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by Peter Ireland

Invented shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, photography arrived in New Zealand soon after colonisation began. Early photographers documented a changing environment and its inhabitants, both Māori and Pākehā. From the later 20th century photography was also part of the art world.

Early photography, 1840–1880s

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.

Māori portraits

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.

Photography expands, 1880s to 1960s

Technological developments

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.

Moment remade

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.

Amateur photography

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.

Documentary photography

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.

Wedding traffic

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.

Commercial photography

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.

Art photography

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.

New directions, 1970s to 2000s

The baby-boomer generation, better off, better educated and with more leisure time and professional prospects than previous generations, took up photography with smartness and ambition in the early 1970s. In the last decades of the 20th century, photography was slowly accepted as an art form by the art establishment, as photographers with artistic ambitions moved on from the sentimentality of pictorialism.

Commercial photography continued, and the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers Association was founded in 1978. The natural environment and wildlife remained of interest to photographers.

Challenging work

Two of Fiona Clark’s photographs were part of the Manawatu Art Gallery’s The Active Eye exhibition of 1975. She had photographed friends at a gay liberation ball, one of whom wrote challenging captions around the frame of the images for the viewer to read, such as ‘aren’t you furious you hung up closet queens’.1 The photos were the subject of complaints, and they were removed from the travelling exhibition, and eventually stolen.


PhotoForum, founded in 1974 by John B. Turner and others to promote photography, was influential, holding workshops, promoting exhibitions and producing publications. University courses were established and public art galleries began collecting contemporary photography and curating exhibitions. The Manawatu Art Gallery’s The Active Eye exhibition of 1975 was an important moment in photography’s acceptance as art.

Documentary photography

Documentary remained the prevalent mode, but revealed new views and ways of looking at the world, illustrated by the work of Gary Baigent, Richard Barraud, John Fields and Glenn Busch. The style played a significant role in the activist movements of the 1980s as photographers recorded the protesters and supporters.

Dead meat

When Peter Peryer’s ‘Dead steer’ (1987), his best-known photograph, was exhibited in Germany in 1995, New Zealand’s minister of agriculture complained that it was bad publicity for New Zealand’s meat export industry.

New approaches

The photographic horizon broadened to embrace colour, more personal views and a greater awareness of New Zealand history, variously exemplified in the work of Robin Morrison, Anne Noble, Peter Peryer, Rhondda Bosworth, Peter Black and Laurence Aberhart among many others.

This broadening also refreshed documentary photography, especially in the area of giving a voice to minorities such as Māori, women, gays and the disabled, in the work of Fiona Clark, John Miller and Mark Adams.

Art photography

From the 1980s mainly women photographers, such as Di ffrench and Christine Webster, led the way in postmodern practice, which was interested in creating images rather than recording ‘reality’. They introduced a more conceptual and theatrical approach that not long before would have been unthinkable.

In the 1990s photographers such as Megan Jenkinson, in her The virtues series, blurred the boundary between documentary concerns and art photography. More recently Fiona Pardington’s work with hei tiki and plaster casts queried the shaping contexts museums and art galleries impose on their objects.

The long-held assumption, enshrined in French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s term ‘the decisive moment’, had been that photography was about the ‘now’, capturing a moment that sums up the subject being photographed. From the late 20th century postmodernism was concerned with the ‘then’ of history and its relationship with the present day, leading to a re-evaluation of 19th-century photography and giving a new cast to contemporary practice. This approach has shown up most potently in the work of a new wave of Māori photographers, including Natalie Robertson, Aimee Te Ratana and Vicky Thomas.

Reality and identity

For most of its history photography has been seen as a reliable mirror of reality. Contemporary photographers such as Ben Cauchi have scrutinised this belief and its assumptions of truth by, in his case, using 19th-century photographic techniques in the 21st century.

The work of many contemporary photographers is concerned with issues such as reality and perception, the role of fashion and the construction of identity. Yvonne Todd’s staged portraits display a formidable formal confidence, yet her subjects project great uncertainty about who they are.

Digital photography

Digital cameras became available in the early 1990s and within 10 years had replaced traditional film cameras. Cameras started to be included in cellphones, and by the 2010s even the most basic phone had an in-built camera. Image-hosting and sharing websites like Flickr provided free storage for the countless mass of digital photos produced daily.

The ubiquity of photographs and photography ushered in by the digital age challenged traditional documentary photography. Anyone could be a photographer and record seminal moments and events. Yet the digital revolution also triggered new interest in photography from dealers, collectors, critics and scholars. Non-photographic artists increasingly incorporated the medium into their work, and photographers took up digital cameras and fully exploited their artistic possibilities.

    • Quoted in David Eggleton, Into the light: a history of New Zealand photography. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2006, p.125. Back

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How to cite this page: Peter Ireland, 'Photography', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

He kōrero nā Peter Ireland, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014