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A Different Light: First Photographs of Aotearoa
ed. Catherine Hammond and Shaun Higgins

'Mirror and portal': photographing New Zealand people and places in the nineteenth century

By May 14, 2024No Comments

A Different Light: First Photographs of Aotearoa is a richly illustrated and beautifully produced book, a catalogue to an exhibition of the same name featuring early photographs held by the Hocken library at the University of Otago, the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington and Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Memorial Museum.

Its five essays – and thematic albums of photographs – explore Aotearoa’s introduction to photography from its inception in 1827, from the earliest daguerreotype portraits until the introduction of the first mass market camera, the Kodak box ‘Brownie’, at the turn of the twentieth century. The depth of information and the analysis the essays contain are what makes the book so useful, while the photographs are what seduce. A Different Light will be essential reading for photographers, artists, historians and teachers building local history curriculums, and of great interest to general readers.

The book draws together perspectives on the evolution of photographic practice in Aotearoa, including a detailed technical history, decolonizing historical analysis and insights gleaned through the study of studio collections and private albums.

Photography’s invention was announced almost simultaneously in 1839 in Paris by Louis Daguerre with his introduction of the daguerreotype; and in London by William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the processes to fix images on paper. Most early European photographs document the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid transformation of the built environment a thousand years in the making. With some notable exceptions, there is a heavy formality to this early European photography, which built on the precedents set by painting, focusing on the grandeur of Gothic cathedrals, ancient monuments, Greek and Roman ruins.

Daguerreotypes were introduced to New Zealand by 1846 and became a means of connection between settlers and their families back in Europe. In her framing introduction, ‘Photography and Settler Colonialism’, Angela Wanhalla describes the complex relationship nineteenth-century photographers had with settler colonisation. These photographers and collectors were not passive observers. They were soldiers, surveyors and gentleman landholders using photographs to quantify and procure land, to seduce potential investors and tourists, and to sell the colony to future settler colonists.

Photographs enable interactions with past worlds, peoples, societies, and cultures. But because photographs are products of negotiation between the sitter and the maker, and because they are created in particular social, economic, and political contexts, they are not neutral observations of history, people or places … photography and photographers are now understood to be participants in settler colonialism. Images of the New Zealand wars, for instance, are no longer regarded as neutral observations of those events; it is now recognized that photographs and their makers were active participants in the wars.

A Different Light offers many intimate glimpses into the lives of our forebears and insights into their relationships and values throughout the tumultuous colonial period. It chronicles something I have been trying to imagine for much of my adult life: the multiple collisions between techno-capitalist modernity and more ancient ways of life. Often these collisions have been violent and destructive. For example, Paul Diamond’s essay ‘Once Were Traders: Reading Images of Māori in the “Urquart Album”’ uses the photo album compiled by Charles Urquart, a soldier from a British Infantry regiment based in the Waikato in the early 1860s, to document the transformation of Pōkeno from a vibrant Māori hub and trading post into a swathe of settler colonial landholdings.

The images chosen for this volume are striking for their intimacy and informality. There were no huge buildings to photograph in the Aotearoa of the 1840s, little in the way of high society, and the usual social constraints of class and race seem to have held less sway. The images convey a naturalness to the landscape and the social relations that played out in it. They do not have the heavy quality of many canonical European photographs of the time: they are on a smaller scale that feels contemporary and alive.

The book’s cover image, ‘Portrait of a Young Child’, is an exquisite example of this distinctive intimacy. This strangely comedic image shows a ‘hidden mother’, huddled out-of-focus behind an elaborately carved Victorian parlor chair, her one visible arm pinning down a chubby and taciturn baby who stares glumly at a distraction to the right of the camera. This collodion silver photograph was taken by the prolific studio photographer William Harding, whose collection of 6,500 glass-plate negatives is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.

The title of an exhibition of Harding’s photos at the National Library in 2022, ‘Between Skin & Skirt: the photographic portraits of William Harding’ took its name from a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who said, ‘The most difficult thing . . . is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.’ Many images in A Different Light manage to get between skin and shirt. Indeed the startling immediacy that typifies Harding’s images permeates the entire book, evident in a few extant early daguerreotypes, in which the depth and detail lend them an almost three dimensional appearance.

Making a daguerreotype is perhaps the most tactile way to make a photograph: start with a piece of copper sheet plated with silver; polish and buff through numerous steps; then expose the plate to iodine crystals until it reaches the ideal hue; place it in the back of the camera built specifically to receive it. Then make the actual exposure — taking into account the low sensitivity and narrow exposure range — perhaps a few minutes in mid-afternoon sun. Develop the plate by exposing it to mercury vapour; fix with hypo; tone with a blowtorch to bring gold chloride to a boil before dousing the heated plate with distilled water. The result is a ghost of an image, a mirror frosted with the most fragile sugar-coating of pictorial dust.

A daguerreotype is literally a mirror of polished silver. If you look directly into it, you will see little other than your own reflected face. But when the image is seen at an angle, and the mirrored surface reflects the dark velvet of its case, the pale dusting of silver halide assembles into a recognisable image on its surface. The mirror transforms into a window and we can look through that portal into another time. Mirror and portal: photography is a little bit of both.

Edward J. Eyre’s daguerreotype portrait of Hēnare Wirimu Taratoa, Ngāi te Rangi, is an extraordinary example of the daguerreotypist’s art. Taratoa captures me with his clear direct stare. I don’t look at it, but through and in. The degraded edges of the daguerreotype open out into a portal for travel through time.

Browsing A Different Light, I repeatedly found myself looking at someone I felt I might know, and was reminded that fewer than 200 years have passed since both photography and nation were created in the furnace of globalised modernity. Small details bring the images into the now and allow me to feel the closeness of that moment.

Batt & Richards, Tom Adamson and Wiremu Mutu Mutu, Wanganui, 1867–74, albumen silver print, carte de visite (103 × 64 mm). Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago, P1971-005/1-012c.

Shaun Higgins’ essay ‘Chasing Wonder: Photography in the Auckland Province’ charts the introduction and gradual succession of a series of technical innovations in the New Zealand context. Daguerreotypes are gradually supplanted by the collodion ambrotypes and negatives processed as albumen prints, mammoth plates, stereographs, magic lantern slides and the Eastman Kodak dry plates that finally made photography a semi-accessible practice for people other than professional photographers and wealthy amateurs to pursue. It is with the availability of these dry plates that photography was democratized and women gained access to cameras and the ability to picture their social reality.

The book’s limitations as a comprehensive history of photography in Aotearoa partially derive from its drawing upon three museum collections. While it includes many images of Māori, no Māori family albums are represented here. This does not signify lack of interest by Māori in the making or collection of photographs. In fact, it is the degree to which Māori families treasure photographic portraits that renders them disinclined to hand over such taonga to any collecting institution, as Higgins suggests.

For Māori there was another dimension. The living connection to the sitter was the same as to a carved ancestor, or any other manifestation. Wharenui would eventually feature photographs of ancestors located where at one time they would have been depicted in other forms. But their presence has the same significance.

On June 10 1886 Te Ōtukapaurangi and Te Tarata, The Pink and White terraces at Rotomahana, were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Tarawera, a cataclysmic event Charles Spencer captured on mammoth plate. Spencer’s image was the virtual reality of its time — its scale was a marvel achieved through immense expense of time, effort and resource.

John Kinder shot images of the same area both before and after the Tarawera eruption. His albumen silver image of Mount Tarawera in 1886 brings to mind Roger Fenton’s desolate images of the aftermath of the Crimean war. I want to squeeze through the portal to immerse myself in this strange scene in order to feel and smell this vision of primordial obliteration.

John Kinder, Mount Tarawera, 1886, albumen silver print mounted on album page (151 × 200 mm). Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-ALB-90-p-54-1.

In Natalie Marshall’s essay ‘Camera Fiends and Snapshooters: Early Amateur Photography in Aotearoa’, it is the immediacy of photographs by James Coutts Crawford, Henry Wright and Robina Nicol that ‘pricks’ me, as Roland Barthes would have it. These photographers working far from the global centre of their craft are freed to explore domesticity and love. Their photographs are suffused with intimacy, warmth, pregnancy, yawning and easy comradery. It is easy to see that how they lived intersects with how we live now, and also to recognize the ways in which it does not. If these photographs are technically rough, or worn, we easily look past all that to engage with an image of another person or place. The images defy the notion that we need hyper-reality, immersion, massive scale, vivid colour or idealised beauty in order to achieve psychic proximity.

A rare image of a heavily pregnant Victorian woman, shot outdoors in a domestic garden. James Coutts Crawford, Jessie Crawford, probably outside the Crawfords’ home in Thorndon, Wellington, c. 1859, salted paper print (143 × 110 mm). Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-10818-5.

In the last 20 years, our photographic habits and practices have changed completely. Not very long ago it was a big deal to take a photograph — buying film, getting it developed and printed, placing it in an album. Now we carry high-resolution cameras in our pockets and these proliferating photographs are stored in an amorphous non-place called the Cloud –  actually a vast network of humming computer banks chewing carbon like candy. In 2024 the average tween’s Instagram would dwarf William Harding’s collection of 6,500 glass-plate negatives. What are all those endless photographs for? Where are they and who will look at them? How will future historians, curators, photographers, teachers even access them? If they do find our feeds, how will they see us and see themselves in us if we are hiding behind pretty filters? When idealization is imposed at the source, there is no way to touch the real and the portal snaps shut. Glass-plate negatives are vastly less fragile than this current state of photography.

I interpret the photographs included in A Different Light through my own technically troubled moment. These images might be murky or faded with time, but we know that we are looking at something or someone real. There is minimal artifice and no AI filter. Sitters look at us directly. They confront a camera that does not flatter because it cannot. The exposures are long; the emulsions have limited sensitivity and fail to capture red tones, digging deep furrows and liver spots into the face and tending to add a decade to the age of the sitter.

Analogue photographic technology is a transparent portal into the past. The hazy lens doesn’t matter because we know the person was really there. If we are surprised that they yawn, that they are pregnant, that they have their arms around each other, it is because we have separated ourselves from them and imagined them to be a different type of human being from ourselves. But these photographs show us that, while they are separated by time, we are not different; we recognise them and see that they are like us.

A Different Light: First Photographs of Aotearoa

ed. Catherine Hammond and Shaun Higgins

Auckland University Press

ISBN:  9781869409944

Published: April 2024

Format: Hardcover, 284 pages

Joyce Campbell

Joyce Campbell is an interdisciplinary artist with a particular interest in biological and physical systems. She is an Associate Professor at Te Waka Tūhura | Elam School of Fine Arts & Design.