‘Visual Reading’ of Early New Zealand Photographs

Historical photos totally fascinate me.  I can’t resist investigating secondhand shops for old postcards, old albums and scrapbooks, and studying any historical photographic image on display in cafes, shops and the like.  These early historical photographs open up a visual interpretation of a new emerging nation.  The earliest photograph, the daguerreotype, coincides with the beginning of pakeha settlement in New Zealand in the late 1830’s.  This interception and weaving of history and photography adds an interesting dynamic to the understanding of our historical past and its continuing re-interpretation.

Hot off the press is a new publication which explores this relationship and begins a dialogue between photographic content, its context, form and our response as researchers and archivists.

Early New Zealand Photography – Images and Essays editors Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf, published by Otago University Press, 2011 is a collection of essays presented at a symposium at the University of Otago in December, 2007.   Following a short but informative introduction into New Zealand photography and the means of accessing it for research and writing, 24 short analytical essays examine a range of New Zealand photographic images from early daguerreotypes to World War 1.   The aim of the publication is ‘to push the scholarship on New Zealand’s colonial photography in new directions’. This publication is not a ‘historical survey of colonial photography’ or photographers it is a cross disciplinary consideration of the materiality of the photograph and its ‘cultural and technological contexts’ which the editors suggest has been lost and overlooked in New Zealand scholarship.

This has long been a pet hobby-horse of mine and I could write a lot more on the lack of scholarly use of photographs as archival documents but at this point I want to pick up on two essays in the volume as they relate to the Presbyterian photographic collection.

Brian Moloughney’s essay ‘Pictures of Panyu: images  of  China from the Canton Villages Mission’ focuses on the South China Missions collection held in the Archives.  The collection dates from 1901 until the closure of the mission in 1951 due to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.  Brian highlights the significance of this collection as one of New Zealand’s ‘first sustained engagement with China’ and he views the collection as opening up a means of ‘rematerialising’ what he calls the ‘New Zealand Cantonese Frontier’.

Brian analyses the somewhat ‘eclectic’ but ‘one of the most interesting photographic Chinese collections’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New Zealand.  He highlights broadly what it consists of, its initial purpose, the influence on the contemporary and present viewer, insights into daily life and, like our own historical photographs, the development of the city Canton and its villages in the early 20th century.  He dabbles in the interpretation of the mission to China as’ imperialism with a human face’ and concludes that the Presbyterian Church was concerned with educational and social work that may eventually lead to conversion.  Significantly as he points out, the photos also reflect the activity and contributions by the Chinese in changing urban and village life.  The collection along with those of the Punjab and Vanuatu Missions he suggests offer ‘powerful traces that provide insight into the ways in which New Zealanders have engaged with the wider world’.

An essay that focuses more on the materiality and purposes of images is that written by Antje Lubcke,  ‘From glass plate to album:New Hebrides mission photographs in the album of Reverend William Veitch Milne’.  The main thrust of this essay is the photographic album and its compilation, something that we don’t necessarily give much attention to in our research.  William Milne as she points out was responsible for 14% of the 647 New Hebrides photographs and it is his album she concentrates on.

The album is dated 1913-1914 and was used by him as a means to promoting support for the New Hebrides mission when he came back to New Zealand on furlough.  Besides an opportunity for the missionary and family to have a break and become refreshed for returning to their work the furlough was designed to promote their mission and its work throughoutNew Zealand.

By analysing the compilation of the album Antje has concluded that this album was solely for the purpose of supporting the mission and throughout, a coherent narrative of mission work is apparent in its pages.  She considers the juxtaposition of images, the captions the content of the images, the geographic location, and notes that an ethnographic interest was as much a motivation as showing the advances of the mission.  Her analysis suggests that although the geographic location and the ethnographic focus appears to be secondary to the ‘conversion narrative’ the central theme suggests that they are progressing in their work but there are still ‘heathens’ on the islands and ‘more funds are needed’ for the mission to continue and succeed.

Antje concludes by considering the changing meanings of the album and its photographs as it moved from being a public document to a private one.  ‘With this transition the meanings and readings attached to the photographs too would have changed.’

The Otago University Press has published a volume of the highest quality with excellent photographic reproduction. There is an extensive and helpful Bibliography on photographic history and research, articles and dissertations, illustrated histories and exhibition catalogues.   It is an exciting read and sets out many challenges for both researchers and Archives to continue the shared undertaking to enable the documentation of photographic images to progress  in transforming photographs back into archival documents.

by Yvonne

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