How we contain the world
In 1888 the then Colonial Museum in Wellington purchased a set of prints of the work of the great early American photographer Carleton Watkins, including some of his celebrated images of California’s grand Yosemite Valley. Incredibly, 128 years later, they are on display for the first time.
Watkins’ stunningly composed photographs of wide-open spaces, with accompanying large scale mining, forestry and damming, are placed to ensure you don’t miss their resonance. They are a gateway into Te Papa’s larger exhibition New Zealand Photography Collected.
The Watkins exhibition (curated by Lissa Mitchell) is testament to the importance of public collecting and our contemporary interest in photography. The photographs also however speak to some vital local themes: landscape photography’s role in developing our sense of self - what we treasure, possess, sell, extract from and desecrate.
Take Watkins’ image of Nevada’s Bowman Dam. Awesome and surreal; beautiful yet deeply disturbing - an enormous wooden dam burns bright in the light, straddling a valley within which giant trees still stand, their trunks in the newly created lake.
At the time of Watkins, eyes looking at the landscape were asking what could be exploited and what might need to start being protected. Photography has played a big role in thinking about how we look after the world.
Exhibition New Zealand Photography Collected - accompanied by an equally substantial hardcover book - reflects that the history of photography runs parallel with the history of New Zealand since European settlement. Arguably photography has been the most significant way New Zealand has told its story. Yet, curator Athol McCredie makes the strong decision to make this principally an exhibition about how we tell the story. How we have used photography.
An exhibition about photography proves to be an exhibition about ourselves – how we portray each other and our world - rather than one of nation-building. Timely, given how now even our children are taking selfies and publishing them on the internet.
As far back as the early 1860s Watkins had an extra large camera made to accommodate extra-large negatives and prints. Those prints are impressive for the quality of their detail. Elsewhere in the exhibition McCredie makes large-scale inkjet prints from the original 19th century glass negatives of early New Zealand photography. These are terrific in terms of the detail printing technology now offers us – the way the past comes to life – but are very different from what was once possible. By contrast when it comes to an enlargement of Brian Brake’s iconic 1960 image of Mitre Peak enlarged (“so recognisable it almost became New Zealand, or at least Milford Sound, in people’s minds”) the detail is very poor. Te Papa on these occasions sacrifices quality and curatorial intent for visual statement.
This exhibition and book’s thoughtful display of early New Zealand land, town and city-scapes is fascinating, but where it really excels is in considering photography as a social tool. The rich history of the technology of portraiture is collected, from the carte-de-viste and daguerrotype, through family studio portraiture to the snapshot. Even family backyard comedy hi-jinks taken with a stereo camera - able to be viewed as colour 3D through a classic plastic View-master (provided in the exhibition) – are covered. Only the actual cameras are missing.
After this, the architecture of New Zealand Photography Collected starts to get wobbly. It becomes more about the broad sweep of what Te Papa has collected, as stated by the rather prosaic general title.
As exhibition it works to assert photography’s place in the top floor art galleries, when it could have made a stunner of a slimmer show more integrated into social history elsewhere in the museum.
As book however it operates as a valuable way to make the national collection more accessible, with generous high quality reproduction of over 400 images and text kept desirably compact (if you can get over the dodgy title font and garish design of the chapter heading double-pages). It’s incredible to think that the museum was considering closing its publishing arm, Te Papa Press, but a year ago.
New Zealand Photography Collected hits the issue of being neither one thing or another - neither a thorough survey of New Zealand photographic art or a social history. In the documentary section I longed to get more clarity on the evolution of photographers’ approaches to documenting society, or get a clearer sense of our history. In the ‘art’ section (and yes, the boxing of this into its own section is awkward) there’s a fascinating look across the 20th century in terms of styles, but I’d have liked more attention to how these photographer use the camera (following the exhibition theme). I was also disturbed by the number of notable photographers absent: leading figures like Boyd Webb, Margaret Dawson, Haru Sameshima, Christine Webster and from more recently Fiona Amundsen and Shigeyuki Kihara.
Such marking of absences would have been avoided if the project had been bold enough to follow its lines of thought through. Far more rewarding would be to see the contemporary artists in interaction with their history. Mixing in the ‘places’ section we could have had the rewarding comparison of Wayne Barrar’s contemporary consideration of landscape, Ann Shelton’s work with the history of sites, and Andrew Ross and Laurence Aberhart’s look at old buildings. Yvonne Todd’s portraiture and Peter Peryer’s 70's Erika series, say, would have been fascinating additions to ‘the portrait’ section. When I saw Len Casbolt’s ‘Spring’ from 1948 - the image of a beautiful young women with Spring Blossoms overlaid - I was immediately reminded of Dawson’s more Feminist ironic 1980s image ‘A September Blossom Queen’. New Zealand photography deserves to have new relationships across time explored more.
New Zealand doesn’t now lack for surveys of photography in print. David Eggleton’s history of New Zealand photography (2006) and Hannah Holm and Lara Strongman’s Contemporary New Zealand Photography (2005) come to mind. New Zealand Photography Collected is quite a different beast, welcomingly focusing on image rather than text. It’s just a shame that McCredie’s strong call to make this a presentation more ‘about photography’ than ‘of photography’ couldn’t have been followed through stronger. An opportunity to revisit the way our photography is pigeonholed is missed.
- New Zealand Photography Collected, Te Papa, Wellington, until 7 August 2016