Still looking: Peter McLeavey and the last photograph - essay October 2018

Still looking: Peter McLeavey and the last photograph

Curated by Geoffrey Batchen and Deidra Sullivan

Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington.

October 6 – December 20, 2018

Essay by Deidra Sullivan

I first saw pieces from Peter McLeavey’s photography collection in 2000, when visiting the Te Papa exhibition Collector’s Choice. It was Wellington’s worst kept secret, the rumour went, who the anonymous owner of Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard) 1985, was. At the time I was just delighted to see the Kruger, and didn't discover who the mysterious owner was until many years later.

 Barbara Kruger,  Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard), (1985)

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard), (1985)

By all accounts, Peter’s collecting was highly personal to him, bound up with a process of contemplation and self-reflection. While he would occasionally show pieces of his collection to others, no one else was fully aware of its scope, and when Peter passed away in 2015, his wife Hilary was uncertain of the collection’s extent. Some research, and an inventory, was required. Hilary contacted Peter Ireland, who put her in touch with Geoffrey Batchen, at the Art History department, Victoria University. Geoff suggested I might be suited to the task, and we began compiling the inventory in August of last year.

Initially I sorted through several boxes of Peter’s correspondence pertaining specifically to his international photography: letters to and from dealers, catalogues and pricelists, reproductions of work for sale. Peter’s collecting of international photography had begun in the mid 1980s with the purchase of the Kruger and a Sherrie Levine portfolio on two separate summer trips to the U.S. He also began writing to several dealer galleries: the Houk Gallery in New York, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, Russ Anderson Fine Arts, and the Weston Gallery, also in the U.S. Frish Brandt, Director at Fraenkel Gallery, was Peter’s main point of contact; they exchanged correspondence about collecting, and the nature of photography, for almost 20 years. Peter faxed his hand typed letters rather than posting them, so much of the correspondence relating to his collection was accessible to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

Peter described his collection as a form of autobiography on many occasions. In a letter to Frish Brandt written in January 2000, he states, “I [have] thought about “the hunger”; my name for my drive to collect photography. Here, I suspect, I have (or am) constructing a “map” of the self.”[1] In total, Peter’s ‘map of the self’ comprised over 120 pieces. More than 40 of those were from international photographers including William Henry Fox Talbot, Francis Frith, Charles Clifford, Eugene Atget, James Nasmyth, Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank; more contemporary work included pieces by Joel-Peter Witkin, Sherrie Levine, Joseph Beuys – and Barbara Kruger (though that piece was sold to Te Papa in 2014). Often, the galleries would send the photographs to Peter for inspection. The decision to purchase or not was usually made quite quickly. “I must sense the “feel” of the image,” Peter wrote to Frish Brandt in 2001. “Sometimes I can do this from a reproduction of the image, as in Frith, Clifford (the first one I purchased). But usually it seems that I have to confront the image.”[2]

Peter also acquired an extensive collection of nineteenth century New Zealand photography – works by George Swan, James Bragge, the Burton Brothers, Herbert Deveril, Josiah Martin and Elizabeth Pulman, among others. He referred to the New Zealand works as his ‘learning photographs’ – photographs through which he could learn about both the history of New Zealand and the history of photography.[3] He likely began collecting these pieces during the 1970s, and many of them were featured in a 1997 exhibition at the McLeavey gallery, Masterworks of 19th-century New Zealand photography. The catalogue advised the viewer to “look hard at these photographs. They are of a country none can return to. Our beginnings. They are vintage, and rare, and carry with them memories of that time and place.”[4]

As the inventory evolved into the possibility of an exhibition, Geoff and I began to consider what the premise of that exhibition could be. Several sentences spoken by Peter in Luit and Jan Bieringa’s 2009 film The man in the hat particularly caught our attention: “I think there is one more photograph I have to find. The last photograph. I’m still looking for it. It’s out there somewhere. I’m waiting for it to claim me, the last photograph. I don’t know what it is, but when I see it, I’ll know it and I’ll buy it, and it will hang with all the others. And maybe then the life, the story, the quest, will be complete.” Combined with his statements about collecting as autobiography, Peter’s reference to ‘the last photograph’ seemed to suggest collecting allowed him to commemorate his personal history, but also provided an on-going opportunity for self-reflection, reconciliation, completion.

 Robert Frank:  View from hotel window - Butte Montana  (1956)

Robert Frank: View from hotel window - Butte Montana (1956)

At some point between lending the Kruger (and many other works) for Collector’s Choice, and the release of The man in the hat, Peter evidently became more comfortable discussing the motivations behind his collecting. This was important – I didn't want any exhibition of Peter’s photography to be intrusive or insensitive, but it would need to consider his motivations for collecting while also focusing on the work itself. Many of the photographs had a direct link to Peter’s biography, including Robert Frank’s View from hotel window – Butte, Montana, shot in 1956, which had been published in Frank’s famous book The Americans. While Peter purchased this piece in 1989 (after the works by Kruger and Levine) he later described it as “the first photograph” of his collection; perhaps it was the first photograph that felt significant to him on a personal level.[5] Frank’s image depicts the bleak rooftops and melancholy streets of an industrial mid-west American town. It reminded Peter of his own nomadic childhood, with his family frequently moving to follow his father’s employment by the railways, including stays in Raetihi, Levin, Napier, Feilding, Waitara, New Plymouth and Lower Hutt.[6]

 Francis Frith,  Cairo from the Citadel, first view , (1858)

Francis Frith, Cairo from the Citadel, first view, (1858)

Other pieces, such as Francis Frith’s Cairo from the Citadel, first view (1858), depicting the fourteenth-century mosque of Sultan Hussan, would have immediately resonated with Peter, who had taken a snapshot from the same spot during a short visit to Cairo, en-route to London, in 1960. This visit had also involved a journey to the pyramids,[7] a possible motivation for the 1998 purchase of Frith’s The Pyramids of Dahshoor from the east (1858). Peter also collected six pieces by the nineteenth century Welsh photographer Charles Clifford, who was working in Spain during the 1850s. Peter had an enduring affection for the architecture, culture and history of Spain, and travelled there several times. The Clifford photographs would also have appealed to him because of their references to Catholic history. Alcantara: Bridge, general view taken from the high road which leads toward the town (1859) depicts the Roman bridge over the Tagas River, built by order of the emperor Trajan between AD 104-106. More significantly for Peter, perhaps, was the knowledge that Saint Teresa’s teacher, Peter of Alcantara, had been born in the township. As a young man, Peter had read a biography of Saint Teresa and visited the Spanish town of Avila where she had lived.[8]

Other references to Peter’s Catholicism are woven throughout his collection – in the choices of portraits of Catholic authors Graham Greene (by Bill Brandt) and James Joyce (by Berenice Abbott) as well as numerous examples of Catholic architecture and artefacts. Contemporary pieces by Joel-Peter Witkin, Glassman, Mexico City (1994), and Corpus medius (2000) can also be said to explore particularly Catholic themes of human suffering, mortality and redemption. I interviewed Peter’s close friend, Peter Ireland, as a part of this research; he was also brought up in the Catholic tradition. He observed, “...you’re brought up with this dying man, with death, as a central image. It’s not morbid... it’s just where everyone is headed. And that gives you a very healthy outlook on life.”[9]

 Joel-Peter Witkin:  Glassman, Mexico City  (1994)

Joel-Peter Witkin: Glassman, Mexico City (1994)

As well as the correspondence that Peter had methodically kept, other sources were invaluable in contextualising Peter’s collecting. These included The man in the hat, Jill Trevelyan’s biography Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer (2013), and Lara Strongman’s essay for the Behind closed doors exhibition catalogue (2011). As well as Peter Ireland, I interviewed Hilary McLeavey, and Peter’s regular picture framer, Paul Craig, about the many wonderful frames he created for Peter’s works. Olivia McLeavey, Frish Brandt, Yvonne Todd, Peter Black, Andrew Ross, John B. Turner, and Laurence Aberhart were also kind enough to respond to our questions about Peter’s collecting; all helped us put together some of the pieces of the puzzle.

As Geoff and I were working on the exhibition we wondered whether it was possible for Peter to find a ‘last photograph’, given his collecting seemed to be an on-going process of reflection. Yet at the same time, there is a ‘last photograph’: Yvonne Todd’s portrait of Peter, made in 2014. It is an incredibly poignant, vulnerable and beautiful photograph. Peter is sitting on his bed, upstairs in the home he shared with Hilary. The walls behind him are bare, but for a Christ figure. Peter looks fragile and tired, but his eyes meet the camera steadily and honestly. This is perhaps the ‘last photograph,’ one Peter chose quite deliberately, to acknowledge the certainty of mortality, and the enduring nature of faith.

 Yvonne Todd,  Peter , (2014)

Yvonne Todd, Peter, (2014)


Deidra Sullivan is a graduate of the Art History Department, Victoria University of Wellington. She teaches on the Bachelor of Creativity programme at Te Auaha, WelTec and Whitireia’s joint School of Creativity, Wellington.


[1] Peter McLeavey, letter to Frish Brandt, Fraenkel Gallery, 13 January 2000.

[2] Peter McLeavey, letter to Frish Brandt, Fraenkel Gallery, 22 July 2001.

[3] Hilary McLeavey, interview with the author, 5 July 2018.

[4] As quoted in Jill Trevelyan, Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, 2013, Te Papa Press, Wellington, p.376.

[5] Peter McLeavey speaking in The man in the hat, 2009.

[6] Trevelyan, pp.11-12.

[7] ibid, p.29.

[8] ibid, p.27.

[9] Peter Ireland, interview with the author, 26 June 2018