His work is not unknown, but he’s not well known: this was the line I found myself repeating in regard to the photographer whose work I studied and researched through my PhD. In fact his work is quite well drawn on in New Zealand history books and publications of various kinds – but you wouldn’t know it, unless you already knew the images, because he’s hardly ever credited as the photographer.
This isn’t atypical with reproductions of nineteenth-century New Zealand photographs. Most of the people making use of the images approach them only in terms of content, to be used for the purpose of illustration. They’re not interested in the history of photography, or photographs in history, or any of the various meanings or contexts that might attach to a ‘historical photograph’; often, they’re just interested in a visual aside (along the lines of ‘I mentioned Lambton Quay in my text, here it is’).
Consequently, crucial information is often omitted from books, websites, periodicals, signage, and PowerPoint presentations, whether the work of historians, ‘creatives’, editors or image enthusiasts. As Michael Graham-Stewart has noted, ‘Often the current owner is credited but the creator ignored as though the images came from some cctvs left running as history unfolded.’* This isn’t at the behest of the owner: archives are generally quite specific about what should accompany any use of their photographs, including information identifying the image and photographer and enabling the reader to access it directly. Apparently many users either don’t register this or choose to ignore it on the basis that it’s not relevant to them.
The absence of this level of information effectively renders the photograph invisible, its contexts and meanings inaccessible beyond the one-liner of simple content (‘Lambton Quay, here it is’). It is also obstructive to further research. Access to digitised copies of photographs and new contextualisations of images should offer opportunities to broaden and deepen our currently patchy understanding of nineteenth-century New Zealand photography, a subject which has not yet been given anywhere near the consideration it deserves. Failing to credit an image not only undermines that promise, it’s a step backwards – decontextualising photographs yet further, bringing them into view while undermining their ability fully to be seen.
* Michael Graham-Stewart, Crombie to Burton: Early New Zealand Photography. Auckland: John Leech Gallery, , .