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Examining Te Papa’s Photography

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It is not a beautiful book. The layout is shoddy and ill-judged, the juxtapositions of photographers is often either crudely obvious or just odd, the fonts are hideous, and the chapter breaks look like they were put together by someone sitting NCEA level 2 graphic design. It is, however, a future seminal resource for New Zealand art historians that will probably never be surpassed in my lifetime and an essential addition to every library in the country.

New Zealand Photography Collected
Athol McCredie
Over 400 colour and b/w images from the national collection

368 pp, hardcover

RRP 99.99
Te Papa Tongarewa October 2015

During his tenure during the 1980s as director of what was then the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, Luit Bieringa had the tremendous foresight to realise a modest collecting budget could be stretched quite far by collecting photography. It wasn’t until the latter part of that decade that photography came to be seen as anything more than a poor sister to painting or sculpture, and consequently photographic prints by even big international names could be got for nominal sums. When Te Papa came into being in 1992 it benefited from an atypically rich photography collection which is one of the few things it has over Auckland institutions, and an appraisal of this richness is long overdue.

This year Te Papa published New Zealand Photography Collected, written and edited by curator Athol McCredie concurrently with the blockbuster survey exhibition of the same name. At one point it looked like this book wasn’t going to happen when earlier in the year Te Papa announced it was shutting down its publishing division. As with Sleeping Beauty some fairy godmother or other has managed to commute this sentence to a hiatus.

It is not a beautiful book. The layout is shoddy and ill-judged (contrast with the sensitive and elegant handling of New Zealand Photoforum publications), the juxtapositions of photographers is often either crudely obvious or just odd, the fonts are hideous, and the chapter breaks look like they were put together by someone sitting NCEA level 2 graphic design. It is, however, a future seminal resource for New Zealand art historians that will probably never be surpassed in my lifetime and an essential addition to every library in the country. Around 400 significant images, culled from over 320,000 items in Te Papa’s collections, have been gathered together in this volume. Some, like Eric Lee-Johnson’s Mrs Goodson and Opo (1956) are, that much overused word, iconic. The selection is generous and famous artworks and documentary images rub shoulders with pictures from advertising, studio portraits, snapshots and cartes de visite. Black and whites dominate over colour, probably because from a conservatorial point of view some colour processes are less chemically stable and more difficult for museums to preserve.

With any book with claims to encyclopaedic breadth and completeness, a necessary exercise is to take a roll call. There are some glaring absences. Some of these may be excused due to weaknesses in the collection. Te Papa doesn’t hold any work by Doc Ross, for example, and they should rectify that immediately, likewise Nathan Pohio (Te Papa only has a video work), Alan Bekhuis, and Janet Bayly - though the latter being formerly married to McCredie, this might be a matter of conflicting interest. Other lacunae simply can’t be excused. Margaret Dawson has four works in the collection and is nowhere to be seen, while Gillian Chaplin has about twelve and is likewise missing in action. Te Papa has around nine photographs by pioneering South Canterbury photographer William Ferrier (1855-1922) - not a sausage. The Reverend John Kinder (1819-1903) gets a single mention in the text despite being well represented in the collection. No Enos Pegler (1869-1938). Te Papa has a copy of Harvey Benge’s 2011 photobook Cologne Stopover, not that you would know from this particular volume. No Boyd Webb despite Te Papa having several of his works. No Christine Webster. No Haruhiko Sameshima (or any non-Pākehā or non-Polynesian that I could see). Obviously you can’t squeeze everyone into a single volume, but these are hardly nobodies and might have fitted if Brian Brake hadn’t been allotted six images, including two double page spreads, but then this is probably to be expected from the author of Brian Brake: Lens on the World (Te Papa 2010).

I am in two minds about the division of chapters by theme. On the one hand this does make some of the commonalities and trends more apparent and accessible. On the other, timelines become disjointed; an effect not helped by relying on an irregular scattershot of picture captions to tell the story. Photographs of and/or by Māori are distributed throughout in clusters - subjects of the colonial gaze, aspiring to middle class acceptance, cultural renaissance, and of course as photographers themselves - but their significance gets diluted somewhat by the emphasis on a more general narrative of nation building. There is a book waiting to be written on the complex relationship between Māori and photography despite MA and PhD theses on the subject being legion.

Photography as art in the purist sense, doesn’t kick off properly until Chapter 5, “Conceiving a photographic art: pictorialism and modernism”. We begin with the usual suspects - the picturesque Arcadian tropes of J. W. Chapman-Taylor (including the exquisite 1928 Grafton Bridge which manages to make Auckland look like a Piranesi print), the Romantic theatrics of Harry Moult, and, naturally, George Chance’s The Storm - Wanaka (c.1940). Roland Searle’s Calm Waters (unhelpfully to anywhere in the 1920s to the 1940s but which may hold the distinction of being the earliest abstract photograph taken in New Zealand), but it is the émigré European refugees fleeing the Second World War that truly bring modernism to these shores - Richard Sharell and Frank Hofmann - who in turn inspire the extraordinary talents of rare locals like Steve Rumsey and Eric Lee-Johnson at a time when, as Lee-Johnson quips in his 1994 autobiography No Road to Follow, photography was seen as “midway between doodling and washing the dishes”. The chapter concludes with an untitled 1963 Max Coolahan close-up of tree bark, a Theo Schoon mudpool photo from the 1950s (I’m biased, but he deserves more), and two breath-taking aerial views by John Johns.

The influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson looms large in the chapter “Other Perspectives: social documentary. There are the usual suspects: Lee-Johnson again (surely he’s due a revival of interest), John Pascoe, Les Cleveland, Gary Baigent, Ans Westra, John Daley, John Turner, and even a Max Oettli. The selection of images does, on occasion, tend to a kind of fetishism - scary gangs, adorable children, country pubs, poverty and so forth. Straight photography admits whimsy and eccentricity once we get to Robin Morrison. Surely, though, Marti Friedlander deserves to be represented by more images than the single, estimable portrait of Tony Fomison from the late 1970s? The inclusion of Adrienne Martyn’s 1983 portrait of Joanna Paul is to be commended, as are the delightful Len Wesney On Cook Strait Ferry (1974) and Murray Hedwig’s Man/lift (1978). Fiona Clark gets her just dues with four of her striking portraits of otherwise invisible trans and gay people in the mid-1970s a decade before the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act.

I think it probably comes as a surprise to younger people what a fraught and dangerous time the late 1970s and early ‘80s were in New Zealand. This is brought home by Terry O’Connor and Paul Simei Barton’s photojournalism of the Springbok riots in 1981, and Glenn Jowitt and Westra’s images of the gang world at its acme. As something of a counterpoint there’s a goodly wodge of portraits of Pacific and Māori families by Terry O’Connor from the late ‘70s and 80s highlighting a shuffling of demographics while avoiding patronising clichés. We don’t really think of Anne Noble as a documentary photographer, but here are her Hidden Lives images of a London convent, however if it was up to me I probably wouldn’t have included Laurence Aberhart’s church pictures in this section because they seem to me more formal studies than an attempt to capture a moment in time. Noticeably there isn’t much in the way of hippies or commune life.

I began this review by referring to the sterling work Luit Bieringa put into establishing Te Papa’s photography collection. That is why the middle part of this book is so strong - something which doesn’t hold quite so well when we get to the seventh and final chapter, “About photography: contemporary work”. When a book of this type by senior curator speaks about “contemporary” art, almost inevitably they are thinking about work from anywhere between ten and thirty years ago. Likewise it’s often a mishmash. Sadly this is also the case with the present volume. The main trends pinpointed are reductive: the New Topographics (primarily influenced by Hilla and Bernd Becher and pretty much over by the 1980s), and an awkward squashing together of digital technology as “artifice” with “anachronism” (the latter being a further squashing together of the revival of traditional analogue processes like daguerreotype with the emulation of historical genres and stereotypes).

This section is full of double takes for me. Why is a consummate formalist like Peter Peryer considered topographical and Aberhart positioned with the documentary photographers? There is a wonderful Gary Baigent Brian Coker, Remuera, Auckland (1967) (no idea who Coker is, but he’s smoking and reading overwhelmed by the expanse of pictorial wallpaper behind him), but is an image from nearly half a century ago really “contemporary”? An underwhelming Bill Culbert from 1978 is counterpointed with a far more interesting K. Road still life by Bryony Dalefield from 1978. Gavin Hipkins’ object fetishism gets a lot of attention, including a completely bizarre counterpoint with a Lee-Johnson night sky abstract from 1957. The Yvonne Todds, Joyce Campbell and Ben Cauchi are all rather indifferent. Aberhart is counterpointed with an early Fiona Partington because of some superficially similar camera trickery. There appears to be no rhyme or reason in the pairing of Jane Zusters with Rhondda Bosworth except that they both deconstruct the female body, though both are thoroughly deserving of inclusion. Things perk up again with some familiar Nobles, Echo (2000) and three from the Ruby’s Room series. Wayne Barrar’s Dividing barriers, crystalising ponds (1987) is very awkwardly paired with an undated Mark Adams Land of memories: Rapanui (Shag Rock) and Opawaho-Otakaroro estuary mouth, matching the horizon lines as if they were a single image - an impression not helped by being immediately followed by Adams’ triptych View in Pickersgill Harbour after William Hodges, 17 May 1995.

The jokey pairings continue. An Allan McDonald and a Neil Pardington are matched because they are both sotto in su white interior shots , though one is a morgue and the other a second-hand shop. A dramatically angled shot by Aberhart from behind of the kowhaiwhai of the Te-Hau-ki-Tūranga wharenui is rather disrespectfully paired with an image of abandoned builders’ rubbish in Te Papa’s old Buckle Street building. The imitation Māori whakairo in Aberhart’s Nature morte (silence), Savage Club, Wanganui. 20 February 1986 is uncomfortably paired with a Fiona Pardington heitiki image. Cultural insensitivity aside, this is sophomoric stuff. The pairing of a Noble image of an Antarctic diorama at Canterbury Museum and one of Megan Jenkinson’s less interesting Atmospheric optics works from 2007 is only marginally better. The counterpoint of one of Ava Seymour’s fetishist photocollages with Shelton’s lush Abigail’s party interiors tszujs things up, but the captions don’t do a damned thing to explain the history of the images. Speaking of the captions, they are set out in the most ungainly and counterintuitive way.

The contemporary section is very disappointing. Any digitally manipulated works are decidedly conservative and could have just as easily been carried out by analogue means with the exception of a small image of Lisa Reihana’s Marakihau from one of her least successful bodies of work - the dire ethno-kitsch of Digital Marae (2001). There are no screengrabs of moving image - perhaps understandably but somewhat conservative. No lightboxes or any other ways of emphasising the materiality of the photographic print. No photobooks, or at least none considered as an organic whole. Not much in the way of tableaux. No Cindy Sherman-esque dress-up shenanigans. Ultimately the main value of the book is as a superlative archive of New Zealand photography, but as a history I’m not convinced it’s any better than, say, David Eggleton’s Into the Light (Craig Potton 2006) or Paul Thompson’s New Zealand: a century of images (1998, ironically also published by Te Papa).

Andrew Paul Wood

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This Discussion has 1 comment.


John Hurrell, 9:30 a.m. 24 June, 2022

Very sorry to hear of Luit's death. His line up of curatorial contributions to Aotearoa's art history is considerable, but in photography especially he was a true pioneer, initiating projects and institutional acquisitions at a time when that medium had a very low profile. His passion helped changed its status profoundly in this country.

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