Photography is a practice that has always had many functions, and with the growing importance of visual language in our day-to-day lives, those functions are increasing. The one thing that has generally driven all photographers, regardless of their practice, is a love of both the visual image and the act of making a photograph.
Photography was discovered around the same time as the ‘birth’ of our nation, and as such the colonisation of New Zealand was well recorded with both the paintbrush and the camera. I recently wrote (for another website, blog.teara.govt.nz) about the likelihood of vast image collections accumulated by servicemen and women during the two World Wars, waiting to be discovered in random albums and biscuits tins. However, it’s not only war collections that remain unknown or undiscovered, but a wealth of images documenting, in one way or another, our country and our photographers’ response to it. Three recently published books examine this idea in their own way, with each focused on an individual photographer, all of whom have quietly remained largely unrecognised.
Alan Miller is an Auckland-based photographer who has been photographing New Zealand since the mid-1970s, and as such the title of his book, New Zealand Photographs (Anglesea House, NZ$70), is both didactic and ironic (though I’m not sure he would see it that way). Primarily interested in the landscape, the images (or at least their precedents) range from Pictorialist to Modernist with bits of Surrealist thrown in.
The images are the type that a lot of photographers would aspire to, but Miller’s photos are definitely a cut above, and with four decades of works to choose from I suspect the task of editing this selection wasn’t an easy one. Generally speaking, the images are black and white shots with a tendency towards emphasising shadow and light. There’s a lack of pretension, and a lack of unnaturally dramatic, and overly emotive images. Purely speaking, a simple, meditative honesty.
The irony with the title though, is that very few of the photos are classically New Zealand. Many of the shots are rather geographically generic with nothing specifically suggesting these islands. And because these are ‘new’ representations of a country much photographed, there’s a beautiful quirkiness, and maybe even bravery, in the selection. I’m reminded somewhat of the 2007 book, Hinterland: Rick Alexander’s New Zealand, which was another unconventional exploration of the New Zealand landscape. Though unlikely to have the same commercial appeal as the far too numerous (and exceptionally safe) scenic coffee table books, Alan Miller’s New Zealand Photographs deserve a wider audience.
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Although there is an element of the documentary in every photo (at least there used to be before compositing became such common/easy practice), Miller’s images don’t really fit the general concept of documentary. The works of Jack Adamson and Joseph Divis, however, definitely fit the documentary mould. Often with phtoography, but especially with historical images, there can be a conflict between the subject (what the photo is of) and the object (the technical stuff) in regard to the photo’s value. Sometimes though, there is a good combination of historical significance and technological expertise.
Simon Nathan is a sometime-colleague of mine; a geologist, science historian, and a great fan of the West Coast. He mentioned Joseph Divis to me a couple of years back. I had never heard of Divis, but found the few photos Nathan showed me to be quite interesting. Now Nathan has collated an album of Divis’s works in Through The Eyes Of A Miner: The Photography Of Joseph Divis (Steele Roberts, NZ$40), which also doubles as a biography of this immigrant photographer.
Arriving in New Zealand in 1909, Divis immediately headed for Blackball on the West Coast and started working in the mines there and taking photos. A couple of years later he moved to Waiutu, a once thriving mining town now abandoned. Divis recorded the places, the people, and the production equipment until he apparently suddenly ceased photographing in the mid-1930s.
Divis was not, it seems, interested in photography as a fine art. Many of his contemporaries, most notably George Chance, were in thrall to the Pictorialists and one would imagine Divis must have been aware of their work. What Divis was, was a documentary photographer, although the term wasn’t used in relation to photography/film practice until the late-1920s. He concentrated his camera on the utilitarian, the vernacular, and the every day. We see landscapes, architecture, and primarily portraiture. The images are formally constructed, with the portrait work in particular being very formal; the staid poses no doubt due to his use of the glass plate negative, even long after more practical technology existed.
Divis is an odd man of mystery. There is very little biographical information about him, as Nathan’s text makes clear, yet one of the fascinating aspects of his photography (or at least of this collection) is that he is in many of them. They are essentially self-portraits, a visual diary even, an autobiography for the semi-literate. As his photography suggests a need to record his own life I find the fact that there are no existing journals or other writings somewhat curious.
While the photos are undoubtledly worth seeing, Nathan’s text feels uncertain of its audience. In parts it seems written for a younger audience (explaining things in very simplistic terms); in others, adult knowledge is assumed (e.g. magnesium flash), and there is the sporadic extraneous statement. It’s possibly symptomatic of Nathan’s science background that he occasionally feels it necessary to provide evidence for statements that I, for one, was willing to take as read. I think the text could have been tighter, but as it does help inform the photos and there’s not a lot of it to read, it’s not a huge issue.
These frustrations aside, the purpose of, and real value in the book is to present the valuable historical work of Joseph Divis to a new audience, and this it does perfectly well.
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Similarly, the purpose of Rhian Gallagher’s Feeling For Daylight: The Photographs Of Jack Adamson (South Canterbury Museum, NZ$50) is to bring another important collection of historical images to a wider audience, alongside decent biographical information about the photographer in question. While Divis had, at various times, plans of being a professional photographer, and did indeed have many works published, Adamson had no such grand dreams—he merely took photos because he could.
Gallagher’s well-researched and wide ranging prose covers Adamson’s life and photography, and also takes in cultural connections to mountains, their representation in art, the birth of mountaineering for pleasure, the European history of the Southern Alps, and late-19th Century photographic practice. It’s a very well-written piece, and even though it covers a lot of ground, it flows nicely from subject to subject and has a really good balance of information—nothing is irrelevant and no tangents are overdone.
While Gallagher unapologetically concentrates on Adamson’s time at The Hermitage near Mt Cook, largely due to this being when he was most active photographically, Adamson’s whole life seems to have been quite extraordinary, particularly his unheralded exploration of South Westland, and worthy of a longer biography.
Adamson was drawn to the mountains, and soon after to the desire to photograph them. As Gallagher states, “[m]ountaineers identified alpine photography as a unique genre, largely distinguished … by the sheer difficulty of doing it.” This, during the era when glass plate negatives required a bulky and heavy camera and tripod. Another thing that distinguished Adamson’s interest was that at this point in the history of photography, those practicing it tended to be either professionals or “gentleman amateurs with independent means”. A basic camera kit alone was fifteen times the average weekly wage, so tended not to be pursued by working class people like Adamson.
Adamson’s photos clearly have historical value, but in and of themselves there is a beauty in the alpine images. He rarely lapsed into the Pictorialism that was rampant at the time, preferring the realism of the topographic photographer. As a climber, having images that could be studied for further climbs made more sense than trying to make works evoking The Sublime. But this doesn’t mean the photos lack interest or beauty, and some are in fact quite sublime.
Beyond the landscape he also photographed his family and friends with an intimacy rarely seen in photos of the time. Bulky equipment and long exposure times don’t really allow for spontaneous photography, but somehow Adamson managed it. Feeling For Daylight is a great package, and as with the Through The Eyes I’m left wanting more, wanting to know if these are the best of the crop or a mere selection.
Each of these three books documenting, in one way or another, our country and our photographers’ response to it, are valuable additions to our collective photographic history. It would be good to think that they will each achieve some mainstream recognition, but that remains to be seen. If nothing else I hope they encourage others to uncover other hidden archives for us all to share.