Friday 19 June 2009

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand Part 2

I searched Google for “Wonderland” and “New Zealand” and came up with 889,000 references. There is Boogie Wonderland, Geothermal Wonderland and even Pets Wonderland. Still, Wonderland is not a term that has retained its currency in New Zealand. Even though it is a terrific title for this 19th century photograph album.

Otira Gorge, West Coast Road (1999/18/74) is a spectacularly cold and wintertime view of one of the most accessible alpine passes in the South Island. Alfred Burton’s assistant looks very game wearing his shirtsleeves in such icy weather. Without his roadside presence it would be much harder to see the lofty scale of the distant mountains.

I reckon Burton's photograph of The Blue Bath, Rotorua (1999/18/150) is surreal and hilarious at the same moment. This pool looks so large but it is shown totally empty of bathers. Frequently, such late 19th century images of public pools included bathing figures - and they were always male - as a means of indicating the pool's scale. I like the abstraction of the composition and I reckon that the famous modernist architectural photographer Julius Shulman would be jealous of this shot!

Interior of crater, after eruption June 10 1886 (1999/18/177) is a brutally 'explosive' image. No one who has visited the top of the crater of Mount Tarawera ever fails to feel overwhelmed by how extensive the 1886 eruption was. I went there once in winter and it was like visiting the after-effects of a cataclysm By including the two ‘spectator’ figures, Burton affirms the old art tradition of having witnesses podering a sublime vista. Who would call the place they are looking at 'Wonderland'?

Image credits:

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand circa 1898-1899
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
The Ilene and Laurence Dakin Bequest, purchased 1999

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand Part 1

Currently on show in Picturing History, we have on display The Wonderland Album – New Zealand. We made an accompanying DVD featuring all the photographic images within the album so that visitors to the exhibition could view the contents in the sequence that they have in the bound volume. I acquired The Wonderland Album for the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection in 1999 from the Peter McLeavey Gallery, where it had been in Peter’s own private collection.

Bound in Moroccan goatskin, blind-stamped and tooled with gold leaf, the album is a really impressive object. It contains 184 albumen photographs all of which are in exceptional condition. We do not know who created the album but it appears to have been assembled in the last five years of the 1890s by someone who had significant means.

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand is, arguably, one of the most important assemblages of 19th century topographical photography. Almost all the photographs were created by Alfred Burton (1834 – 1914), although there are some by James Valentine (1815 – 1880) and also an unknown photographer.

I made a selection of some of my favourite images by Alfred Burton -

Ruined Wharepuni, Whakahoro, Wanganui River (1999/18/43) appears to date from the May 1885 trip that Alfred Burton made down the Wanganui River. This image comes from one of the most important sequences of photographs made in New Zealand during the 19th century. The Wharepuni must date from the mid-century.

Gigantic cabbage trees, Papakai, King Country (1999/18/63) is a beguiling image. The Cabbage tree, or Ti tree (Cordyline australis), at right appears to be dying from some disease and the landscape looks as if it has just been prepared for farming.

Lake Taupo from Motutere (1999/18/66) is another photograph from 1885. Burton made a number of views at this location on the same day but this is the most interesting one in terms of its novel composition. He always had an eye on what would be a saleable image so the abstract quality of this work, with its against the light viewpoint (what we call contrejour) is especially notable.

Taupaki Kauri Bush (1999/18/71) was taken on the forest property of Mr M.H. Roe and is one of a number of Burton's brilliant photographs of Kauri milling. By including the timber workers, we see a portrait of 19th century industry that is not as commonly found as we would expect from photographs of the period.

Image credits:

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand circa 1898-1899
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
The Ilene and Laurence Dakin Bequest, purchased 1999

Tuesday 9 June 2009


I found a new gadget over the weekend. you to upload a photo and then renders it to appear like a miniature world or model. I couldnt resist having a go with the main gallery and here are the results!
It was then pointed out to me that you cant see Rangitoto from the same viewpoint any more and the above photo is an older image. here is a miniature version of what it looks like now:

Monday 8 June 2009

Snapshots - 12

Still on the fascinating topic of sports snapshots, here are two different stunners. Coach Nobby Connolly stands at right - coaches always seem to be standing on the right in such shots . Surprisingly, he is not wearing his hat. Neither is his younger assistant coach, at the team's left. Look at the stain marks impressed at the left and right. This snap has been attached to some wall with a drawing pin for many years. There is tobacco staining on the photo's rear. The year is 1933 and the competitive Opawa Rugby team has just defeated another rugby team. From peering at this picture it becomes obvious that these guys have taken part in such a team portrait before. Just see what they are doing with their arms. Sad to consider that within a few years some of these men will go to the War.

What a weird background for a home-made team shot. Everything about this mid 1920s snap is casual and this aspect makes for a more interesting image. The tall guy at left looks right away from the camera and stands in a manner you never usually see in rugby team portraits. The photographer has made no attempt to boss these guys into some symmetry to their pose and expression. Such freedom further emphasizes each man's personal individuality and indicates that this is probably a social team.

Friday 5 June 2009

Snapshots - 11

Strangely, snapshots of sports are not as common as one would think they should be. Especially home-style team photos like this one. This shot of the rugby playing sailors coming from the HMS Dunedin was taken at Pearl Harbour in February 1929 while the ship was taking a Pacific voyage. The Dunedin was a Leander class light cruiser of the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy. It was launched in 1918 and later helped out with the after-effects of the Napier earthquake in 1931. In 1939, it went to the Atlantic ocean and was torpedoed there on 24 November 1941 with the loss of 419 lives.

I do not know yet which football field at Honolulu this team portrait was made at but it could have easily been the one which was actually very close to the dock area. Whoever T. A. was, he made sure to mark his place in this team. See how New Zealand's sailor guys of 1929 do not appear to have any Maori mates on their team. Today, the percentage of sailors who have Maori heritage is much larger.

*Please note that my talk is at 1pm this Sunday, not 3pm as previously stated.

On Sunday 7 June at 1pm I will talk about Snapshots - The Vernacular in New Zealand Photography in the Gallery's Art Lounge.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Detective work - Indian Script

Sometimes when I am researching a work I have to admit defeat and ask others for help, and that is what I'm doing now! In 2003 the Gallery acquired three Indian miniatures which are being restored in preparation for an exhibition after the Main Gallery building re-opens in 2011.

The back: While the subject matter of two have been easy to identify, I have been unable to find the exact meaning of the subject matter of this work, which we have tentatively called 'Attack on an elephant'. The work is painted in gouache, and there are two pieces of writing on the margins which may or may not help us identify the theme. There is also an inscription which says Of Hindu Music / Hamell Kanara Raqun 145. The red border indicates that this work was painted in India.

Writing at the top.

The dead white elephant in the foreground has had his trunk cut off, and the ends of his tusks are being presented to a man in the background by two warriors.

The elephant was an important symbol in Indian lore. One possibility is that the narrative relates to a tale in which Lord Buddha was incarnated as a white elephant only to have his tusks removed by a greedy forester. However, that tale doesn't mention the removal of the elephant's trunk, and the figures appear to be Mughal.

If you know anyone who can read this script and who could help us solve this mystery we would love to hear from you.

Snapshots - 10

Max Dupain's 1937 photograph Sunbaker has to be one of Australia's most loved photographs. It is the total opposite of a snapshot and was very carefully planned. Here is a link to an image of the print at the National Gallery of Australia

The Gallery writes about it:

'The sunbaker is completely relaxed and at one with the land. He lies with his
back exposed to the sun, seawater and sweat sparkling on his skin. Dupain used a
low-angle shot, which transforms the simple shapes of the man’s oval head and
triangular torso into a mountain-like outcrop set against the horizon.'
No one has ever noted that the silhouetted form of the guy is directly comparable to that primeval symbol of Australia - Uluru (Ayers Rock).

In New Zealand, we do not yet have a single image that unites New Zealand identity with a picture of the beach. Our vision of the beach is not of a singular nature, I think we see the beach as a place where a lot of people gather. This casual snap dates from about 1925 and is interesting to me because it really feels as if has definitely been taken by a woman. I really like the way that one of the guys has taken his work truck to the seaside with his male and female friends. The opposite to Dupain's great worm's eye point of view, it is still shot low down from the hip.

On Sunday 7 June at 1pm I will talk about Snapshots - The Vernacular in New Zealand Photography in the Gallery's Art Lounge.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Snapshots - 9

The term A and P show has really fallen out of orbit. Who in Auckland would know what that phrase means now? Probably only people aged over 50. The Agricultural and Pastoral shows were a big thing in our regional towns in the 1950s. Held usually at the end of summer they brought displays of farm animals and equipment together with baking, sewing and craft exhibits. There were always prizes hotly contested for. Ribbons were awarded also. Often 'side shows' were included at the show; the most popular always being the sick-making Octopus. Queues for that orbital machine were always extensive.

The above image is Graeme and Milward Blundell at the Pahiatua Domain in February 1949. A member of the Salvation Army Band is in the background and most of the women are wearing sun hats.

Here are the brothers again, in December 1951, at the Pahiatua High School fancy dress dance. Where is their fancy dress? Graeme has obviously decided that wearing his glasses is not such a good idea at this dance. Girls are present!

On Sunday 7 June at 1pm I will talk about Snapshots - The Vernacular in New Zealand Photography in the Gallery's Art Lounge.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Snapshots - 8

Dreamlands was an incredible place at the Waitakeres. It was established by Mr Le Mans, a well known Christian with a committed social conscience, at his Waiatarua property in Opanuku Road during 1928. I am told by the current owners of Dreamlands that the popular retreat did not really get running until the beginning of World War II, where it was a fantastic temporary home for infirm and injured Aucklanders. There was a 100 metre wide lake at the bottom of the property which was destination place for swimming and rowing. At the water's edge Le Man built a miniature whare. The young boy here has been photographed by his Dad as he rests his dinghy in a pool of light. The photograph's atmosphere is one of being moored within a magical, watery, fairy garden.

On Sunday 7 June at 1pm I will talk about Snapshots - The Vernacular in New Zealand Photography in the Gallery's Art Lounge.

Monday 1 June 2009

Snapshots - 7

When I first saw this Kodak Instamatic shot I thought it was like a homemade, hometown, version of a Diane Arbus photograph. Taken about 1964 in someone's back garden. Obviously it is high summer because the young woman is serious about getting a tan. Yet, the towel over her head? I reckon you would only do this in your garden, never at the beach. There, you would use your sunhat. The bikini is definitely a new fashion for New Zealand. Who took this photo of the two sisters?

On Sunday 7 June at 1pm I will talk about Snapshots - The Vernacular in New Zealand Photography in the Gallery's Art Lounge.