A less formal approach to making pictures was made possible by technological developments in the 1880s. Changes in film technology allowing for shorter exposure times, and the release of the Kodak camera in 1888 made cheap, easy-to-use cameras available to non-professionals. Photography moved from studio posing to a new tradition of ‘capturing moments’, which remains a powerful aspect of photography’s social value. Studio posing endured, but as a more obviously artificial activity.
When Leslie Adkin and his future wife, Maud Herd, were courting, Adkin photographed what he saw as the important stages of their relationship. If he didn’t manage to capture a particular moment, he and Herd reconstructed it in front of the camera with a timer.
From the late 19th century, with growing wealth and leisure time, especially after the introduction of the motor car, amateur photographers such as Leslie Adkin and Jessie Buckland (who later became a professional) added richly to the range, informality and intimacy of photographic imagery. Many soldiers (illegally) took their own cameras to the battlefields of the First World War, some leaving potent images after losing their own lives.
This amateur culture found form in the establishment of photographic societies and camera clubs throughout the country, many of which still existed in the 2000s. The longest continuously running club is the Dunedin Photographic Society, which was founded in 1890.
Photography emerged alongside the rise of more democracy, and to some extent the camera gave common folk an effective political voice. In photography, ordinary people, the poor and the marginalised had a tool capable of revealing disadvantage and abuse.
While New Zealand has never had the equivalent of America’s Jacob Riis, the social-justice campaigner and photographer, there was a growing tradition from the 1930s of photographers using the medium to raise public awareness. John Pascoe in the 1940s and Les Cleveland and Eric Lee-Johnson in the 1950s were key figures, photographers with an eye not just for the issues but also for an image, their practice representing for the first time influences from the US rather than from England.
They were followed in the 1960s by photographers such as Ans Westra (best known for her photographs of Māori) and Marti Friedlander, who captured social change and conflict, and, later, celebrities.
European immigrants brought a more urbane, sophisticated modernist approach to photography to New Zealand, beginning with Frank Hofmann, Irene Koppel and Richard Sharell in the 1940s and Theo Schoon and John Johns in the following decade.
On Auckland’s Karangahape Road on Saturday mornings in the 1950s, a long queue of wedding limousines would line up along the street, the occupants waiting their turn to be photographed by Amy Harper in her Belwood Studios.
Panoramas were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. R. P. Moore, who worked from a commercial studio, specialised in panoramic landscapes. Commercial photographers had traditionally focused on portraiture, but the increase of machine-made goods in the 1920s and 1930s opened up a new avenue of work, as photographic advertising replaced drawn illustrations. Photographers like Gordon Burt and Bill Sparrow were able to build large, successful businesses on the back of advertising work. In the mid-20th century Amy Harper was similarly successful as a wedding photographer.
In terms of serious photography, the only game in town from the mid-1950s was the documentary approach. While it inspired photographers, it was not seen as artistic by critics, and delayed the medium’s acceptance in the art world by two decades.
The relationship of photography to art has always been uneasy. As a visual medium, it took to the existing categories of art right from the beginning: landscape, portraiture, still life and genre subjects. There were many early photographers who clearly intended to be artists. This desire coalesced in the later 1880s, first in the northern hemisphere, as the pictorialist movement, the first truly international art movement. Pictorialism, which involved manipulating images for artistic effect, was scorned by critics as derivative of printmaking. Watered-down versions of its genres remain the province of camera clubs to the present day. Its principal exponents in New Zealand were Frank Denton, George Chance, Thelma Kent, Una Garlick, Gerald Jones, J. W. Chapman-Taylor, H. E. Gaze and the National Publicity Studios.
In the view of the mid-20th-century art world, pictorialism was too arty and documentary photography not arty enough. The famous photojournalist Brian Brake straddled both styles, but with mixed results.