Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf (Otago University Press, 2011), 208 pp., $50.
Susan Sontag characterised photographs as ‘invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy’, while Roland Barthes asserted that the photograph was ‘a transparent envelope’ — that is, a paradoxical object at once visible and obvious but also sealed-off and enigmatic. Likewise, Walter Benjamin stated that the photographic image shows ‘dialects at a standstill’, meaning photographs can hold contradictory meanings in check. Benjamin also pointed out that: ‘Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its concerns threaten to disappear irretrievably’. Mindful then that this significant trio of twentieth-century photography critics regarded photographs as extremely ambiguous objects, attracting interpretations the way flypaper attracts flies, I launched into Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erica Wolf.