Collective Memory: Puke Ariki’s Swainson/Woods Collection
Puke Ariki’s Swainson/Woods Collection
Poutiaki Kohinga Whakaahua Curator Pictorial Collection
Puke Ariki Museum, Taranaki
In his 1971 review of New Zealand photography Hardwicke Knight suggested that “our interest in the portrait photograph lies in its contribution to social history, in the fascinating survey it provides of changing fashions in dress and manners, and in the fact that it is the branch of photography that shows most fully and clearly the evolution of photographic processes.”1 However commercial portrait or studio photography, alongside snapshots and other ‘ordinary’ photographs, have largely been absent from discussions on the medium’s history in favour of art photography.2 But Knight’s observation is particularly relevant when examining the role of studio collections held in museums, where the social value of those images takes precedence. The Swainson/Woods negatives held at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth are one example of how such collections can be used to explore social change and collective memory. This essay outlines the history of that collection and demonstrates how community engagement allows us to find deeper meaning in ordinary photographs.
Puke Ariki is a museum, library and information centre with a large collection of photographs, artworks, archives, taonga Māori and social history objects that reflect the heritage of the Taranaki region. Photographs make up the largest portion of Puke Ariki’s collection, with the range of material tracing developments in photographic processes. The museum’s daguerreotype of Caroline and Sarah Barrett, for example, is one of the earliest known daguerreotypes to have been made in New Zealand and one of the first known portraits of Māori. Glass plate negatives by local studio and amateur photographers such as Feaver Studios in Opunake (1890s-1940s) and Stratford’s A.W. Reid (1853-1938) are also represented in the collection. Other negatives, personal albums and snapshots cover diverse subjects from the Taranaki Wars to alpine adventures in the 1930s and scenes of development through the years. Today Puke Ariki continues to collect historic photographic material alongside the work of contemporary photographers whose practice is signficant to the region, such as Pat Greenfield’s series of work documenting coastal erosion at Tongaporutu.
However since 2005 a major focus for the museum has been the Swainson/Woods Collection. At over 111,000 negatives – the work of two New Plymouth studios – it is Puke Ariki’s largest photographic collection and rare in its scope. Swainson’s Studios was established by Joseph Swainson in 1923 and sold to Bernard Woods in the early 1960s. In the 1980s Bernard Woods Studio was taken over by Bernard’s daughter Jennifer, who continued the business until 1997 before donating the collection to Puke Ariki in 2005. From glass plate negatives to large sheet film, medium format film and 35mm black and white film, through to glorious colour film formats, the collection is exciting for anyone interested in the development of photographic technologies and studio practices in twentieth century regional New Zealand.
Visually, though, the collection is quite unremarkable. Swainson and Woods captured weddings, family portraits, school groups and businesses, producing largely ordinary images using traditional conventions of photography and portraiture. Furthermore, when the collection was donated the large majority of the images were unidentified, or identified by surname only, so there was little personal value to be immediately gained. So why were the negatives important to collect? What role could the collection play in the museum’s mission to enrich lives by promoting the heritage of Taranaki and telling local stories?
To explore the collection’s potential, Puke Ariki engaged in cleaning, rehousing into archival storage, cataloguing and finally digitising the negatives in a major project that was completed in 2016. As digitisation progressed images were shared through a number of community-focused initiatives with the aim of connecting them with the people to whom they matter the most. The community was asked to share their knowedge through commenting on images online, at exhibitions held at Puke Ariki and the Taranaki district libraries, and in response to photographs published weekly in the local newspaper. These initiatives were driven by both the need to identify as many of the photographs as possible, but also to demonstrate how images made for personal and largely private use could transform into a valuable public resource. Through digitising the entire collection, rather than just a selection of the best images, it was shown that while each individual photograph might be quite ordinary, collectively they provide us with a remarkable record of the region’s people, places and events across several generations.
Speaking at Photographic Memory, an exhibition of Swainson/Woods images in 2013, photography historian Geoffrey Batchen stated “there are many kinds of history that can be fashioned out of an archive of vernacular photographic images like this one. Each of them depends on what questions you want to ask of it, and what stories you want to tell with it.”3 To return to Knight’s observations on portrait photography, the Swainson/Woods collection lends itself to any number of interpretations in the wider context of Puke Ariki’s role as a history museum. For example changes in fashion over time, from finger-curled hair and fur stoles in the 1930s to perms and stone-washed demin in the 1980s, can be seen in the many individual portraits from the collection. Wedding photographs, too, give an insight into shifting social practices, with the wedding photography package expanding from a simple portrait of the bridal party taken at the studio to a full photoshoot of the event itself including photographs of the bride taken in her family home. Advances in photographic equipment are evident too, as the collection shifts from black and white to colour, and faster exposures allow for more candid shots to be included.
There is also a sense of nostalgia evoked by the Swainson/Woods Collection that speaks to those who grew up before digital technologies and social media became part of everyday life. We see ourselves in these images, and share in the collective memory of the important events we have all experienced as New Zealanders who have gone to school, played in sports teams, married, and celebrated family milestones with the all important visit to the photographer’s studio. Seen in this way, the Swainson/Woods Collection and others like it have national, not just regional, significance. The ordinariness of these images connects us to shared experiences and a sense of belonging to a specific time and place. In a museum context in particular, the familiarity of these images encourages the visitor to relate. They are drawn into an exhibition through the images that remind them of the photographs on their own wall at home, which creates a more enjoyable and meaningful visitor experience.
However, while the Swainson/Woods Collection can be used to explore collective memory, the many people who have responded to it by generously sharing their own stories have reminded us that each image holds very individual and personal memories too. Stories continue to be shared through the comment function on Puke Ariki’s website that allows visitors to leave information, which has resulted in over ten thousand identifications, along with detailed family histories, being gathered to date. Through crowdsourcing information in this way the collection’s data has been enriched and the museum has forged strong relationships with the community. The stories that have been received are often moving or entertaining, and sometimes tragic, demonstrating that these images are in many cases also precious reminders of loved ones.
As a whole, digitising and sharing the Swainson/Woods Collection has shown that ordinary photographs should never be taken at face value. The collection has been brought to life through both individual and collective memory, and continues to be used to explore Taranaki’s past. Our challenge for the future is to keep actively engaging with the collection, to discover new ways of interpreting and presenting it and connecting the images with new audiences. As argued by Geoffrey Batchen, “it must be put to use, even to uses that it may seem not at first to be well suited for. We must be prepared to take risks with it, if it is still going to be made to matter to us.”4
1 Hardwicke Knight, Photography in New Zealand: A Social and Technical History (Dunedin: John McIndoe Limited, 1971), 123.
2 Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing Photography History (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002), 57.
3 Geoffrey Batchen, Pictures Took: The Business of Photography (presentation transcript from lecture delivered for the Puke Ariki exhibition Photographic Memory: The Swainson/Woods Collection, 12 June 2013).
4 Batchen, Pictures Took.