Horticulture Heading

 

Searching the Shadows:

The photographic collection as a research resource and historical record

Reproduced from an article by Walter Cook
Alexander Turnbull Library, PO Box 12-349, Wellington

From The New Zealand Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture), Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1997, pp. 2-6.

Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words. In practice, in my experience, this aphorism of popular wisdom is not an unqualified truth. No doubt a photograph of Marilyn Monroe will describe her appearance at a particular moment in a way that words can't really emulate. On the other hand, written impressions and reminiscences of the actress by many people constitute a record which the image lacks and will only acquire through being associated with them. Together images and words are a powerful combination. In the presentation of historical events and personalities they compliment each other in our evocation of the past. Whether it is television or the stained glass of Chartres cathedral, images exist within a context of words, oral or written. Images and words combine in our thoughts, memories and dreams and both constitute and transmit much of that context of our lives called "culture".

Click this image to enlarge Click this image to enlarge

For this reason collecting images is an essential part of the work of those culture factories called research libraries. No country which considers itself advanced and civilised is without one or more of these institutions, and New Zealand is no exception. As well as our older established archives such as the Auckland Museum library, the historical collections of the Auckland public library, The Alexander Turnbull Library, the National Archives, the Canterbury Museum Library and the Hocken Library, there are dozens of others in national and provincial museums, universities and private institutions. The archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, found the "clay tablet" civilisation of Ur buried under eight feet of mud. Our civilization will be found buried under a mountain of soggy paper and the entangled plastic products of the information industry. Making sense of all of this is the work of an army of researchers, family historians, academic historians, biographers, television documentary makers, authors of newspaper articles, and museum exhibition curators — to name just a few. Research libraries fuel a huge and diverse industry.

To testify that images are an important part of our national archive nationally, I will simply state that when, four years ago, the Pictorial Reference Service of the Alexander Turnbull Library complied a directory of photograph collections in New Zealand, the resulting work contained one hundred and thirteen entries. These were selected from responses to a questionnaire sent to over 300 institutions and represented those which provided a service to the public. Archives of photographs exist in private industry, Government Departments, and bodies like historical societies. As well, every family and extended family is the possessor and guardian of such an archive. The family archive, as far as photographs are concerned, dates from the beginning of photography in the 1840s and 50s. For the first fifty years records were largely the work of commercial photographers though there are notable exceptions. The photographic image was delivered into the hands of us all when in 1889 Kodak invented and marketed the snapshot camera. Quite apart from their significance to owners, family photograph collections are a valuable source of information for social and cultural historians.

I work in the Photograph Archive of the Alexander Turnbull Library which contains the research collections of the National Library. These collections are quite distinct from the National Archives. The latter are the repository of records of government departments while the Turnbull Library draws its collections from the New Zealand community in general.

The core of the Turnbull Library consists of the rare books, records of early explorations, manuscripts and New Zealand publications, comprising in all some 60,000 items, collected by Alexander Turnbull and gifted to the nation in 1918. Images were a part of this collection including photographs. The library opened in 1920 and celebrated its first 75 years of operation in 1995.

Images in the Turnbull Library fall into three departmentalised groups. As well as the Photograph Archive, there is the Archive of Drawings and Prints. This collection contains pre-photographic images — the works of explorers, surveyors and artists who documented New Zealand and the South Pacific from the eighteenth century. As a generalisation it is the library's chief source of visual information prior to the mid 1860s when photographs became commonly used in New Zealand. Of course for a variety of reasons both the Archive of Drawings and Prints and the Photograph Archive contain material outside current collecting briefs, so for example you can see etchings by Piranesi, the 18th century Italian artist of architectural fantasy, in one, and wonderful mid 19th century images of the monuments of Egypt in the other — if you happen to know that they're there. The third department is the Ephemera Archive. This is a treasure trove of printed material which falls outside the briefs of all other departments. Trade catalogues, bus tickets, domestic packaging, posters, and junk mail — much of the print culture that touches most of us most of the time — ends up there. For garden historians it is one of the places to look for nursery catalogues, though sadly, I don't think it contains a comprehensive collection of seed packets (anyone out there wanting to off load such a treasure?). Material of interest to garden historians is diffused throughout all of these collections, and as anyone knows who has experienced research and research libraries, it takes time — first to know the way the institution works and then to ferret out specific information. But believe me, we're there to help you. Don't give up! Keep pestering. If we haven't got it, we'll suggest other places for you to try.

The collections of the Photograph Archive began as a result of the New Zealand Centennial publication "Making New Zealand", a serialised history of this country from Gondwana to 1940. Photographs collected for this publication were subsequently deposited in the Turnbull Library. Then in 1947 the first photograph curator, George Heron was appointed. Heron was an enthusiast rather than a professional librarian. With the help of supporters of the Library like the Petone photographer A. P. Godber, he identified and sought out historical photograph collections. Though Heron left in the early 1950s, the library continued to reap the reward of his efforts into the 1960s. Collections such as the Tyree Collection from Nelson, the Steffano Webb Collection from Christchurch and the Harding Denton Collection from Wanganui are examples. Collectively they cover a period from 1863 to 1933. The Harding Denton collection in particular is a good example of a continuous record, in this case of Wanganui, which is of great use to garden and landscape historians. From 1863 to 1933 the city was sequentially photographed. Back-yards of colonial buildings can be examined for vegetable gardens and shelter trees. The earliest pine plantation in the city was planted in the early 1870s round the new court house. It's rise and fall can be followed in the photographic record as it was transformed into the gardenesque plantings of the notorious Moutoa Gardens from the late 1890s. Street plantings, other public and private gardens, and the treescape of the city have been clearly captured in this collection. It is an outstanding record for anyone wanting a general view of what really happened over a particular period. Collections relating to other places may not come from a single studio, but the Turnbull Photograph Archive and Pictorial Reference Service, contain a critical mass of material which makes such explorations feasible for many of our cities and towns as well as for country areas.

Today the photograph collection comprises some two million items and continues to be well supported by the community. 70 to 80 per cent of acquisitions over the last two years have come from public donations. Much of the balance is made up of copy negatives made from items loaned for copying. And what are we doing about all this material? We are all pounding away at computer keyboards these days, and in the near future access to cataloguing records will be available nationally and internationally through netscape. Already over 2,000 images and their documentation, are available nationally and world wide through the Timeframes database, which has been noticed and favourably commented on by American research watch dogs on the internet. In future anyone with the appropriate technology will be able to do preliminary searches of the Turnbull Library holdings in postmodern isolation, from their homes. But for the rest of us — don't despair. We will always respond to letters, and send photocopies in the absence of more advanced technology. Also we are open to anyone visiting Wellington, weekdays between 9 am and 5pm. There is nothing like experiencing the real thing. There is also the advantage of serendipity through contact with those who know the collections — something that is hard to effect from a distance.

All images constitute a primary resource for research. This is not always recognised by researchers who often select images as illustrations at the end of the job. They are used more as embellishments to a text rather than an integral part of its message. Many of the same images are used over and over again because authors and publishers make selections from published sources. As a result certain images can become icons representing a point of view or set of prejudices. An example of this is a photograph of an overcrowded Victorian interior in the Turnbull Library collections. I first saw it in "Making New Zealand", published in 1940. It was used in that publication and subsequent ones by propagandists of the modern movement in domestic design to illustrate "bad" Victorian interior design. In fact this is the only image among many 19th and early 20th century house interiors in the collections that looks like this — and it is completely over the top. The selectors had also misread the image, which is in fact an example of the way some proud home owners of the time gathered their possessions en mass, in front of the camera — hence the unique clutter. Images in isolation can be easily manipulated, and developing skills in reading images requires, at least, relatively open minded foragings among a critical mass of them, as well as information from published or manuscript texts.

Images generally, and photographs in particular, do have limitations, even in critical mass. These result from how we use photographs, who takes them, and who pays for them — the socio-economic factors. Views of cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries were usually taken by commercial photographers for sale as prints or postcards. They usually chose parts of the town where the principle buildings were, or the more affluent suburban areas whose inhabitants ensured a market for their products. In Wellington, for example, we have relatively few photographs of the working class areas of the Te Aro Flat which were considered unsightly slums, given over to the City Mission, the down market end of the sex industry, and opium smokers. This means garden historians interested, let's say, in the incidence of vegetable gardens in this part of Wellington, don't have the mass of material to work with that is available for Thorndon. It is easy to find information on the gardens of the middle classes and public parks. That's where the money was in terms of tourists and clients. The same is true of the family snapshot collection. We point the camera to record significant rites of passage, summer holidays, and members of the family. As a result we are as selective in our own way as commercial photographers. You probably wont find pictures of mum bottling or cleaning the Shacklock stove in the kitchen, or of dad giving the kids a hiding. Thus with gardens it is easy to find views of the finished product. Detailed records of nurseries, people working in glasshouses behind the scenes, or gardens in the process of construction are rare or non existent.

The photograph collection in the Turnbull Library that illustrates this monumentally is the recently restored R. P. Moore collection of panorama negatives. This consists of 2,400 meter long nitrate negatives taken between 1922 and the early 1930s. As well as being a spectacular record of New Zealand towns, cities, and landscape, for garden historians, the collection contains dozens of photographs of great houses and their gardens, all depicted in amazing detail. Photographic records such as these were expensive to buy, and this dictated who bought them and what was recorded. Panoramic prints by R. P. Moore are not uncommon. Rupert Tipples used a number to illustrate gardens created by Alfred Buxton in his book "Colonial Landscape Gardener". The landed gentry who employed Buxton to design and lay out their gardens, were also a significant class of patron who supported Moore as a panorama photographer. Conspicuous consumption demands conspicuous display. The panorama photograph was one way to effect this. The library is in the process of making high quality copy negatives from the originals, and many have been printed for use as a reference tool for people using the library. The originals are now kept in a refrigerated store which will prevent the nitrate film from deteriorating.

Records such as those that survive in the negatives of R. P. Moore are also of use for the restoration of gardens identifying surviving trees from original plantings and getting an idea of what the garden looked like. The photograph Archive contains five 10 x 8 inch glass negatives of Nelson dating from ca 1858. They record views of the young city from a slightly elevated position looking down on the buildings in the landscape. Fruit trees, gardens, hedges, and other details can be clearly seen. They contain a lot of general information about gardens in Nelson at that date, and from this information, history and restoration can draw solid conclusions. In the case of negatives of large format such as these, there is also potential to explore the image by having sections blown up. It has always been possible to do this using conventional photograph printing methods, but these were relatively labour intensive and expensive. New electronic methods of producing images make this much easier and cheaper to do. Images can be scanned from negatives on to computer discs, and electronically cropped and enlarged and printed out as laser prints or digital photographs. Of these, the laser prints are the cheapest option ($5.60 as against $16.65), and done this way provide very clear images. The limitation of laser prints is that they are not the best image to publish from. Unlike photographic prints they are constructed of thousands of parallel lines and for some reason this causes degrading in the images taken from them — the sort of thing that happens much more dramatically when a photocopy is made from a photocopy.

Research libraries have a double agenda which is always the cause of some conflict. They must provide access to collections which are there to be used, but they must also make sure that the collections are used in such a way that they survive. The use of many new technologies, like the digital storage of images, are also motivated by considerations of conservation. Copy negatives made from the R. P. Moore negatives allow the originals to be retired, and also transfers the image onto a more stable film base for the long term. Because the copy negatives are smaller they can be used in standard photograph printing processes and images from them can be easily supplied. Conservation at a basic level permeates everything we do in the Photograph Archive. Incoming collections are checked for live stock on arrival. In the eternal summer of controlled, air conditioned interior climates insect pests can take off with a vengeance. Humidity within the building is kept at 32 which effectively deals with moulds, and when combined with low temperatures slows down the processes of chemical decomposition in papers and photograph emulsions. It is not so good for living human beings who can suffer a range of discomforts as a result of the dry atmosphere — feeling drained and tired being one of the more common. Collections are finally packaged and housed in acid free envelopes and containers which will not exacerbate the previously mentioned processes of chemical decomposition by joining them. They are then catalogued and shelved in a numbered sequence from whence they are retrieved for the use of us all who own them. Don't forget this. Collections such as those in the Alexander Turnbull Library have been built up over the decades by personal contributions and the spending of public money. They are there for the use of all of us.

Web-notes from the author:

The Alexander Turnbull Library has an online catalogue TAPUHI (http://tapuhi.natlib.govt.nz/), and an image database TIMEFRAMES (http://timeframes.natlib.govt.nz/) which at present contains 18000 catalogued images. If people want to send letters to the pictorial departments its just a matter of addressing the mail to The Curator, The Photograph Archive, Drawings and Prints (or Turnbull Library Pictures). I should note that what is now called Turnbull Library Pictures, was called at the time I wrote the article, Pictorial Reference Service.

More Journal Articles

 


Last updated: August 3, 2001