Fault Lines reviewed - September 2018

Fault Lines

Anita Tótha

Published by Remote Photobooks, 2018, first edition run of 20

Reviewed by Caroline McQuarrie for PhotoForum


The last couple of decades has seen an increasing interest in the photographic archive. The digitisation of existing historic archives alongside exponentially increasing digital archives of every type has seen numerous artists and curators grappling with how to sort and make sense of this plethora of images. In her MFA essay Mapping the Fault Lines Anita Tótha suggests that the photobook is an ideal platform for this type of activity: “Photobooks are a heightened way of thinking that collects and refines information in the form of photographs”. Fault Lines is the photobook Tótha has produced as her MFA project. Tótha is known for her work promoting other people’s books through Remote Photobooks, this is her first foray into producing a book herself. It is a slim, well-produced hardcover book, the size of which is close to an 8x10 photograph. Beautifully designed with bold red text on a grey fabric cover, the book contains black and white photographs pulled from the photographic archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington and the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Libraries. Presented to us as un-captioned images (the captions direct from the archives are listed at the back), the images vary in size and arrangement throughout the book, sometimes appearing singly on a double page spread, sometimes paired or grouped together.

With no elaborating text within the book itself, we are left only with the imagery, and if we are inclined to look them up, their sometimes unhelpful captions. Yet an historic photograph taken out of the continuum of history isn’t always easy to place back into it, and in my first read of the book I spent some time trying to guess what I was looking at. I decided initially not to check the captions, and this had what I imagine was the desired effect; because I could not ‘place’ a lot of what I was looking at I began to draw connections in just the visual information I was given. This method has been most famously used in Larry Sultan and Mike Mendel’s highly influential 1977 book ‘Evidence’[1]. However the imagery Tótha has selected is not as esoteric as Sultan and Mendel. Where the imagery in that book is mostly so odd and out of context the imagination really runs wild, in Fault Lines much of the imagery is recognisable, if only in that we know this is Aotearoa New Zealand, and there are definite connections we can draw between photographs.

Cracks in the new Wellington City Council administration building. Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Cracks in the new Wellington City Council administration building. Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The imagery is clearly all historic[2], it begins strongly with a disembodied hand pointing to cracks in concrete, setting the tone well. What follows is imagery weaving faults and fissures in the landscape with some serious nation-building. We see the Queen, the Pink and White Terraces and a grinning American WWII soldier partaking of a hāngī crouched next to a much more circumspect Māori woman. The photographs are well chosen, most being visually interesting as well as contributing to the overall themes of the book. Colonialism is writ large throughout this book[3], and it is an interesting point in history for it to be produced as Pākehā are increasingly being asked to re-evaluate how they view our nation’s history. Without any indication from the author we do not know whether this interpretation of history is a re-evaluation or a reaffirming. With this openness in presentation it will fall to the viewer to decide, perhaps each person will have their own views reflected back at them.

Tótha tells us in the contextualising essay that: “The photographs selected for Fault Lines span over a century of documentation in New Zealand”. It is unfortunate then that the only content definitively portraying Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) is one page presenting three stereograph images of a garden in Dunedin[4]; although there are several photographs (mostly portraits) where the location is not known. While it is clear that the book is intended to be more interpretive than documentary, if the stated intention is to explore nation building then it seems an oversight to virtually exclude over half the country. Perhaps including the Hocken Library archive as a third source would have seen more Te Wai Pounamu material included. Without the inclusion of the Dunedin stereographs it could have been argued that the book was only about Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island). Then perhaps a second volume could have been made about Te Wai Pounamu and the two volumes together would have become a more inclusive whole.

However, the imagery that has been included creates interesting resonances between differing subjects. The photo of the Pink and White Terraces from the early 1880s is flanked by an aerial photograph of housing developments marching up a Wellington hill in 1971 and the terraced foundations of the Reserve Bank building in 1966, suggesting it is not only natural disasters defacing our natural history but also our own excavations and elevations. Some imagery is less obviously related to the overarching themes, a number of photographs seem to be included because of lines in their composition rather than their content, such as a 1958 photo of a girl holding up a strip of American lollipops and a 1934 image of a woman draped in giant strands of seaweed. This playfulness of content broadens the scope of the book. It also has the effect of breaking up the impression that groups of suited white men have literally shaped our country[5], bringing individuals (including women and Māori) back into the narrative.

Alongside the photographs of both small- and large-scale construction there is much destruction. Floods, fires, deforestation and large-scale mining all speak to the cost of making our contemporary world. But again smaller, more personal destruction makes the content more relatable; four Wellington High School students gleefully watching a model volcano explode in 1982 is a reminder of the paradox we all live with in this country; that we somehow feel safe on land that might throw us off at any moment.

Springbok rugby players during a Maori welcome in Gisborne. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Springbok rugby players during a Maori welcome in Gisborne. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Perhaps the most poignant image in the book is one from 1965, in which two white Springbok rugby players pose with a Māori woman and girl after a welcome in Gisborne. The players look relaxed and happy, they lean together for the photo. The woman poses with an awkward, well-trained smile. The girl however looks less convinced, she is sitting on the hip of one of the players who is gazing at her with what looks like genuine affection. Yet she looks directly down the lens of the camera with an expression that seems to ask “Is this what you want from me?”. This is the power of taking archived photographs out of their context and suggesting new connections between them, with hindsight allowing us to see connections not apparent at the time. Sixteen years later this girl would have been in her 20s, and we can’t help imagine what she might have been doing in 1981. Did she remember this man who was perhaps kind to her as a child? Did she come to understand the culture he came from and re-evaluate her own memories? Her gaze in this photo becomes a critique of both photography as a tool for telling a story determined by the photographer, and the country she has been born into who expect her to display her culture on demand.

The disparate images brought together in Fault Lines raise pertinent questions rather than providing us with ready answers. Tótha is illustrating how the fault lines in our society now are built on deep roots in our past. The metaphor is clever and effective, and it will be interesting to see what she makes next.

Caroline McQuarrie is a Lecturer in Photography at Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University, Wellington. She is an artist whose focus is the concept of home, whether it is located in the domestic, the community or the land. She has an exhibition ‘Prospects Fearful’ co-produced with Shaun Matthews at The Suter Gallery Aratoi o Whakatū, 1 September – 11 November 2018.

[1] Aotearoa New Zealand precedents are the two Gavin Hipkins projects ‘The Unhomely’ 1997 and ‘Folklore: The New Zealanders’ 1998, however these were exhibition-based projects. Fiona Pardington, Wayne Barrar and Emil McAvoy among others have made work engaging with more specific archives.

[2] Tótha notes in her MFA Essay ‘Mapping the Fault Lines’: “The book combines 53 black and white images that build a narrative about our intervention in the landscape during three significant eras: the Second Industrial Revolution (between the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and the two distinct Modernisms that flanked World War II.”

[3] Although Tótha only alludes to colonialism obliquely in her contextualising essay, mentioning landscape more often than culture: “My curatorial logic for ‘Fault Lines’ is that it acts as a catalyst: a reimagined narrative that speaks of the fissures in New Zealand’s political, social climate, the shaping and re-shaping of identity here and the impact this has had on the landscape”.

[4] This page is one of my favourite in the book: three amateur stereograph images taken of a colonial villa and its garden. The combination of white picket fence, colonial architecture and European plants with a young but very healthy Tī Kōuka illustrates the early smashing together of worlds we now take for granted.

[5] Several images show groups of suited men in boardrooms or inspecting infrastructure works in progress.