Photography had its official birthday on 19 August 1839, with the announcement of the invention of the daguerreotype, in which photographs were made on a silver or silver-coated plate. It was just six months before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and photography arrived in New Zealand soon after the colonists. English art critic John Ruskin claimed that a country’s sense of itself was sourced in its buildings; in New Zealand it is in photographs.
The first recorded instance of an attempt to make a daguerreotype in New Zealand was in 1848, when Lieutenant Governor Edward Eyre made a failed attempt to photograph Eliza Grey in Wellington. Daguerreotypists first advertised in newspapers that year.
Though many daguerreotype portraits were taken in New Zealand in the mid-19th century, fewer than two dozen have survived.
Photography, empire and art
The invention of photography followed in the wake of western exploration, cataloguing and colonisation of the world, which gathered momentum in the 18th century. The photograph became a key mechanism by which the global reach of western powers and the exploitation of new lands were recorded.
Photography was an influential element in the 19th-century European arts movement known as realism, in which subject matter was represented as realistically as possible, without embellishment or artifice.
Recording the environment
Photography’s central role of recording focused on two aspects of colonial New Zealand: progress and portraiture. It recorded colonists shaping an often raw environment as they transformed a forested wilderness into farms, towns and cities. Photographers such as William Meluish, Daniel Mundy, James Bragge, Alfred Barker and the Burton and Tyree brothers documented this ‘civilising’ process with an almost missionary zeal.
James Bragge had a horse-drawn darkroom built so he could travel around the lower North Island and develop his negatives on the road. The darkroom was emblazoned with his name and profession, and Bragge often included it in landscape photographs, tucked into a corner but obvious nonetheless.
Others portrayed the natural environment in all its glory, influenced by artistic notions of the sublime, in which scenes of grandeur provoked feelings of awe. These photographs laid the foundations of a strong, persistent self-image for New Zealand and signalled the beginnings of the tourism industry. Here the Burtons were joined by the likes of John Kinder, George Valentine and Josiah Martin.
Cartes de visite
The new colony’s development took a leap forward with the gold rushes of the 1860s, coinciding with the advent of the carte de visite, a small, inexpensive photograph of around 5 by 10 centimetres, mounted on card and initially used as a visiting card. Studios sprang up everywhere, sometimes makeshift, often lasting only a few months.
The carte de visite’s popularity meant a sudden democratisation of the portrait. Not only did these images, supplemented by the later, larger cabinet cards, enable ordinary people to have their portraits made, they became an important link to kin in Europe, and albums of them reinforced the notion of family so strongly promoted in the Victorian age.
Of the hundreds of often unknown portraitists, William Harding, James Bragge, D. A. De Maus, Connolly & Co., and Wrigglesworth & Binns were outstanding.
Contrasting with the portraits of colonists in their Sunday best, posed stiffly against classical columns and drapery and holding bibles or worthy literature, were those of Māori, portrayed as the exotic ‘other’, often decked out in studio props to signify their difference. Their European clothes underneath were often barely disguised, suggesting that despite their picturesque traditions, Māori were the intended subjects of British civilising.
Māori took to portraiture with gusto, quickly perceiving its potential in terms of recording whakapapa (genealogy). Many wharenui (meeting houses) are virtually architectural photograph albums. Significant early photographers of Māori were Elizabeth and George Pulman, John McGarrigle, Samuel Carnell and William Harding. Elizabeth Pulman was probably New Zealand’s first woman photographer. Their later-19th-century and early-20th-century successors included Josiah Martin, Arthur Iles, William Partington and Frank Denton.
Historic images of Māori are contested – their subjects have been variously seen as ethnological specimens, colonial victims, commercial pawns or revered ancestors.