The Library as Art Museum


Our libraries and museums hold by far the greatest wealth of outstanding vintage photographs in New Zealand. They won them by default from the art galleries, who have only discovered photography in the last few years. The Turnbull library has been a Mecca for photo-researchers since the late 'forties. With four full-time staff currently, by my reckoning, it is the best endowed, most used and biggest collection in the country.

The Turnbull has some of the finest vintage prints by most, if not all, of the outstanding photographers of Victorian New Zealand. Ironically, and frighteningly, up until a few years ago they have hardly known what to do with them. They have found themselves suddenly in a new and unexpected role as curators of a major art collection. It is, admittedly, a reluctant role that is only now making its presence and its need known. So the question must arise: how well is this library equipped, or for that matter how is any library or museum in a similar situation in New Zealand equipped, to meet this new role? And how has this necessity come about?

Children in costume on a slope (photograph from the Tyree collection, Alexander Turnbull library)

The last question is the easiest to answer first. Like the best of its kind, the Turnbull library has an energetic acquisitions policy. It goes to a lot of trouble to acquire collections it hears about and wants to save. The Turnbull has occasionally been accused of being greedy: but anybody who has been involved in trying to save a collection intact will know how difficult that is when the chips are down. Some collections end up being shared by two or three institutions (the Tyree and G.I. Adkin collections for instance): but fortunately few get lost in the process.

The Turnbull's brief is to collect and preserve photographs of historical significance, using that term in its broadest sense. No practical discrimination is made between the work of the most gifted amateur photographer or the most banal; nor between the most exquisite 'vintage print' (a print made about the time the negative was exposed) or the ugliest copy imaginable.

The best outcome of this is that the library has a huge range of accessible images of practically every imaginable subject. Established in 1944, at a recent count the photographs department estimated that they had about 141,000 negatives, 148,000 - prints and 583 albums.

WILLIAM J. HARDING, Morgan's baby, Wanganui, c1875 WILLIAM J. HARDING, C. Cobb, September 4, 1874
WILLIAM J. HARDING Unidentified man, volunteer, Wanganui Rifles, c1875 WILLIAM J. HARDING Douty, March 20, 1882
These are four typical examples from the Turnbull Library's collection of 5,000 carte-de-visite portraits made by William J. Harding (1827-1899). Unlike these recent prints, which show the entire negative area, the original prints would have been trimmed down to approximately 3.5 x 2 inches for mounting on to the 4x.5. inch cards, which were usually slotted into especially-made albums. Millions of these small cheap portraits (selling in New Zealand for a shilling each in the 1870s) were made all over the world from the 1850s until their popularity waned near the turn of the century. 

To our eyes, the image perimeters that were trimmed off provide interesting, informative and often humourous information about makeshift studios behind elaborate painted backdrops, handwritten legends scratched on the emulsion, and curious goings-on outside the intended image. For instance, the picture of the Morgan baby staring atthe photographer from its pedestal would have been masked to a tight oval to eliminate the mother giggling at the photographer's antics - even if the full image was enjoyed as a private joke.

The worst and most critical aspect is, to my mind, that so many rare and valuable vintage prints are still in the main working file. Imagine finding dozens of original William Fox or John Kinder watercolours tucked into a vertical filing-cabinet chock full of fair to execrable copies! This is the rule, not the exception, for the 'preservation' of photographs in all of our libraries and museums.

John Sullivan, head of the Turnbull's photograph section, has been foremost in recognising this problem. He has instigated a separate file for original prints, which are filed under the photographer's name and stored in archival boxes. Fine original photographic prints are thus beginning to be recognised for what they are: not only as invaluable historical documents but also as delicate and often rare art works on paper. (Fine photographic prints are surprisingly rare. Contrary to common belief, photographers seldom make more than two or three good prints from a given image; and as others have pointed out, there are significant cases where only one print has been made. The simple fact is that most photographers would rather get on with new work than reprint old images.)

Getting back to the first question, it seems to me that neither the Turnbull nor the other libraries or museums are well equipped at present to do justice to their photograph collections. The needs are evident: staff who are trained to tell the difference between photographic processes and photographers (vital information for dating pictures), access to professional conservators, staff to promote the collection through lectures, exhibitions and publications in other words, curatorial staff.

Timber workers' camp c1910, photograph from the McAllister Collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library

The alternative to our libraries and museums might be to sell, donate or loan important vintage photographs to interested art galleries that are already geared up to exhibit and promote art works on paper. Failing this, libraries could at least consider selling or otherwise sharing duplicate vintage material with the galleries. In this way both improved access and a safeguard against accidental damage or loss would be achieved with a minimum of outlay.

John B. Turner was photographer at the National Museum, 1965-1970, where he worked on the photography collection; and has been lecturer in photography at the Auckland University School of Fine Arts from 1971. He has written extensively on both historical and contemporary New Zealand photography, and organised a number of exhibitions of photography, such as the exhibition Nineteenth Century New Zealand Photographs for the Govett-Brewster Gallery in 1971. John Turner has been the editor of the magazine Photo-Forum from its foundation, and is currently doing research for a book surveying nineteenth century New Zealand photography.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 9 February/March/April 1978