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Photographic afterlives

An extract from the book <EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM> by Athol McCredie, published in conjunction with the exhibition


<P data-associrn="670848"></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P align=left>What intrigues us about a photograph? What holds us? It is often the absence of a single, limited, controlled meaning, and rather, the excess of possible meanings. The photograph can seduce us by inviting us to create a meaning or narrative for it.</P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>&#8212;Chris Wright, <EM>The impossible science of being: Dialogues between anthropology and photography</EM>, 1995<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P><EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM> presents photographs from the 1850s to the present, drawn from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Some of these collection highlights will be familiar to photography aficionados; others have never been published before. Major New Zealand photographers &#8211; the Burton Brothers, Brian Brake, Ans Westra, Anne Noble &#8211; are present. So too are photographers whose work should be better known, and others whose identities are today lost. The selection ranges across portraits, landscapes, events, advertising, science, documentary and art. This broad view is made possible both by Te Papa’s large photographic collection &#8211; some 320,000 items &#8211; and the museum’s cross-disciplinary nature that encompasses the natural environment, Maori and Pacific cultures, social history and art. It includes the earliest types of photographs seen in New Zealand, as well as some of the most recent art photographs. Together, these photographs tell stories about life in this country from almost the earliest days of European settlement. More particularly, they show us how photography has been practised here.</P> <P data-associrn="746414"></P> <P>The focus of this book is New Zealand photography: images made by New Zealand photographers; images that depict New Zealand (and its past and present territories) or New Zealanders; plus a handful of overseas photographs that circulated here or provide context for New Zealand developments. They have been chosen for their depth, richness and resonance. In a world saturated with images, we are used to the quick flick &#8211; or the quick click. These photographs withstand repeated and prolonged viewings. Their power is lasting because they sustain multiple meanings and interpretations &#8211; which is exactly why they are in a museum collection.</P> <P><STRONG>Collecting photographs</STRONG></P> <P>Collections are the natural home of photographs. Most of us have collections of photographs, whether we realise it or not. We might store these in albums or loose in boxes, on our mobile phone or personal computer, or, increasingly, on social media. Indeed, in the 170-odd years since photography was invented, image making has become so ubiquitous that we are all in some way collectors. Collecting photographs is also, to varying degrees, the domain of scientific and research bodies, government departments, newspaper and magazine offices, medical organisations, law enforcement agencies, commercial photography studios and city councils. Such institutions have collections mainly because they produce photographs. In this sense, all these collections &#8211; personal and institutional alike &#8211; are first generation, formative collections. </P> <P data-associrn="66558"></P> <P>Museum collections, like archives and library collections, are different, acquired with the very long term in mind. They are &#8211; with notable exceptions &#8211; the places where photographs go once they have outlived their original function. People die; formative collections cease to be useful (yesterday’s news is, as the saying goes, old news). If these collections are not disposed of, dumped or deleted &#8211; and by far the majority are &#8211; they may end up in a museum. Museum collecting usually requires the passage of time: for curators to discern what will have long-term significance, and, perhaps most importantly, for photographs to cease to be of practical use to their original owners (and often, for them to see that they have public value). By their nature, therefore, public photographic collections tend to be backward looking, behind the times. An exception is contemporary art photography. Here the museum or art gallery acts like a formative collection, acquiring work soon after it is made. By contrast, the earliest photographs in Te Papa’s collection &#8211; daguerreotypes from the 1850s &#8211; were not acquired until the 1990s. </P> <P>Of course, photography was once too new to be collected retrospectively. Te Papa’s earliest predecessor, the Colonial Museum, was founded in Wellington in 1865. The museum’s early photographic acquisitions recorded phenomena of scientific interest &#8211; a whale stranding, moa bones, geothermal scenes &#8211; or were landscape images collected for illustrative purposes, to provide background and context for geology displays. At this time, museums were still influenced by the Renaissance-era cabinet of curiosities; photographs were also, probably, displayed as technological wonders in and of themselves. New Zealand museums only began to collect historical photographs in the twentieth century. </P> <P data-associrn="112520"></P> <P><STRONG>Photographic afterlives</STRONG></P> <P>As photographs move from private and formative collections to museum collections, the meanings they embody also shift. Leslie Adkin’s 1914 photographs of his future wife, Maud, and her friends were made for entirely personal reasons (‘My darling looked lovely in a grey costume … + red silk tie,’ a besotted Adkin wrote in his journal entry).<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> After Adkin died, in 1964, Maud gave all his negatives to the Dominion Museum. Later, family members donated Adkin’s albums to Te Papa. With all the people pictured gone long before the current generation’s memory, the albums had ceased to enable reminiscing, but the family recognised that the photographs had a wider value, as illustrations of their time. Today, Adkin’s skill as a photographer still delights. But his photographs also speak of time itself. We look at his images of Maud and her friends knowing that the young women have grown old and died and that they will one day be entirely forgotten, even as their photograph survives. </P> <P data-associrn=""></P> <P>A similar shift occurs with commercial photography. In one feverish week in 1970, the Dominion Museum and the Alexander Turnbull Library went through tens of thousands of negatives from Wellington’s Gordon H Burt studio, which specialised in advertising and industrial photography. The negatives, which dated back to 1924, had long since ceased to have commercial value for the studio, and now, as it prepared to move to new premises, were destined for the tip. But the rescued photographs were far from worthless to a museum: they now spoke more broadly of consumer desire, marketing and the sort of products in use decades ago. </P> <P>When photographs are reborn as collection items, they also enable us to make connections and draw comparisons that would have been veiled to the original owner. Many personal albums from the mid-twentieth century, for example, include photographs of ships, either as snapshots or postcards. In isolation, that may not seem very remarkable. But once dozens of such albums are collected, the period’s preoccupation with shipping becomes evident. This impulse, driven by a sense of wonder at how technology was closing the gaps of distance, is long gone. But for the evidence of these photographs, seen in bulk, it would also be forgotten.</P> <P data-associrn="1031610"></P> <P><STRONG>A history about photography</STRONG></P> <P>Public photographic collections like Te Papa’s are, in essence, collections of collections. They represent only a tiny fraction of photographs taken. It is easy nonetheless to slip into the notion that such collections are encyclopaedic, so large that they cover ‘everything’. Or that they are representative &#8211; of the history of photography or of social history. But even before they get to a collection, photographs themselves are made in prescribed ways and for specific reasons. Nineteenth-century landscape photographs were made for sale; news photographs to sell newspapers. Even amateur photographers, who in theory operate under no such constraints, turn out to have taken their images in remarkably formulaic ways: from family gatherings and birthday parties to holiday snaps and tourist sights. Look through any photographic archive and there are remarkably few photographs of people engaged in everyday activities: brushing their teeth, washing the dishes, driving their car, sitting at their desk. Photography is no ‘eye of God’, everywhere present &#8211; though the camera, in the form of the smartphone, is increasingly.</P> <P data-associrn="263292"></P> <P>Photography collections do not stand outside history. Like photography itself, they can only represent or illustrate the past in limited ways. They are a product of the past, rather than a commentary on it. They are by nature contingent, idiosyncratic, partial. They are shaped by museum policy, staff interests, public perceptions and chance events. And some photographs, due to their perceived lack of public interest or value, rarely make it into museum collections at all. Public collections seldom acquire pornography, for example, despite it being a use to which photography has been put since its earliest days.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Technical, medical and police photography are also largely absent. </P> <P>For these reasons, <EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM> does not aim to tell a ‘complete’ history of photography in this country. It responds instead to a call by art historian Geoffrey Batchen, for histories about photography rather than of photography.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Histories of photography tend to base themselves on the model of art history. A linear progression of styles, developed by a series of exemplary practitioners is constructed, and artist status is imposed on many a work-a-day photographers of the past. Such histories are abstract, concerned with images rather than physical photographs and how they are used and consumed in the real world. Histories about photography, on the other hand, deal with questions of production, reproduction, dissemination and collection. They consider not only how photographs operate in their time but also how they operate through time &#8211; how their meanings change and multiply. This book is structured into seven chapters that reflect, broadly, why the photographs were made in the first place and some of the reasons they were then collected. It shows one way a history about photography can look. </P> <P data-associrn="1516479"></P> <P><STRONG>The future of collecting</STRONG></P> <P>In the nineteenth century, photography’s expense and difficulty meant that photographers were necessarily sparing and selective. Today, the opposite applies: in a digital age, we are swamped with images. In 2013, for example, Facebook announced that its users were uploading an average of 350 million photographs a day; since the site launched in 2004, we had used it to share more than 250 billion images.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Like other public collecting institutions, Te Papa is dipping its toes into acquiring ‘born digital’ material &#8211; photographs made digitally and existing digitally. But the sheer quantity of digital photography, and the frequency with which we upgrade and abandon computers and digital cameras, do not encourage archiving by makers, leaving little opportunity for such photographs to be collected. Even if a functioning digital camera or smartphone was discovered in fifty years’ time, its storage media will probably be degraded and its images locked away in a long-obsolete file format. Museums and libraries are trying to grapple with the issues of digital longevity, for to ignore them risks the much talked-about ‘digital dark age’ &#8211; a period in history from which few records will survive. But a bigger issue may be selecting good material to preserve in the first place. With makers unwilling or unable to edit their work, how will curators make decisions about value and quality? Will selection become random samplings of images in bulk? Will this mean that museums no longer collect formative collections?</P> <P>If a book were made in fifty or a hundred years, using only digital images, what will look similar, and what will have changed? Will long-established forms such as the portrait and landscape endure &#8211; and if so, in what ways will they have been transformed? As this book makes clear, technology has always had an impact on the sorts of photographs taken &#8211; but not always directly, and seldom in foreseeable ways.</P> <P>***</P> <P data-associrn="678184"></P> <P>It is tempting to present these 440 photographs without any words at all: to deny even the basic information of place, date and maker. To name something is both to give and limit meaning. The photographs in New Zealand photography collected have all been chosen because they raise questions rather than illustrate things already known. <EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM> aims to show a new way of thinking about photography in New Zealand. But it is, first and foremost, a book of photographs. Look at the images first, then choose whether to read the text. Alone, the images are free to speak for themselves, and the eye to find its own response.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P>This is an abridged version of the introduction to <EM>New Zealand Photography Collected</EM> (Te Papa Press, 2015) by Athol McCredie. <A href="http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/TePapaPress/FullCatalogue/Art/Pages/NewZealandPhotographyCollected.aspx">More information about the book.</A></P> <FONT size=2><P><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL> <LI>Cited in Kathleen Stewart Howe, <EM>First Seen: Portraits of the world's peoples</EM>, 1840&#8211;1880, exhibition catalogue, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, 2004, p. 37. </LI> <LI>George Leslie Adkin diary, August 1913&#8211;February 1915, 15 April 1914 entry, Te Papa, CA000245/001/0007, http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Topic/4605, accessed 26 March 2015. </LI> <LI>A notable exception, in Te Papa’s case, is a series of 503 French nude portraits from around 1910 that were purchased in 1996, a selection of which were published as <EM>A Gentleman’s Collection</EM> (1998). </LI> <LI>Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Dividing history’, <EM>Source</EM> 52, September 2007, p. 25. </LI> <LI>Internet.org, ‘A focus on efficiency: A whitepaper from Facebook, Ericsson and Qualcomm’, 16 September 2013, https://fbcdn-dragon-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/851575_520797877991079_393255490_n.pdf, accessed 7 March 2015. </LI></OL></FONT> <P>&nbsp;</P>
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Peter Peryer, New Zealand 15.3.1991, 1991, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Interior of the Colonial Museum, Wellington

Interior of the Colonial Museum, Wellington

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Unknown, Untitled, circa 1910,
Purchased 1996.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Leslie Adkin, Amy Denton and Maud Herd, 15 April 1914, black and white gelatin glass negative,
Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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F R Lamb, Children's party, 14 April 1962, colour transparencies
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Peter Black, Moving Pictures. Taihape, 1985, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Gift of the photographer, 2007.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Khulan Tumen and Kaitlyn Randal, Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua. Photograph by Khulan Tumen, 2015

Khulan Tumen and Kaitlyn Randal, Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua. Photograph by Khulan Tumen, 2015

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Len Wesney, Plaster hand, children's play centre, Christchurch, 1972, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz