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.
The book is an anthology of commentaries on specific photographs taken by colonial photographers, written by twenty-four contemporary photo-historians who, by and large, are cautious, careful and methodical in the way they construct frames of reference: why a photograph was taken, how it was made, ways in which it has been used. Based on ‘singular images’ extracted from museum and library collections and placed together like this, these commentaries en masse suggest that the story of early photography in New Zealand is a story of sudden enthusiasms for possible uses of the technology. Or, as Chris Brickell, writing here about Robert Gant’s photographs of ‘men together’, puts it, the history of photography is ‘the history of ideas’. Ideas, though, can be fickle, and subject to change. The word ‘photography’ itself means ‘writing with light’ — a term rich with allegorical implications, and immediately suggesting possibilities for disagreement about what exactly is being ‘written’.
In their Introduction, Wanhalla and Wolf speculate, following on from deductions by others, that the first New Zealand photograph may have been a daguerreotype, now lost, of the Ngai Tahu rangatira Tikao, known to have signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This ‘ur-image’ could have been made when a French warship was stationed at Akaroa in 1842.
Moving from speculation to fact, newspaper advertisements confirm daguerreotype studios were active locally by the early 1850s, run by entrepreneurial itinerants. But the latter-day survival of any of these one-off photographic portraits has often been serendipitous, so that daguerreotypy — the earliest widely used form of photography, a hit-or-miss craft producing images on small polished metal plates of varying quality and of a fragile nature — through time and scarcity, has enabled even mundane images to acquire the status of gnomic relics, from which narratives and mythologies can be extracted or created.
Essayist Christine Whybrew elects to quizz a canonical daguerreotype, already much written about: the circa 1853 portrait of Taranaki sisters Caroline and Sarah Barrett, attributed to Lawson Insley. She notes in summary: ‘the relatively late recognition of photographs as objects, rather than documents within New Zealand’s memory institutions… (means) … conclusions must remain tenuous’. And Keith Giles, sleuthing off after the origins of another daguerreotype, also attempts to peer back into various nooks and crannies of the past, employing logical reasoning, which nevertheless also fails to fully resolve the tantalising puzzle he is investigating.
Ruth Harvey, however, uses another approach: the aesthetic. She finds a sufficiency of meaning in the ambrotype (successor to the daguerreotype) by considering it as a metaphor for grasping hold of the moment, or of touching the ineffable through its ‘materiality’, that is the fact that it is an artefact constructed from glass, wood and brass, and that it has a ‘sumptuous, glossy surface so rich it elicits a strong desire to touch’, while its silvery grey tone offers a portrait of ‘sharp clarity’. Harvey’s poetic evaluation, considering a moment of invention which has contributed to the ‘invention’ of the nation in almost purely tactile terms, confirms the eclectic richness of this anthology, but it is anomalous. While Harvey has delved into the connotations of the literal image in a way Barthes might have responded to, the rest of the book’s mosaic is at pains to confirm each photograph discussed as an ideologically freighted container, emblematic of the great Victorian project of confidently recording and cataloguing.
The Victorian mind was obsessed with orderly ‘collecting’. Its love affair with science demanded empirical evidence, for which, they assumed, the potent lens of the camera offered a neutral arbiter — confirmation of what was ‘real’. Thus the bureaucratic use of archival photos is emphasised repeatedly throughout these essays. Photographs established a sense of ‘place’ (in more ways than one), able to be sanctioned by the Imperial authorities back in Great Britain. The apex of Empire is realised symbolically in this book with a 1905 photograph showing the erection of a statue of Queen Victoria in Dunedin (and discussed somewhat misleadingly as an ‘art’ photograph by Gary Blackman).
Perhaps the most energetic and the most ambitious of the early topographical photographers was Daniel Mundy, who sought to supply both the colonial government and the commercial market with ‘views’ of the landscape being steadily opened up for settlement by bush clearance for road, rail, farm and town (while resisting iwi were subdued, transported and imprisoned, something Mundy also alluded to in photographs). Essayist Wayne Barrar hails Mundy as a kind of conqueror of space and time and territory, saluting his ability, with the quality of his large-format photographs, to evoke tensions between nature and culture, or, put more simply, to reveal land as an exploitable and measurable resource.
Mundy, the nineteenth-century epitome of a Maoriland adventurer and opportunist, travelled about with a cumbersome apparatus loaded on a pack horse — a bulky wooden box with brass-sealed lens, stack of large glass ‘plates’, sturdy tripod, bottles of chemicals — at the time of the New Zealand Wars in the early 1860s, when the frontier was still in a state of flux. Alfred Burton, moving about nearly twenty years later, travelled technologically lighter but with more editorial swagger and certainty. His photographs of humble whare as ‘the last Maori redoubt in the King Country’ are the visual record framed by an occupying power, and were on sale to the general public with captions intended to instruct and even sermonise on the subservient status of the heathen.
Christine Whybrew points out that ‘Burton Brothers’ was the brand name of a company which produced and distributed photographs derived from a number of different photographers, with their trademark signifying anonymity as well as unity of purpose, though it’s occasionally possible to discern individual signature styles. Essayists Rebecca Rice and Anne Maxwell detect a common ideological approach by major nineteenth-century photographers — George Valentine, Daniel Mundy, Alfred Burton, Josiah Martin — to what colonial writer Blanche Baughan referred to as ‘uncanny country’ — the North Island’s thermal region. The flux of the geological — the abrupt changes and ruptures in the smooth continuum of the landscape — offered opportunities to depict hellish or infernal regions as panoramas of death and destruction, this outpost of Empire as emblem of the exotic: the very ends of the earth.
The photographic archive was also a way of collecting indigenous people. Jocelyn Dudding explains how a carte-de-visite studio portrait of rangatira Tomika Te Mutu, with full moko, photographed by John Nicole Crombie in 1860, was taken as representative of the ‘Maori Rebel’, one who, the caption explained, ‘glares with defiance’. This image of ‘the Noble Savage’ was so popular it was recycled by other studios, one reason why so many copies of it survive in museums as well as private collections.
Ken Hall tells us how commercial photographers dressed Maori sitters, recruited from the streets, in studio props — a pair of huia feathers, a dog skin cloak — to convey an ‘authentic’ Maori appearance, but actually to create a Maori picturesque, a stereotypical appearance. Photography borrowed from the codes of nineteenth century painting, but equally artists drew inspiration from photographs. Hall points to Gottfried Lindauer’s many paintings of Ana Reupene Whetuku and her child, based on a photograph taken in the Foy Brothers’ studio in Thames on the Coromandel in the 1870s.
The iconography of the colonised, tattooed Maori established the sense of an enduring social hierarchy — the moko completed the physiognomy of the deviant face — but this was subverted in subtle and sophisticated ways that did not so much undermine social expectations as hoodwink them (and thereby establish them as delusional). Angela Wanhalla unpacks the photographic portrait as a means of self-invention for individuals of mixed ethnicity, turning the images she examines into an opportunity for meditation on the elusiveness of identity and the ambiguities of depiction.
Barbara Brookes offers another consideration of images of social deviancy. Doctor Truby King attempted to use photographs of patients at Seacliff Asylum as a means of classification, as if madness might be divided into types that could be registered by the camera.
And Jill Haley examines an example of the corollary of deviancy: social conformity — with the stiff studio portrait serving to conceal, or possibly exemplify, the sin of hubris. She pursues a manipulated photographic image through the machinations of its making. Her chosen object is an outsize photomontage of some 200 portraits created in 1898 by the Otago Early Settlers’ Association to commemorate the ‘Old Identities’ — that is, those who arrived in Dunedin when it was originally established as a settlement as members of the Presbyterian Free Church on the first four ships. Haley points out that this once much-venerated, or at least much-promoted, photographic totem pole was not just a way of establishing a difference with the so-called ‘New Iniquities’ — that is, those chancers and non-Presbyterians who arrived when gold was discovered in Otago in 1861 — but also a means of asserting the primacy of certain family groups. The gilded exclusiveness of this composite image which is still on mausoleum-like display asserts, in token form, schisms, tensions and class divisions active even today.
Another hidden photographic history disinterred is that of passive resistance against political orthodoxies, sometimes registered cryptically, as in the photographs of William Collis, taken at Parihaka between 1880 and 1898. Discussing these images, Simon Ryan laudably identifies the ethical integrity of Collis, who was the son of Wesleyan Methodist missionaries. Wesleyan Methodists were principled dissenters, affirming the right of every human being to dignity, economic independence and self-improvement.
If for settlers homeland was an idea to be imposed unilaterally, for Maori it was the earth on which they had already been living for some time. Collis makes a connection between Maori at Parihaka, faced with dispossession at the end of a bayonet, and the dispossessed peasants of internecine warfare in Europe. Collis photographs a family group holding up emblems of place and of hope: a handful of ferns, a baby, a puppy, a newly risen loaf of bread.
Writing about the use of photomontage in the 1910 Christmas number of the New Zealand Graphic, an illustrated popular magazine, Cathy Tuato’o Ross identifies the technique as a form of propaganda for the Imperialist mission, where a concatenation of images — children at the beach, yachting, prize-winning cattle, the ‘natural wonders’ of New Zealand — are assembled to suggest that paradise and Britishness are one and the same, as such caption-phrases as ‘Maoriland Gives Greeting to the Empire’ confirm.
Brian Moloughney, describing the proselytising for Christ undertaken by New Zealand Presbyterian missionaries in and around the Chinese city of Canton in the 1900s — the Christian converts photographed to encourage donations from church-goers back in New Zealand — suggests that these missionaries with cameras were also evangelists for British ‘soft power’.
The culmination of the British Empire’s geopolitical ambition is registered in Sandy Callister’s essay, ‘New Zealanders in Action: Snapshots of Combat’ — a plausible account of how the invention of the Kodak ‘Vest Pocket’ camera contributed to the nation’s collective memory of World War One. Although New Zealand’s first official war photographer was not appointed until 1917, snapshots taken by ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915 (and published shortly after in illustrated magazines) are evidence that some of them had followed the admonition of newspaper advertisements to ‘take a soldier’s Kodak with you and bring back a picture record of the Great War’.
The sum total of the essays in Early New Zealand Photography serves to confirm that photographs are slippery and elusive explaining devices, difficult to categorise, and often even richer in information that these careful commentaries can catalogue. For their makers, stooped beneath the black shroud of the photographer’s cape, these photographs had meanings which were informed by the anxieties of the colonial moment: the need to impose order, fear of uprisings, the insistence on wealth creation, and so on. But one essayist here has succeeded in identifying anxieties which resonate within our own cultural moment. Roger Blackley examines tableaux morts — that is, preserved and shrunken Maori heads arranged as hoards of war booty along with muskets and other trophies — and finds that with their utu, or revenge, motifs, and their reminders of the nineteenth-century souvenir trade, and their altar-like evocation of cults of war and death, they exert a grisly fascination for us as latter-day voyeurs of the macabre.
But of course they are today even more problematic and taboo as they transgress against Maori kupapa and revisionist protocols in relation to being exhibited. Preserved heads are now generally only publicly visible in photographs, but even for these necromantic facsimiles special permission is required for display. Meanwhile related arguments have been resuscitated around them, such as displays of photographs revealing the trade in shrunken and preserved Pakeha heads. The visible record of such items of nineteenth-century exchange might be a reflection of the beginnings of our nation state seen in photographic glass darkly.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and The Landfall Review Online.