Snaps Gallery
and the exhibiting of photographs

PAUL HEWSON

Snaps - A Photographers' Gallery operated in Auckland, its premises high in Airedale Street, from December 1975 to December 1978. It will re-open this June as Snaps, at new premises in the old School-house in Federal Street (sharing a building occupied by, among others, a carpenter and a film-making company). Snaps will be under the direction of Gillian Chaplin, who is currently completing her MFA in photography at Elam. Last year, Gillian gradually took over the running of Snaps from Murray Cammick, who had in turn replaced Glenn Busch. It was Glenn, who, with Alan Leatherby, established Snaps in Airedale Street.

Snaps has been the most stable and successful of the small number of photographic galleries emerging in New Zealand since Barry Hesson opened premises (and closed eleven months later) in Wellington in April, 1973. Two have opened and closed in Christchurch; one other in Auckland suffered the same fate. Only the PhotoForum (Wellington) gallery, operating from a number of premises since May 1976 and at the time of writing looking to relocate again, has with Snaps been fairly consistent in its exhibition programme.

Snaps - A Photographers' Gallery, 1975
(photogpraph by John B. Turner)

Like the PhotoForum gallery, Snaps has relied wholly on the efforts of asmall number of individuals working for no financial reward. It has had limited and sometimes erratic opening hours; and its location so far up the hill from Queen Street has perhaps discouraged visits from the general public. Consequently, sales (with the exception of a very small number of almost sell-out shows) have not usually been high. But it has been the only place in Auckland, and one of the very few places in the whole country, where photographers can show their work, and where people can go to see good photography. .

The attitude to photography of Auckland's other dealer galleries varies considerably. Both New Vision and McGregor-Wrights say that photography is outside their field of interest. The Barry Lett Gallery has shown photography in the past: in 1972 an important group exhibition there included work by Gary Baigent, Simon Buis, Richard Collins, John Fields, Mac Miller, Do Van Toan, John Turner and Ans Westra. Clive Stone exhibited there in 1973. Several other shows by both individuals and groups have included photographs and photo-based material. But (and this is also partly due to the presence of Snaps as an outlet for photographers) the Barry Lett Gallery would prefer to show work in which the photograph itself is not the end result. As the Denis Cohn Gallery, Auckland's newest venue, Denis Cohn says that he is still discovering photography: but he exhibits what he personally likes and is open-minded about it. The Peter Webb Galleries have shown photography in the past (Peter Perryer); conducted a successful auction of photographs for PhotoForum; and are planning to show new photographs by Paul Johns next October.

A number of the gallery directors indicated that they did not want to trespass on what they termed Snaps' territory, by exhibiting photographs; and one admitted that he found much contemporary photography 'puzzling'.

This is one of the ironies that photography has to face (or perhaps ignore altogether. . . ) Because photography is the simplest of the visual arts to 'do', and appears to involve little manipulation of the real world, it is perhaps the most exclusive (if such a term can be stripped of emotional undertones) of the arts in terms of understanding, interpretation and criticism by non-photographers. It has a whole language of its own that speaks directly to other photographers: but to someone not familiar with it can appear unintelligible. This public attitude reflects in the generally low print-prices and the reluctance of collectors to buy photographs.

Opening at Snaps, 1975
(photograph by John B. Turner)

This has meant that although the development of photographic galleries has been along the same lines as the development of other dealer galleries, with dedicated individuals risking everything for their ideals, it has been about twenty years behind. It was not really until the 1950s that little art galleries could show exciting new work with some success; it wasn't until the early 1970s that we saw a photographic gallery; and certainly 1979 will not see Snaps or any other photo gallery prosper financially. Even with running costs pared to the minimum (the exhibitor pays the rent of the gallery, fortunately not high, for the duration of the show, and the costs of an advertising poster and the opening night) the revenue in the form of sales commission is minimal.

This is for two reasons: sales are low, and sale prices are low, too. Photographs must be today's greatest art bargain. A photographer usually only makes two or three prints from a negative, then goes on to new work. The idea that because a photographic image is in theory infinitely reproducible, it is therefore not a good buy because the 'exclusiveness' of the image is greatly reduced, is not true at all. Usually the only time that a photographer will go back and make prints again from an old negative is for an exhibition, or when selling a print - neither of which events happen often. And when a photographer does reprint, he brings to the new print all the additional printing skill subsequently gained. The practice employed by some photographers (fortunately not many) of destroying the negative after a certain number of prints have been made (thereby artificially increasing its value) is spurious to say the least. Anyway: surely the prime motivating factor in buying a photograph or anything else is that it moves you, regardless of its 'exclusiveness' . . .

The last five years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of public art galleries purchasing photographs for their permanent collections. The Auckland City Art Gallery in particular has considerably widened the scope of its collection; as has the Waikato Art Museum (even to the extent of purchasing work for next to nothing at the auctions held in 1977 and 1978). The Alexander Turnbull library in Wellington has recently purchased at least one contemporary documentary portfolio. The Manawatu Art Gallery initiated and toured the controversial Active Eye show in 1975; then used the show as the basis of its permanent collection. The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington organized the rather quirky Ex Camera show. The Auckland City gallery has shown New Photography USA, Three New Zealand Photographers (Baigent, Collins and Fields), photographers from its Permanent Collection, Diane Arbus, and others. PhotoForum Inc. has organised several big group exhibitions. There have been a number of photographic publications, including PhotoForum in all its shapes and sizes; Fragments of a World, a collection of photographs by women; and Robin Morrison's Images of a House. The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council has been recognizing and assisting a growing number of photographers.

Consistently over the past three years Snaps has presented to the public the best work by local (both contemporary and historical) and in some cases overseas photographers. The Gallery and Its associated activities have had the natural effect of assisting a constantly-changing group of photographers who are working consistently and compellingly in the medium: newer photographers are being given a chance to have their work seen. The very existence of such a gallery, especially in these rather restricting times, is in itself a measure of the force with which serious contemporary photography is growing in New Zealand.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 12 Winter 1979