Monday, February 27, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“EARLY NEW ZEALAND PHOTOGRAPHY – Images and Essays”, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erik Wolf (Otago University Press, $50)

Early New Zealand Photography. To me, a non-expert in the field, the title alone immediately conjures up a familiar type of book – an album of copious photographs from the nineteenth century, showing existing towns and cities as they once looked, men and women dressed as they once dressed, and the primitive or quaint technology of an earlier age; in fine, the type of book that is an inducement to nostalgia and that is sold as a gift-book to Mum and Dad or grandparents around Christmastime. Our public libraries bulge with examples of such publications, well thumbed by pensive pensioners as teenagers yip and yap around them, playing on the computer terminals that also crowd our libraries.

But this Early New Zealand Photography is no such publication.

Edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf,  two academics of the University of Otago, Early New Zealand Photography is, as its subtitle says, a book of Images and Essays. To be precise, its twenty-four essays, which originated in a symposium held in 2007, are detailed reflections on the provenance, historicity, authenticity, means of production and appropriate modes of interpretation of some early New Zealand photographs. Each essay deconstructs one, or at most two or three, specific photographs, so this is not essentially a picture book but a book about pictures, an “anthology of essays on single images” as its Acknowledgements note declares.

Wanhalla’s and Wolf’s Introduction is careful to avoid the suggestion that any commentary can pin down, for good and all, the meaning of any image. They note that “these essays are not intended to provide definitive readings but rather offer a variety of ways to read the visual. They also address the changing and contradictory ways photographs have been read in the past and can be read today.” Society and culture change. What these late nineteenth-century and very early twentieth-century images meant to the people who created them and first saw them is hardly likely to be the same as what they mean to us. Wanhalla and Hall also set the parameters of the work, remarking that it is not a comprehensive survey of all the types of photography that were practised in the years they have chosen, from around 1850 to around 1910. The 23 contributors have written no essays on lantern slides, prison mugshots, school-class photographs, pornography, etc. Also, as it happens, all the photographers whose work is analysed were male.

The best of the Introduction is its reminder of the “materiality” of photographs as objects. They are artefacts produced using specific technology for specific purposes, and presented with specific materials in specific dimensions. This “materiality” is often forgotten when photographs are reproduced in glossy books, but it is certainly accounted for in each of these essays.

Further, photographs are taken in a specific time and place. Necessarily Wanhalla and Hall give a very brief account of the history of early photography in New Zealand, and the essays appear in roughly chronological order. It would seem that the very first photographs taken in New Zealand were in the late 1840s, probably daguerrotypes made by a photographer on a visiting French ship. But those images have never been tracked down. Technology moved on slowly. Photographs (such as daguerrotypes) were originally single objects incapable of reproduction. Only when cameras produced negatives was mass (re)production of the same image made possible; and only when the Kodak was marketed at the turn of the last century did “consumer cameras” become commonplace. Photography then moved from being exclusively the province of professionals with cumbersome equipment. Now happy (and more mobile) amateurs could take holiday and family snaps. The work of professional photographers became both more restricted and more specialised. It is at that historical point that this collection of essays ends.

How clearly are the concerns of the Introduction – materiality, provenance, historical context and interpretation - articulated in the 24 essays that follow?

Very clearly, of course, as the Introduction was written after the essays were contributed.
I think the difficulties imposed by technology in nineteenth century photography are best expressed at the beginning of  Wayne Barrar’s essay on the landscape photographer Daniel Louis Mundy. Barrar describes Mundy’s modus operandi in making an image of a South Island bridge in 1868:  “After parking his darkroom wagon at the far end, he would have mixed his chemicals, carefully coated his wet collodion glass plate with light-sensitive solution, walked over the bridge, set up his tripod and camera, made the required long exposure, then developed the plate ‘on location.’ ” Not exactly the same as aiming, clicking and moving on! Interestingly, while much nineteenth century New Zealand photography was undertaken in the interests of publicising New Zealand as a desirable and habitable destination for British immigrants, Barrar describes Mundy’s work as “anti-invitational” – reflecting the rawness and hardness of the country in its early Pakeha slash-and-burn settlement phase.

Some essays in this volume are almost exclusively concerned with the historical time and place and purpose of an image under review, as when Brian Moloughney and Antje Lubcke look at photographs taken by Presbyterian missionaries in, respectively, China and the New Hebrides. Similarly, Keith Giles worries away at whether a certain daguerrotype of 1852 was or was not taken by Isaac Polack; and Erika Wolf interprets stereoscopic views of the Dunedin exhibition of 1889-90 as evidence of commercial publicity rather than of documentation.

Such essays are absolutely necessary in establishing a realistic history of New Zealand photography. More stimulating, however, are those essays that demand we take nothing for granted and realize that certain familiar images may not be saying what we think they are saying.

In this respect, one of the best essays is the very first in the collection, Christine Whybrew’s analysis of an 1853 daguerrotype portrait of the sisters Caroline and Sarah Barratt. The young women (who had an English father and a Te Atiawa mother) are dressed in English clothes, with their hair severely parted and tied in respectable Victorian fashion. The image has often been reproduced for its ethnographic interest – as if it were recorded specifically to illustrate Maori assimilation to European ways. But as Whybrew argues convincingly, the image was in fact a family photo recorded for a special occasion (the coming marriage of one of the two young women) and with the sisters wearing “best” matching clothes that were not their habitual attire.

As portrait photography established itself, it was often seen as an adjunct or aid to the older art of the portrait painter. One of the most familiar New Zealand paintings of the nineteenth century is Gottfried Lindauer’s painting of Ana Reupene Whetuki with her baby on her back. Lindauer painted and re-painted this same image many times, and up to nineteen versions of it hang in New Zealand art galleries and in private collections. It has been reproduced in innumerable picture-books, posters and postcards and has become iconic, like a Maori Madonna-and-Child. But Lindauer (like the painter Goldie) habitually worked from photographs for his portraits. Keith Hall’s essay sets Lindauer’s painting against the original photograph by the Foy Brothers from which Lindauer worked. It shows an image similar to Lindauer’s painting, but the face of Ana Reupene Whatuki is so much more alive, alert and – dare one say it – challenging in the photograph than it is in the softened painting. By such techniques many familiar nineteenth century images were made. (At this point I drop in an interesting footnote – Paula Morris’s recent excellent historical novel Rangatira is structured around the situation of her ancestor the Maori aristocrat Paratene Te Manu undergoing long sittings for a portrait being painted by Gottfried Lindauer. But as Morris herself admits in an author’s note, probably no such sittings ever took place as Lindauer would have worked from a photograph of the chief.)

The matter of nineteenth century portrait painting’s dependence on photography is visited again in Angela Wanhalla’s own essay comparing a monochrome portrait photograph with its coloured painted version.

To comment in detail on every essay in this book would be to take more space than even I can afford on this blog.

I am forced to generalizations.

I believe there are some essays that struggle a little in their own visual interpretations. Professor Barbara Brookes is doubtless right in interpreting the disturbed woman, caught by Dr Truby King’s lens in the Seacliff psychiatric hospital, as more of an agent and less of a victim than she might once have been thought; but the images themselves don’t tell us this. Likewise Simon Dench’s analysis of a 1910 image of a road has a hard time proving that the image per se is propaganda for local development, even if it was recorded for such purposes. I might also add that some essays strain at a gnat, saying verbosely the bleeding obvious. Yes, Robert Gant’s 1880s photos of chaps cuddling do suggest a homo-erotic sub-culture, which could have been established in fewer words than Chris Brickell’s essay takes. Yes, photomontages in newspaper supplements (Cathy Tuato’o Ross’s essay) do present an idealised image of the world. Ditto comment.

At the risk of denigrating a useful and very interesting book, I must also add that many essays come close to being the same essay, perhaps reflecting a similar sociological and postmodernist mindset on the part of the contributors. If photographs of Maori artefacts or locations are being discussed, one can be fairly sure that the nineteenth century Pakeha photographer will be ticked off for his ethnic and cultural insensitivity in presenting things in a manner that appealed to Pakeha presuppositions. (The exception is Simon Ryan’s essay on W.A.Collis’s sympathetic photographs of Parihaka). Likewise, if photographs have already been subject to earlier commentary, we can be fairly sure that those earlier commentators will be ticked off for their lack of perception in failing to notice the artificial “constructed” nature of the image and the material means of its manufacture.

In the face of these severe and judgemental strictures, I found some relief in those essays that express a frank delight in the images under review. After properly and correctly analysing Charles Spencer’s image of a devastated landscape after the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, Rebecca Rice endearingly admits that she was first attracted to the image by its purely aesthetic appeal, as an apparently post-apocalyptic image. Gary Blackman likewise analyses a amateur 1905 photograph of a statue being unveiled in terms of its historical context and the equipment used. But it is plain that his main admiration of the image comes (as mine does) from its – apparently accidental – composition and balance as women’s bonnets and dresses are kicked around by an intrusive wind. A purely personal aesthetic response.

Collectively, the editors and contributors prove the case that many specific skills are involved in reading old photographs rightly. But it is the moments of personal engagement that give Early New Zealand Photography its greatest appeal.

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