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AWMM’s A Different Light |19thC Aotearoa

Sapeer Mayron, A Different Light: A chance to see 19th-century Aotearoa as our first photographers saw it, Waikato Times, 7 April 2024

Nurse Pierce and Bessie McKay smoking with Mr Hodson and other nurses at Huia Private Hospital 1895.  Margaret Matilda White. Gelatin silver print. Auckland Museum Collection: PH-1967-4-83. MARGARET MATILDA WHITE / SUPPLIED.

In the Auckland War Memorial Museum lies a photograph so old, so fragile and so sensitive to light that engineers had to design a brand-new device just to put it on display.

Using a sensor to tell a machine when you are approaching, an iris, not too different from the ones in our eyes, reveals a hole in a tall box that you can peer into. Then as you walk away, it closes.

Other photographs, less fragile but still precious, will be illuminated by lights on sensors, leaving the pictures in the dark until they’re looked upon. And the entire gallery will be light enough to see, but only just.

In A Different Light, a collaboration between the Auckland Museum, Hocken Collections, and Alexander Turnbull Library, some of the oldest photographs ever taken in Aotearoa will be on display, starting with the earliest remaining photograph taken in 1852.

It’s a first for the collections, not only to work together but to tour their work. The exhibition begins in Auckland on April 11, then travels to Wellington and Dunedin.

The photo tucked behind the clever iris sensor is a salt print, that anyone could make at home in the 19th century, but they are extremely sensitive to light. Too much of it and the image, embedded into the paper itself, will fade away.

Nurse Edgar [left] and Jessie Crawford, circa 1860, James Coutts Crawford, Salted paper print, Alexander Turnbull Library Collection: PAColl-10818-1 / SUPPLIED.

Shaun Higgins, the Auckland Museum pictures curator and editor of a new book by the same name, has spent years exploring these 19th-century photographs, which as he puts it, are anything but black and white.

In the earliest days of New Zealand photography, the industry was a laborious and technical one. Producing images required understanding chemistry, and a sound knowledge of local geography.

With heavy and cumbersome kit, photographers needed carriages or horses to carry their gear across unsealed roads in early colonial Aotearoa to sell their wares. Higgins says it’s why in the beginning, photography was a business, not an art.

“Very few were in it for the love of photography,” he says.

The camera used to take photos of the now destroyed Pink and White Terraces used what were called mammoth plate negatives, that could measure up to half a metre on each side and made of glass.

Photographers had about 10 minutes to process the images before their picture quality was lost.

“There would have been maybe 10 or 20 of these plates in a bag, all glass, and all of this would have had to be carried up to the location they’re photographing,” Higgins says.

“They probably washed these plates in the actual terraces, which means with a bit of analysis it might be possible to find traces of geothermal chemicals that are actually left from washing the negatives in these silica terraces that have gone.”

Eventually cameras got smaller and more agile, which is evidenced in the kinds of photographs available today.

Images of straight-faced, upright men and women who would have needed to sit still for several minutes at a time to ensure a quality photograph soon turned into more vibrant, candid pictures from cameras that could be taken out of the studios.

The oldest photograph in the exhibition, and likely the oldest photograph in Aotearoa, is of Jane and Alexander Alison, taken on June 30 in 1852. The couple are sitting side by side, holding hands – an unusual look for the era.

“I haven’t seen many daguerreotypes with couples together,” Higgins says. A daguerreotype describes an early method of photography, where images developed onto a thin, silver-coated sheet of copper.

Cold Water Baths White Terrace; circa 1880s; Charles Spencer; Auckland Museum Collection

Higgins has probably looked at more early photography than most.

There are some 200 photographs in the book, but only half made it into the exhibition. Between the three collections available to fill the gallery walls there were some 100,000 19th-century photographs to choose from.

Higgins suspects most of New Zealand’s earliest photographs ended up overseas, sent home to relatives in England and across Europe.

But because they were kept in leather cases or stored away in boxes or drawers, those that have survived are in remarkably good condition.

“Some of the early ones from the 1850s, they’re very rare, there’s maybe a few dozen surviving here, even though we know photographers boasted that they made thousands,” Higgins says.

“I think a lot of them were taken abroad. When you took a picture of your loved ones, you wanted to send it home to the other loved ones.”

Auckland Museum picture curator Shaun Higgins. DAVID WHITE/STUFF

The exhibition also explores the ancestry of photographic manipulation. As long ago as the 1850s, the public had questions about how reliable a photograph could be in telling the ‘truth’ of its subject.

A photograph of Wiremu Tamihana taken by John Kinder, who as well as a photographer was a clergyman and teacher, is a fine example of early attempts to alter photographs to suit the artist.

The exhibition has two copies of this photo: in one, Tamihana clearly sits before a house. In another, the background is blurred, as if out of focus.

“So Kinder has taken a negative and painted around the negative, and when he prints it, it masks out the background. It’s a bit like what you can do in Photoshop, but this is 1863.”

Jane and Alexander Alison 30 June 1852. Half-plate daguerreotype, passe-partout mount. Auckland Museum Collection: PH-1995-9-1.

In another image, a landscape at night, a crystal-clear moon hangs above the scene. Clearly, this was painted in after the photo was taken, Higgins says.

Writings at the time reveal this photo caused a stir in the photographic community at the time.

“Do you edit photographs, or do you keep them as they are? I think photographers today have that same dilemma.

“But as I like to say, every single photograph is taken with purpose. The photographer chooses what’s in the frame. There is always a bit of an edit in that regard.

“When you’re documenting, you’re not this invisible entity that’s just documenting everything, you are making choices. You are, in effect, not documenting neutrally, but with your own agenda.”

While many of the pictures have full captions detailing not only who took the photo but who is featured in it, some people’s names were lost – or possibly were never recorded at all, Higgins says.

Māori in particular were often photographed and their names and identities not preserved, called instead “Māori celebrities” and dressed with props in the artists’ studios.

“Sadly we sometimes know the studio, but we don’t know who they are, we don’t know answers to questions why they were taken. Did you walk away with your own picture, but did you know that that would then be sold to collectors for their albums?

“You might see someone and say, ‘Oh, they’re sitting with their taonga’. Well, not necessarily, they might be sitting with the studio’s prop and dressed up for a certain image.

Photos like these are why throughout the exhibition you might see the question: Do you know who is in this picture? Higgins hopes with a bit of luck, some of the “orphan pictures” with no names might be identified.

“Our own institution and others play a part. We collect from collectors and photos end up in an institution with no name,” Higgins says.

“The best thing we can do is put them out and say, ‘Do you know who these people are?’ and hopefully we find out more about these orphan photographs that have made their journey through time in albums collected by largely white men.

“We don’t have answers, but we can pose the questions. I hope people walk away from an exhibition like this questioning some of the things they’ve seen and maybe looking at things in a different light.”