Peter Ireland – 14 January, 2017
At a time before “innovation” became a marketing cliché, Leo White (1906-1967) was a spectacularly energetic innovator both as an aviation pioneer in his earlier days and a hugely successful businessman later. Personally he seems to have been a very engaging character, widely known and loved. Throughout his relatively short life he maintained a boyish spirit: up for any challenge and able to fully but modestly enjoy his many achievements. In a very real sense this is his book, and as the result of prodigious research Alsop tells his story with thoroughness and panache.
Hand-coloured New Zealand: the photographs of Whites Aviation
Hardcover, 417 pp
Potton and Burton, Nelson, November 2016
Necessity being the mother of invention, photography came to be through a series of planned and accidental stages - from the early 1820s to the early 1840s - in the service of science, to assist with the great project of cataloguing and explaining the physical world in all its rich diversity. At the time, what must have seemed miraculous realism was missing one key element of naturalism: colour.
From the very beginning attempts were made to hand-tint the greys and sepias of the imagery to supply this lack, but the processes used and the chemicals involved allowed only the vaguest suggestion of colour, and almost nothing of the immediacy of nature. As the medium developed, particularly with portraiture, liberties were taken to the extent that the entire surface of photographs was painted, either in oils or with gouache. The paint may have masked the materiality of the photograph but the photographic image survived by illustrating the accepted conventions of studio photography.
Parallel to these additional artistic efforts attempts were made to invent stable colour processes inherent in the film stock. There had been experiments as early as the 1860s to introduce colour into the process, but they tended to be one-offs and extremely complicated to resolve. Towards the end of the 19th century the Lumiere brothers invented a method patented in 1906 they called autochrome - still complex, but conveying the richness of naturalism - and that remained the most common means of colour reproduction until the 1930s, when Kodak and Agfa came up with commercially viable and relatively easy-to-use colour film. But it wasn’t until the later 1950s in New Zealand that colour film was taken up by most amateur photographers.
Photography, the child of science, has always had a somewhat tortured relationship with fine art, and in a quite vital and contentious sense this situation continues. In the later 19th century those photographers who hankered after being considered artists aped contemporary art styles in a movement called Pictorialism, a style trashed by the 20th century’s Modernist movement. However this aspiration to art is very much alive today, a parallel that might give some pause for thought among those photographers and curators involved, were they historically attuned enough to be aware of it.
Towards the end of the 19th century the accumulated experience of - and experimenting with - hand-colouring arrived at a kind of style involving the transparent application of very thin oil paint, the colours not quite naturalistic, but within the separate tradition consistent, credible and convincing. This very commercial production continued confidently until around 1960 - when more naturalistic cheap colour film began supplanting its supremacy. After that it limped on here and there for another two decades, and over that time and since, it has become almost the sole province of various forms of artists’ practice.
For practically all of the 20th century what got designated art depended on the agenda set by the Modernist movement’s beliefs about originality, purity and formal abstraction. Most hand-coloured photographs failed on all three counts. Firstly, they lacked originality, since practically all of them relied on compositional principles established by the Rev William Gilpin in the 18th century, the period of the Picturesque. Secondly, the purity of the photograph was seen to be compromised by the addition of a foreign substance, paint. Thirdly, the subject matter was unabashedly realistic (1). So, at best, hand-coloured photography was judged as being a branch of perhaps folk art and the province of history, or even geography, rather than art. There is not yet a published comprehensive history of photography anywhere on the planet which gives more than a passing mention of the lengthy and very widespread tradition of hand-colouring. Rather like Mrs Rochester, it has been confined to an attic and resolutely not spoken of.
Around thirty years ago, though, and perhaps a sign of the more pluralistic approach offered by Postmodernism, various independent collectors around the world started acquiring examples of hand-coloured photography, viewing them as objects of cultural production worthy of belated attention, and there is now appearing a range of publications reflecting this growing interest, one that is eventually bound to segue into more comprehensive coverage in newer photographic histories. Watch that space.
The two firms in New Zealand dominating the hand-colouring industry from after WWII to the early 1960s were Whites Aviation and Christopher Bede: the first specialising in landscapes and the latter portraits. Peter Alsop’s book tells the story of Whites Aviation Limited in a pioneering volume which could be the first major publication devoting specific attention to the phenomenon of hand-colouring photographs.
The book is divided into two broad parts: the first, a series of five chapters, chronicles the origins and history of the firm through the characters who founded it, ran it and made it the success it became: founder Leo White, his business partner Clyde “Snow” Stewart, and - representing two generations of female colourists - Grace Rawson. Towards the end of this section are several pages looking at contemporary hand-colouring and some of the people who have been collecting examples of Whites Aviation hand-coloured photographs. The second part of the book is a gallery of two hundred and four pages illustrating 181 images coloured by Whites (2).
At a time before “innovation” became a marketing cliché, Leo White (1906-1967) was a spectacularly energetic innovator both as an aviation pioneer in his earlier days and a hugely successful businessman later. Personally he seems to have been a very engaging character, widely known and loved. Throughout his relatively short life he maintained a boyish spirit: up for any challenge and able to fully but modestly enjoy his many achievements. In a very real sense this is his book, and as the result of prodigious research Alsop tells his story with thoroughness and panache. The many and varied illustrations, beautifully reproduced and paced, amply support the text and add spice to this story full of human interest. This chapter is accurately titled Mr Aviation: Leo White’s life of thrills.
The following chapter, Unsung Hero: Clyde Stewart’s colourful life, tells the story of Leo White’s business partner. They met through their passion for flying, with Stewart becoming White’s studio manager - while shouldering most of the aerial photography - and carrying on the business for a further fifteen years after Leo’s untimely death in 1967, retiring in 1982. Another remarkable character, he seems to have inspired pride and loyalty amongst the firm’s employees.
Colourist Grace Rawson stands in for the firm’s many such employees, and her chapter One of the Girls is not only an account of her own training and life as a colourist but conveys the close-knit collaboration reigning in the Whites’ studio and socially outside it.
The final 93-page chapter of the book’s first part, Colouring Business: The Legacy of Whites Aviation - again, generously and broadly illustrated - is Alsop’s own and interweaves a history of the firm with a sketch of hand-colouring generally from its inception to the present day, putting both in a wider context that very satisfactorily concludes this fascinating story.
As noted above, the book’s second part consists of a gallery of nearly two hundred Whites hand-coloured images. The word overkill rather too readily comes to mind, and there are a number of reasons for this response. Firstly, while the firm’s production was a notable achievement historically and commercially, artistically the work was produced within a very narrow range in terms of both composition and colour. With the slight exception of the aerial images, the rest were securely bound by the rules established by the Picturesque in the 18th century - and paying tribute to that movement’s reverence for Nature. Generally, the views privilege the unspoilt, and any human presence - figures or vehicles - exists to give scale and reinforce the awesomeness. And while in its early days the firm’s colour tended to a darker palette, by the early ‘50s it had become aligned with the prevailing pastel tones characteristic of that decade. For experts there can be diverting differences - the colour of the foreground stones in the well-known Clearwater image, for instance (3) - but for a general public such a comprehensive assembly of images risks the impression of an over-arching blandness which does the memory of Whites a disservice. The point of the firm’s aims and achievement could have been well made by half the number of reproductions.
Secondly, considerations of the book’s design seem to have over-ridden a certain respect for the images themselves. Fifty-two of them are spread double page across the gutter and bled to the edge. While this gives a degree of “light and shade” to the look and pace of the book, none of the images was ever presented in this way, and where the gutter also involves the sequence of nine stitchings you can almost feel the “colouring girls” wincing at this disruption of their careful work.
Thirdly, a hundred and five of the reproduced images come from the author’s own collection. While this bounty is understandable from an enthusiastic collector, had Alsop the collector deferred to Alsop the editor the book might have been more focused and convincing (4). Any history freighted by what essentially are statistics is seldom a success. Statistics are part of the research, not the final product.
The book impressively contains a lot of useful and interesting information, so there’s some competition for space. The major casualty of this for any reader is the placement of captions. The book could almost be subtitled Needles and Haystacks. A PhD in forensic research would certainly be an advantage for the keenest reader. There is even caption - for the image on page 417 - buried in the notes on page 412. The whole thing is just maddening, and a publisher as experienced and devoted to quality as Potton & Burton should be more alert to the capacities of the general reader.
Peter Alsop’s enthusiasm for his subject drives both his personal collecting and promotion of neglected causes that range from tourist posters through artists such as Marcus King to now Whites Aviation’s hand-coloured photographs. As an entrepreneur, though, he’s less likely to critically examine the admittedly unintended impact of the Whites’ images on the rather nationalist construction of an unspoiled New Zealand, that forms the base of the grossly inaccurate and environmentally dangerous 100% clean-and-green mythology. That is part of the Whites Aviation story too. New Zealanders of the 1950s may have felt pride in their country through their connection with Whites’ products (and another part of the story is why they had need for such pride), but in hindsight they were buying into a romantic and retrograde view that effectively blinkered them against the growing and pressing realities of land use and ownership, having implications well into the 21st century.
All that said, Hand-Coloured New Zealand remains a significant achievement, with the author’s work in foregrounding this hitherto neglected aspect of photography’s unique history deserving the sincerest salute.
(1) With many of Whites aerial views - despite the obvious realism - there was often a formal abstraction in the composition paralleling (however superficially) the European New Objectivity movement of the 1920s and ‘30s.
(2) Whites had a good nose for the market; two of the images feature the famous Pink and White Terraces destroyed in the 1886 Tarawera Eruption, retrospectively hand-coloured.
(3) A comparison can be made between the one in this book on pages 72-73 and one on page 11 of New Zealand: a century of images by Paul Thompson, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 1988.
(4) And a lot lighter. It’s a coffee table book because it needs a piece of furniture to support it.
Comprehensive online access to contemporary art & leading galleries around the world