The advent of commercially successful photographic processes in the late 1830s profoundly altered the transmission of history. Alongside written and printed word visual imagery became a new vehicle for the documentation and dissemination of information. Negative Kept focuses on a collection of carte-de-visite portraits of Maori from the second part of the nineteenth century. Encountering this accumulation of faces provides a rare insight into local history and enables an emotional connection to the past. It offers an inkling of what it may have been like to be Maori in an increasingly Pakeha dominated world.
Carte-de-visite were available from the mid-1850s and are typically small format prints, made of a thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card. While early photographic methods were expensive and inaccessible to most, the carte-de-visite rapidly expanded the reach of photography away from the wealthy. The first experiences of photography for most New Zealanders of this period were likely seeing and handling carte-de-visite.
This collection does not follow any chronological sequence and identifying and dating the images and personalities is often difficult. They loosely represent one generation of Maori, spanning from the days of the Land Wars chiefs (c.1860s) to the celebrity status tourist guides of the thermal districts (c.1890s). Although one generation it is one that saw seismic changes in Maori society. Many have a timeless and emotionally neutral quality.
Most photographers working in the latter part of the nineteenth century in New Zealand were entrepreneurs trading in a difficult commercial environment, in which images of Maori provided a welcome income. Isolating this body of work illuminates a shift in how Maori were perceived, or rather consumed, over the period in which this format was widely produced. It would be an oversimplification to state that this evolves from the portrayal of individuals to showing a generic type, but the pictorial atmosphere is undeniably different towards the end of the century. We rarely know the circumstances of each sitter and thus whether we are seeing the subject as they would like to be portrayed or if they are fulfilling others’ expectations – and if indeed these two scenarios do always result in radically different pictorial outcomes.
We may need to be weary and decode these images carefully but ultimately, unlike painting, these artefacts provide an insight that, without the popularity of the carte-de-visite medium, history may have been denied.
This collection has been assembled by John Gow and Michael Graham-Stewart and forms the basis of the unpublished book Negative Kept.
Text adapted from introduction by Michael Graham-Stewart