New Zealand's photographic history showcased in new book

 

Mary Macpherson, Featherston, 1986, from the series ‘Urban landscapes’

It may be something we're a bit reluctant to think about, but Christmas is coming. And a book showcasing more than 350 photographs drawn from the national collection at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington will be published just in time to make a great present — even if it's a sneaky present for yourself.

New Zealand Photography Collected has been authored and curated by Athol McCredie and features the work of photographers including James Bragge, Leslie Adkin, Spencer Digby, John Pascoe, Brian Brake, Marti Friedlander, and many, many more.

Recently, we had a chat with McCredie about the book and the process behind its creation:

D-Photo: Why did you think it important to create this book? What inspired its creation?

Athol McCredie: I felt that Te Papa’s photography collection needed to be better known. Many of the photographs are on our ‘Collections Online’ website, but in some ways books are more visible than websites, or at least have a greater, more substantial presence. They also enable a tight and coherent selection of the best photographs to be assembled, whereas, unless you know what you are looking for, it is easy to simply get overwhelmed by tens, or hundreds, of thousands of images on collection websites. Another reason is that there is really not all that much published on New Zealand’s photo history, making it difficult to think and talk about it. So putting some photographs ‘out there’ helps build up a body of work that we can draw on to visualize our photographic heritage. Again, while it is certainly useful to have websites with historical images, that in itself doesn’t really create a picture of the past because the volume just makes it indigestible.

Can you describe the process behind deciding which images to showcase in the book?

I have worked at Te Papa since 2001, and also at the National Art Gallery and National Museum when they existed before being combined to form Te Papa, so I knew a lot of images already. I’ve also personally added many to the collection, so those are others I am familiar with. In addition, I spent many hours looking through tens of thousands of images in our database, and going through boxes of prints in our collection store. As with most such projects, I had to do a lot of balancing: picking well-known photographs that people would expect to see, but tempering these with never-seen-before images. And balancing photographs that I know other people will like against very personal and sometimes quirky favourites I had. Because books work as page spreads, for each photograph I selected I needed to find others that would be equally strong beside them on the same spread. That was probably the hardest thing, and many good photographs had to be left out because they just didn’t work with others.

Eric Lee-Johnson, Mrs Goodson and Opo, 1956

What did you personally enjoy about curating/writing the book?

I like the challenge of making sense of large volumes of material, and you often get this opportunity with photography because we all take so many photographs. It can be really, really hard work sorting out the wheat from the chaff — or more particularly, deciding which photograph to use when you have a number of equally good ones — but it is satisfying when you’ve done it. Also, it was an opportunity to think about collecting, as this was a theme that I wanted to run through the book.

Can you describe the themes/topics within the pages of the book and why they were chosen specifically?

There are seven chapters in the book, and I considered each from the point of view of the idea of collecting. So the first one, for example, is about personal portraits: studio photographs and snapshots. We assemble collections of these ourselves, to create our own visual histories, but they are also acquired by museum and libraries — usually long after the subjects have passed away. Here they tell broader stories about changes in clothing styles, developments on portrait photography, and so on. From being a cumulative family portrait they contribute to a collective national portrait. Other chapters cover places and events, public photographs (group photographs and advertising), museum science photography, the developing idea of photography as art through pictorialism and modernist work, personal documentary photography, and the sort of contemporary photographs that are shown in art contexts. While this doesn’t cover all the types of photography taken in the wider world, it does cover some of the major categories in which a museum like Te Papa collects, and it is possible to ask what purpose collecting them fulfils in each case.

Wayne Barrar, Dividing barriers, crystalizing ponds, 1987

How long did this publication take to produce, from concept to the finished project?

Almost exactly a year, pretty much full-time, though the bulk of the selection and writing was done within about six months. The rest was editing, revising and fine-tuning, as well as all the myriad tasks of putting together a book — working with the designer and the imaging technician, deciding on caption styles and formats, fact checking, proofreading, etc. However, I did underestimate how much work would be involved, and I wouldn’t attempt to do such a book within one year again!

What does this book (and corresponding exhibition) mean for Te Papa?

If the book does its job, and more people are aware of and appreciate Te Papa’s photography collection, then this should lead to more public use of the collection, more interest by the museum in increasing access to it, and greater awareness of Te Papa as a place where collections can go. I also have a personal strategic plan in this regard — of producing a number of books drawn from the collection. It seemed logical to start with the broad brush, and then to focus down on narrower topics. If this one is successful then it will hopefully lead to others that use our collection. And not only by me and from Te Papa’s collection, but by other people from other collections as well. As I said, it’s about putting more of New Zealand's photographic heritage out into the world so we can all share and appreciate it.

 New Zealand Photography Collected will be officially published on November 7 — if you order your copy prior to November 6, you'll receive a 20-per-cent discount and the book will only cost $79.99. Click here to order your book now.

Ans Westra, Students performing, Whatatutu Primary School, near Wairoa, 1963

Ans Westra, Students performing, Whatatutu Primary School, near Wairoa, 1963