During the 1970s and early 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in New Zealand’s early photographers, lead by historians Hardwicke Knight, William Main, and John B. Turner. A significant number of publications resulted, some focusing on specific photographers, some specific subjects, some anthologies. Since then, while there has been the odd publication, the number has waned somewhat.
In his book Nineteenth Century New Zealand Photography (1970), Turner says, “It’s hard to look at early photographs without first thinking how old they are. We hope it will also be seen how very good the best of them are. They are fine photographs as well as being vital, charming, beautiful and sometimes amusing historical documents.”
Over the past decade, however, Auckland’s John Leech Gallery has been noticeably active in re-presenting historical New Zealand photographs. As they state on their website, “The growth of photography as part of the technical evolution coincided with the growth of New Zealand as a nation. Because of this, aspects of New Zealand’s vintage photography can also be viewed as a visual chronological survey representing a form of exploration as well as documenting changes in development.”
In 2006, the gallery published the wonderful Out Of Time: Maori and the Photographer 1860-1940. As well as presenting an important collection of early New Zealand photography, it was also making a stand for the artistic value of historical photographs, stating “perhaps photography has suffered from being the Cinderella of the arts … [with galleries focussing] on the more easily accessible contemporary works to the detriment of … small, apparently black and white image[s].”
A year later they put on the exhibition Man and the Landscape: New Zealand Photography 1860-1980, furthering the artistic argument. I managed to see that show, and from memory was rather taken with it, especially the early works, many of which were unknown to me. Crombie to Burton: Early New Zealand Photography (Michael Graham-Stewart and John Gow, NZ$26), the exhibition and the catalogue, combines the themes from these earlier shows and builds on the gallery’s philosophical stance.
While the earlier shows included many unattributed images, the works in Crombie to Burton are deliberately focused on the main nineteenth century photographers “who traversed the country in difficult circumstances to document the landscape and the people within”, because the gallery feels these photographers “deserve greater recognition for their efforts.”
Numerous local photo histories postulate that our best early photographers rank aesthetically and historically with the more famous names in world photography. Certainly there are some fantastic works in Crombie to Burton, and generally, though I do sometimes wonder when looking at historical photos of New Zealand how much of my response is because I connect with the location and how much is because of the intrinsic quality of the photo itself. Tempered with that is a personal nostalgia/romanticism for what has been lost and what cannot be contemporarily recaptured in an artistic sense.
Crombie to Burton really is a mini-history, covering numerous genre, and including a range of media (though the majority are albumen prints). It’s a slender, picture heavy volume (never a bad thing), with the short text by Michael Graham-Stewart giving some context and biographical notes.
Most of the works are reproduced actual size which allows us to really see the quality of the images, the technologies, and the reproductions. The very best photographs have a timelessness about them, even when you can place them historically. I certainly thought that with a number of the works in Man and the Landscape, and was rather saddened that the promised book never eventuated. With this book they make some amends, especially with George Valentine’s images around Mt Tarawera, William Meluish’s photo of Dunedin, and the superb Burton Brothers works.
There seems to be a current trend for art dealers to release catalogues as monographs. Last year, for example, Art+Object published a slip-cased hardback book for their auction of Brain Brake images. Where Out Of Time was a beautifully produced, stand-alone hardback volume, Crombie to Burton isn’t quite on the same level, but as someone slowly rediscovering our nation’s photographic history, it’s a welcome addition to the canon.