Peter Ireland – 15 March, 2012
These essays seem to miss the essential point that the images may have more going for them than simply opportunities to engage in detailed research. It's as if some people had lived only to provide cadavers for medical student experiments. Whether these people were plain, pretty, ugly or possessed the milk of human kindness seems of little consequence when you have the opportunity to measure the length of their post-mortem livers.
Early New Zealand Photography: images and essays
Edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf
Otago University Press, 2011, $54.99.
Given the fetishization of early New Zealand photographic images by the art, academic and auction-house worlds it’s easy to forget that the men making them were largely entrepreneurial colonial go-getters of limited formal education who were, if anything, generalists, prepared to turn their hand in their often very makeshift studios to any subject that might make a quick buck. Once the population reached a critical mass large enough to support a fledgling industry, photography really took off in this country, especially from the time of the first gold rushes in the early 1860s. By the end of that decade, for instance, Hokitika had almost as many commercial photographers as it had hotels.
Forty years ago that tireless enthusiast John B Turner found a foothold in the new Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth for his then very eccentric interest in nineteenth-century New Zealand photography, curating an exhibition for them on the subject, which toured nationally, accompanied by a modest catalogue whose reproductions were pretty grungy but it nonetheless remains a landmark in the emergence of historical photography as worthy of notice not just as illustration but a study in its own right.
Trying to get your head around the number of nineteenth-century photographs taken in New Zealand is akin to fathoming infinity, and the quantity held in public archives runs into the many millions. Naturally, very pertinent and potent questions hang over this mass of images: what is their worth? Are they primarily of interest as illustrations of a developing colonial society? Does a good wad of them provide some sort of evidence regarding the relationship between Pakeha and Maori? Are they useful in showing the ideology of progress’s power? The cult of The Sublime? Are they art?
We really have no idea. As American photographic historian Beaumont Newhall once said, around 1960, he could tell the difference between a poem by Dylan Thomas and his housekeeper’s shopping list, but in photography it hadn’t yet been sorted out. (Newhall’s philosophic position is probably up for debate these days, but that’s another discussion altogether.) Early New Zealand Photography: images and essays is the first discrete, published sign of a sorting out here, a playing ground where specialists have snatched the ball from the generalists.
It’s not as if this field of study has lain fallow though: apart from John B Turner’s efforts, the roll-call for the past sixty years is impressive: Hardwicke Knight (to whom this book is dedicated), William Main, Joan Woodward, Ronald Brownson, Ken Hall and Michael Graham-Stewart being the more visible. Working more behind the scenes, this country’s photographic archivists have had a significant part to play: their accumulated knowledge, their assistance to researchers, and sometimes gently suggesting a profitable avenue of investigation: Gordon Maitland at the Auckland Museum, Keith Giles at the Auckland Public Library, John Sullivan and Joan McCracken at Turnbull, Gareth Winter at Wairarapa Archives, Anna Petersen at Hocken and Vickie Hernshaw at Canterbury University’s Macmillan Brown Collection, among others.
Apart from the few books and increasing number of catalogues mostly looking at individual nineteenth-century photographers over the past two to three decades, there have been numerous articles on many aspects of the period in journals such as the Turnbull Library Record, Art New Zealand and the former New Zealand Journal of Photography, few of the authors, admittedly, being academics but all of them in some way adding to the corpus of knowledge and cementing the legitimacy of this area of study. On the larger scale, however, we still lack an account as wide-ranging and authoritative as Helen Ennis’s 2007 Photography and Australia - an illuminating outline of the circumstances of nineteenth-century colonial practice that happens to apply equally to the New Zealand situation - Ennis is a New Zealander and there’s something of a useful, trans-Tasman sensibility in her larger continental history. Over here, though, there’s just been a slow and steady accumulation of the historical jigsaw’s pieces, without any dependable guiding picture on the front of the box.
Early New Zealand Photography had its beginnings as a seminar at Otago University in 2007, its moving spirit being Erika Wolf, senior lecturer in the Department of History and Art History at Otago for almost a decade now and joint editor of this book. Her specialty is Soviet art and visual culture, but since her arrival in New Zealand has turned her attention to photographic history here and has contributed singularly to photography-related events such as a seminar panelist in October 2009 at the Gus Fisher Gallery in association with Leonard Bell’s Marti Friedlander exhibition where her refreshingly acute observations punctured the cosy atmosphere, bringing a critical edge to what had threatened to become a rather self-referential lovefest.
Seminars have a life of their own. Ostensibly the papers are the thing, their raison d’etre, but often enough their lasting value are the links forged informally by participants and the stimulations generated by chance encounters. None of this creative fizz survives in any published papers though, leaving them with a slightly parched air and a sense of their tending to illustrate a misquotation of the Duke of Wellington’s: “publish or be damned”.
Ed Hilary once responded to the question as to why he climbed mountains by saying “Because they’re there”, and as academia becomes more industrialized the publication of seminar papers seems often to have a similar basis. But, what if, as Gertrude Stein observed famously of Hollywood, “There is no there there”?
In today’s business model of education there’s an expectation - indeed, a requirement - for academics to publish, as a sign, apparently, that research is an active part of their practice, a hedge against that practice fossilizing and thus risking their institution’s ranking in the performance tables that increasingly have practical impact on student enrolment. And who thought the Cold War era Domino Theory had been discredited?
With so many graduating students needing topics and staff needing fresh fields of research there’s an alarming tendency towards degrees of specialization that makes the old Scholastic joke about the number of angels dancing on a pinhead begin to resemble a promising subject of enquiry. Neville Phillips, history professor at Canterbury in the ‘60s postulated (with a magisterial grandeur only he could muster) that “doing history” had the option of two approaches: knowing less and less about more and more, and knowing more and more about less and less.
Both approaches are evident in Early New Zealand Photography. The panoramic approach is best exemplified by the 12-page Introduction, jointly written by the editors, very probably after the actual seminar took place. This essay, Photography, materiality and history, is essential reading for anyone even vaguely interested in the medium’s current position within this culture. The authors are clearly aiming to weave together all 24 papers into a coherency that isn’t entirely justified by the actual contents, but in doing so they address a range of current, wider issues that very pertinently relate to photography in New Zealand right now. It’s a timely over-view, and indeed, partially makes a case for a panoramic approach in the construction of our fledgling photographic history.
Yet, with very few exceptions, it would be fair to describe the approach taken by the 23 individual contributors following on from this Introduction as microscopic rather than panoramic, illustrating with a degree of relentlessness the perils of “knowing more and more about less and less”. Detail abounds. Dates, photographers’ origins, their history in New Zealand, the provenance of the images, the state and whereabouts of the negatives, studio sales receipts, the biographies of those depicted, and so on, sometimes adding up to, for instance, what’s called “the ideology of the dominant discourse”. It’s all like one of those huge Baroque frames that completely overwhelms the actual image - which in these essays is hardly ever discussed as an image. The book is subtitled images and essays, but it’s really the other way round: it has 208 pages but only 39 images - one of which is repeated and two others are composites. (The arresting image on the cover is nowhere credited.) These hapless images seem doomed to having their mere existence justified only by how much someone is able to write about the circumstances surrounding them, as if in the group photo when they might have expected to be seated in the centre of the front row, they find themselves invisible behind phalanxes of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, godfathers, godmothers and dragoons of distant cousins.
Of the 23 essayists, three are practising photographers. One of them, Wayne Barrar, is virtually the only contributor to examine the actual images within a wider visual context and not just an historical one. Another of them, Gary Blackman, is reckless enough to mention the word “aesthetic”. He’s probably the most senior contributor, and this lapse could be attributable to a set of values no longer credible in the academic community. The essay by the third photographer, Cathy Tua to’o Ross, examines a photomontage Water Babies in Maoriland from a 1910 Christmas edition of the NZ Weekly Graphic, and raises the fascinating prospect of some writer applying the same critical techniques to the examination of another composite material object: namely Early New Zealand Photography itself.
Clearly, all of these essays are supremely worthy in their own rather narrowly-focused ways. It’s just that they seem to miss the rather essential point that the images may have more going for them than simply opportunities to engage in detailed research. It’s as if some people had lived only to provide cadavers for medical student experiments. Whether these people were plain, pretty, downright ugly or possessed the milk of human kindness seems of little consequence when you have the opportunity to measure the length of their post-mortem livers.
Publicity blurb for the book states: “We are all participants in an increasingly visual culture, yet we rarely give thought to the ways that photographs shape our experience and understanding of the world and historical past. This book looks at a range of New Zealand photographs up to 1918 and analyses them as photo-objects, considering how they were made, who made them, what they show and how our understanding of them can vary or change over time. This emphasis on the materiality of the photograph is a new direction in scholarship on colonial photographs”. Overlooking, for the moment, the interesting question of the materiality of marketing statements, does this matter of materiality of photographs of necessity exclude any consideration other than the circumstances of the “photo-object’s” manufacture? If so, why bother with photographs at all? It might be more interesting - and certainly useful - to examine the materiality of, say, motor-cars, museums and even money. These objects have an aesthetic aspect too, but hey, maybe that concept’s just too mired in immateriality to take seriously, or even perhaps build an academic career on?
If scholarship on photography can take only this form, there are some specific questions to be answered. What is it with “early” photography that makes it so susceptible to such treatment? Would any of the essayists be prepared to line up, say, some Yvonne Todds, Laurence Aberharts and Wayne Barrars and submit their work to the same analysis and consideration? Well, when the laughing died down, would they then propose when the cross-over date was? Was it 1918? 1921? 1933? 1959? Would they explain why materiality in relation to, say, Josiah Martin, appears to be a radically different idea when applied to, say, Neil Pardington? Additionally, that “new direction in scholarship on colonial photographs” may suggest that academia is colonizing the photographic image in precisely the same way that Pakeha colonized Maori: a foreign overlay assuming a superiority that subjugates to the point of disappearance values that informed and sustained the existing culture.
There is one image in the book, however, that post-dates 1918. In Ruth Harvey’s essay, Vernacular to valuable: the changing function of ambrotypes through New Zealand’s photographic history, a 2003 Ben Cauchi image Pseudo Levitation is the valuable art-object used to contrast with vernacular (presumably non-art) objects produced before 1918. Is this a clue that the material difference between early and contemporary photography is one of artist intention and/or its artistic status? There may be no affidavit that Josiah Martin considered himself an artist, but in all likelihood he did so. (In discussing a particular early ambrotype where the photographer is unknown, Harvey makes the somewhat surprising statement: “This refreshingly blank slate helps to 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”. Well, quite.) Harvey is, of course, aware of the shifting status of material objects, and near the end of the essay remarks: “Perhaps vernacular photographies are beginning to merge with the more established conventions of photography’s wider historical continuum. Perhaps, with time, more and more of photography’s marginalised, popularist examples will transform into collectible cultural objects, valued for what they tell us of our social history” (emphasis added).
This inability - or even, blanket refusal - to consider these images in anything other than a social/historical context, points to what is the most alarming aspect of Early New Zealand Photography, that it reinforces common assumptions that all the medium has to offer is its subject-matter, to be used in a number of ways - as illustration, as teaching aid, as providing fodder for researchers - amounting to a protestant denial of its visual potency. If this book does indeed point to “a new direction in scholarship on colonial photographs” then we’re in for a pretty lean time. Knowing more and more about less and less can only end up where Hollywood was in Gertrude Stein’s bleak observation.
In terms of adding to knowledge of colonial photography, does this book do anything more than would be achieved by the essays appearing singly in organs such as the Turnbull Library Record? The answer to this might be found in a comparison with another collection of seminar papers also published late last year but at the other end of New Zealand, in Russell. In 2004 the Pompallier Mission there hosted The French Place in the Bay of Islands, a symposium involving twenty scholars examining various aspects of the French impact and legacy in relation to that part of the country. The book of the same name has 304 pages and 80 illustrations, proportionately more than in Early New Zealand Photography, but without any pretensions about the centrality of imagery. The essays are as well-researched as anything in the Otago book, but with the difference that the detail has a point: all of it is marshalled towards a wider view - not like an elaborate setting for a costly stone, the filigree so pleased by its own intricacy it’s unaware the gem’s missing. Scholarship, old or new, is never a matter of simply accumulating detail. Collectively, the essays in The French Place in the Bay of Islands make a distinguished contribution to the historical record, the publication itself being a model of its kind.
In Diana Wichtel’s recent NZ Listener interview with Anne Salmond (21 January 2012), the noted historian said: “I think the purpose of scholarship is to look for the patterns in the world”. The only pattern to emerge in Early New Zealand Photography is one that has very little to do with the photographic image. In terms of Salmond’s wider view, the constructions of this book have as much to do with history as scrabble has with literature.