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A whaleboat with no name

Curator Lissa Mitchell takes a close look at the Burton Brothers’ photograph <EM>The Narrows, North Fjord, Lake Te Anau</EM>, taken in 1889


<P data-associrn="195210"></P> <P>She sits parked close to the shore of the fiord. She appears in one shot but in no other taken that day. She is a whaleboat. Built to run over the ocean carrying men who hunt humpback whales, now she has a new life as a gentle runabout on a calm, scenic lake. She has a mast &#8211; but no name.</P> <P data-associrn="1438354"></P> <P>She was towed up the north fiord of Lake Te Anau behind the larger vessel <EM>Te Uira</EM> while the photographer stood on board and shouted ‘rapturous admiration of nature’s beauties’,<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> which were all around him. Besides four men, she carried three tents &#8211; one for sleeping, one for food, one for photography &#8211; for 10 weeks’ camping in mid-winter on ground often covered in ice. She carried enough cameras, glass plates, and chemicals for the photographer to make 400 negatives.</P> <P>Each night during the journey up the fiord, she was vacant while the photographer and his men rested in the sleeping tent on beds made from birch twigs and m&#257;nuka branches. The photographer read Thomas Carlyle’s <EM>French Revolution</EM> (which had happened only 100 years earlier) and listened to the calls of the moreporks.</P> <P>Once, they left her and tramped overland for 10 days. When they returned, they found her infested with rats, which, unable to eat the tinned food left on board, had eaten holes through her tarpaulin sail. When the men ran out of milk, butter, tinned meats, and sugar, and all they had left were biscuits and tea, they shot ducks and weka and stewed them.</P> <P>They drove her as far as they could up the north fiord to a wonderful narrowing of the channel before it opened onto a vast, mountain-ringed pool. The photographer imagined it as a mighty amphitheatre for a great aquatic contest &#8211; a world championship with millions gathered in tiered rows around the mountains, staggered thousands of feet high, watching the events in the pool below. Then he realised that the bush would need to be cleared, unless the crowd was prepared ‘to roost in the branches’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> of the trees.</P> <P>He declared the north fiord the most visually appealing part of the lake, and winter to be a perfect time for making photographs that conveyed the drama and beauty of the area. He used up all the words he knew to describe it and proclaimed himself ‘a philological bankrupt’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P> <P>He is a photographer with no more words. She is a whaleboat with no name.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI><FONT size=2>Alfred H Burton, <EM>Lakeland &#8211; Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri. A photographer’s diary</EM>, 1889, 26 September, p. 14.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Ibid, 10 October, p. 15.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Ibid.</FONT></LI></FONT></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>
image

Burton Brothers studio, The Narrows, North Fjord, Lake Te Anau, circa 1889, albumen silver print,
Purchased 1981 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Burton Brothers studio, The Narrows, North Fjord, Lake Te Anau, circa 1889, Black and white photograph, albumen silver print,
Purchased 2014.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz