New Zealand Photography Collected By Athol McCredie Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2015 Book review by James Gilberd
Hardcover with linen spine, 368 pages, 305x250mm.
This is the first major anthology of New Zealand photography that treats the photographs with total respect. The reproductions of photos, especially the larger ones, are incredibly rich and rewarding to view. Sitting comfortably (if you can manage to with a 2.6kg book on your lap) in good light and choosing one of the seven equally fascinating sections to read and view makes for a satisfying time-out. And many of the photographs included will be new to most viewers - a change from ‘PhotoForum at 40’ and ‘Into the Light’, both of which included mainly previously published images.
The photographs are wide-ranging: portraits, landscapes, industry, architecture, street scenes, science, snapshots and digital selfies, commercial photography, photojournalism and fine art. And the photographers range from amateur to professional, unknown to household name, scientist to fine artist. There is a vast and minutely detailed history of New Zealand here. The photo count favours monochrome, but that reflects museum collecting policy in that colour images have in the past been somewhat unstable (lacking in physical longevity) and monochrome has predominated in use over colour in the time span covered - the1850s to the present.
As you’d expect, the book's introduction is about collecting photographs, its past, present, and a hint of its future, and with focus on museum collecting, Te Papa’s in particular. My favourite bit of it also features in the press release for the book: In a world saturated with images, we are used to the quick flick – or the quick click. These photographs withstand repeated and prolonged viewings. Their power is lasting because they sustain multiple meanings and interpretations – which is exactly why they are in a museum collection.
The introductory essays for each of the seven sections are easy reading, not laden with art- or museum-speak, and a friendly length. Some technical terms are used, mostly to do with types of image and photographic processes, for which the glossary is useful. More information on most of the photos is provided in the captioning, and through the captions and essays, as well as in the selection of photos, the author brings forward his depth of knowledge of photography and his experience from decades-long involvement with the Te Papa collection. There is no weakness evident in any section, all being handled sensitively, aesthetically and informatively.
At this point I’d usually launch into a diatribe about how the book's design and print quality messes with my enjoyment of the photos, but it doesn't. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only quibble I can muster is that sometimes the captions are in the wrong order for the way the photos appear in the spreads, with the LH page photos being captioned on the RH page after the ‘Above’ photos. (A friend drew my attention to this. It's like being made aware of your tongue. Thanks.)
This is a book I will revisit many times. Te Papa Press has offered up a superior anthology of New Zealand photography that should rapidly become a classic. My one complaint: the book's creation and release was so long overdue.
Here’s a quote from Athol McCredie’s recent interview with D-Photo Magazine: If the book does its job, and more people are aware of and appreciate Te Papa’s photography collection, then this should lead to more public use of the collection, more interest by the museum in increasing access to it, and greater awareness of Te Papa as a place where collections can go. I also have a personal strategic plan in this regard — of producing a number of books drawn from the collection. It seemed logical to start with the broad brush, and then to focus down on narrower topics. If this one is successful then it will hopefully lead to others that use our collection. And not only by me and from Te Papa’s collection, but by other people from other collections as well. As I said, it’s about putting more of New Zealand’s photographic heritage out into the world so we can all share and appreciate it.
Disclosure: I own and run Photospace Gallery, which represents several of the photographers included in 'New Zealand Photography Collected', and some of their photos were purchased by Te Papa from Photospace Gallery, under the direction of Athol McCredie.