Weighing in at 2.56 kg, New Zealand Photography Collected is a bumper coffee table publication. Not one for sitting up in bed with, but if you find yourself with a well-lit comfortable reading spot, this book will amply reward your attention.
The aim of the book is to introduce Te Papa’s diverse and enormous collection of some 300,000 photographic images to the reading public. The author, curator of photography Athol McCredie, acknowledges that it can only be a taste of the total holdings. Its release coincides with 150 years of collecting at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The book is effectively a catalogue to the latest iteration of Nga Toi/Arts Te Papa – 440 works on display in Level 5 galleries until next August.
McCredie’s introduction is crisp and to the point; he lets the 440 illustrations do the talking, teasing out themes and approaches to photography that indicate there are many other curatorial projects to explore. Seven profusely illustrated chapters essay themes of the portrait, places and events, public photographs, museum and science photography, photographic art, social documentary and contemporary work. It is quite a challenge to corral such a spectrum of work from departments in natural environment, science, Maori and Pacific cultures, social history and art and the work acts as a teaser to future publications. On the whole, it delivers.
Full colour reproduction is glorious and in a book of these dimensions it comes into its own. In this instance even more colour illustrations would have created a better balance in the book. This may reflect the challenges institutions like Te Papa have in acquiring colour prints. The fact is that colour dyes are notoriously unstable. Colour prints of various types, let alone the lustrous effects of say Ilfochrome/Cibachrome, are a nightmare for museums and have been eschewed here. The jury is out on just how enduring are the pigments in the new inkjet technologies and their allegedly stable bases of rag and watercolour papers. Photographers themselves have grappled with the variability of colour output. Fortunately, with digital files the “mechanical reproducibility” of photography is underscored.
We are treated to a very wide and beautifully presented range of mostly black and white prints and negatives. With some, such as the Burton Bros images, the tones very closely replicate original prints. There are a number of striking largely monochrome images that render as sepia-like or with a brown or green cast. This is slightly off-putting but difficult to avoid when black and white images are printed in colour in order to represent the original tones faithfully. A minor quibble.
McCredie’s knowledge and love of the fine print is evident, albeit that he has chosen less well-known examples from one of the nation’s collections. Equally evident is the sheer quality of image resolution in the large negatives from the 19th and early 20th centuries, of which the collection is so rich. This fidelity is after all the modus operandi of the documentary/ethnographic/scientific photographer. The cover image is apt, and puts us fair and square in the frame of New Zealand identity, highlighted by the backdrop of that magnificent waterfall. It shows us the reflective nature of photography and its relationship to spectacle that is the stock in trade of this medium.
We have waited a long time for a work of this calibre; let’s hope there are many more from Te Papa Press to follow.
NEW ZEALAND PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTED, by Athol McCredie, Te Papa Press, $99
David Langman is a curator of photography and former editor of the New Zealand Journal of Photography.