Tuesday 14 July 2009

Alfred Burton - the man who makes likenesses

Writing about Alfred Burton’s photographs in The Wonderland Album reminded me just how significant his work is for the history of New Zealand’s photography. In May and June 1885, he undertook a challenging journey through the King Country.

This challenging trip ended up in Wanganui, then one of New Zealand's biggest towns. It resulted in 230 photographs. From these, Burton selected 150 unforgettable images that he printed as a sequence entitled The Māori at Home. He wrote and published an accompanying record of his expedition into this Māori area, which had been off limits to Pakeha for decades. His expedition’s account - Through the King Country with a Camera: A Photographer’s Diary - was published in the Otago Daily Times and is our first coupling of text and photography. He travelled with the surveyor C E Rochfort (1832-93), who was then attempting to plan the river steamer route on the Whanganui River. That may be Rochfort seated in the detail above.

The tangata whenua of the Whanganui River named Burton He Tangata Whakaāhua (the man who makes likenesses). Travelling as he did by waka (canoe) there was no opportunity to either develop or reshoot his glass-plate negatives. Burton arrived at Rānana (London) during the afternoon of Friday 8 May, a few hours after exposing this photograph near Moutoa, an island that had been the site of a battle between the Hauhau and the Ngati Hau people of Hiruhārama (Jerusalem). When you realise that Burton was the first photographer to create a photo-essay of this region, it is obvious that these are amongst the most important early photographs of New Zealand Māori.

image credit:

Alfred Burton (1834 – 1914)
Our Canoe and Crew, Rānana, Whanganui River 1885
gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1999

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