis of an engaging re-contextualisation by Christine Whybrew who considers it to be a family portrait rather than an ethnographic record.

Insley’s approach to these subjects was relatively unusual; rather, as Jocelyne Dudding discusses, it was more common for colonial New Zealand photographers to adopt an ethnographic approach. One favored photographic subject was those Māori who had striking facial tattoos (tā moko) or ritual patterns chiselled onto their skin. A more confronting example of the categorizing impulse is examined in Roger Blackley’s essay on Josiah Martin’s photograph The Old Order Changeth (1885), which features Māori artifacts, including preserved heads gathered through ancient cannibalistic practices. Blackley argues that the assemblage is not a record of an existing museum display but a politically motivated and macabre still life created by the photographer.

As the chronology of photography unfolds in Early New Zealand Photography, it becomes apparent that—cultural differences and political histories aside—the overall experience of the medium in New Zealand was strikingly similar to that of other colonized countries. One major use of the camera was to chart settlement, and from the introduction of paper prints in the 1850s onward, photographs show the steady development of towns and infrastructure through such familiar pictorial tropes as roads, bridges, and railways. Essays on Daniel Louis Mundy, Alfred Burton, and the Gilmour Brothers show how these commercial photographers contributed toward shaping perceptions of New Zealand by documenting its economic and industrial progress.

Moving toward the twentieth century, the essays chart a shift in New Zealand practice as photographers begin to reflect the interest in national self-definition and the terms by which this was projected internationally. The beginnings of this perspective are hinted at in Wolf’s article on the New Zealand and South Seas exhibition of 1889–90 in which photography played a key role as a recording and creative device. Anne Maxwell examines an aspect of the photographic book trade that evolved as New Zealand acquired Dominion status in 1907. The move to self-government was allied to a growing desire to foster national identity through literature and the arts. Photography became a key means to promote and disseminate claims for national uniqueness, and, as Maxwell shows, was used to focus on such dramatic local curiosities as thermal springs. Sandy Callister’s essay also deals with an evolving sense of nationhood as he links the developing photography market to what he terms the “empowered observer” (153), with New Zealand soldiers using their cameras to document World War I.

There is no doubt that this book places New Zealand photography onto a world stage for the interested reader, and is important for anyone looking to expand her or his scholarly horizons. However, the essays do prompt the question of how one defines New Zealand photography and what are the limits of such a study. Is it, as seems to be the case here, that only those practitioners who lived in the country are considered to be part of its photographic history, or should this perspective be expanded to include the many traveling photographers who also photographed in New Zealand?

With these thoughts in mind, it is interesting that the final essay in the book, “Towards a Single Visual History of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific,” by Max Quanchi, proposes a wider perspective to the photographic histories of the region. Given the similar, although by no means identical, development of Pacific nations, Quanchi notes how productive it would be to explore photographic interconnections. He both makes the case for a detailed charting of collections and photographers but also for the need to highlight the interchange and spread of New Zealand photography as it entered the public domain. Early New Zealand Photography certainly goes a substantial way toward the former goal, and we can hope that the editors will continue their excellent work and encourage the latter in future publications.

Isobel Crombie
Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.