The Passing - reviewed
F4 Collective (The artists) + Maree Sheehan (Composer) + Tudor Collins (1898–1970), photographer + Shaun Higgins (Curator of Pictorial at the Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Wallace Art Collection, Pah Homestead, Auckland
21 May – 23 June, 2019
Reviewed by Peter Simpson for PhotoForum
Occupying two rooms of the Wallace Arts Trust at Pah Homestead as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography 2019 is The Passing, an innovative and intriguing collaborative multimedia presentation by the F4 Collective, composer Maree Sheehan and curator Shaun Higgins, working with images by the documentary photographer Tudor Collins (1898-1970) from the vast collection of his work at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Without being a household name – he doesn’t figure in Main and Turner’s New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present, for instance, though he is illustrated and discussed briefly in David Eggleton’s Into the Light: A History of New Zealand Photography, where he is called ‘the photographic laureate of the kauri forest’ (p. 65) – Collins is best known for his documentation of the kauri and its industrial harvesting. The so-called Kauri Cameraman – the title of a book about this aspect his work by Paul Campbell (The Kauri Museum, 2007) – Collins has a wing named after him at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe, Northland, which holds over 2000 of his kauri-related photographs. His photos were also used extensively in A.H. Reed’s The Story of the Kauri (Reeds, 1954). A bushman himself from 1918, Collins participated in both the destruction of the kauri and its partial preservation, as, according to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, ‘in his last years he was instrumental in preserving the McKinney kauri trees at Warkworth, and in his memory the Tudor Collins Drive was established at the Parry Kauri Park’.
As a photographer (one of several occupations he practised) Collins had numerous other strings to his bow than documenting kauri as a glance at the more than 11,000 images of his work on line at Digital NZ immediately reveals.. At various times in his life he was a commercial photographer, a stringer for the Weekly News and the New Zealand Herald for whom he covered such epochal events as the 1931 Napier earthquake and the 1932 Auckland riots, while at one stage he owned a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, called Marine Photos. Duck shooting, family groups, bridal and wedding photographs, deep sea fishing, royal tours, houses and townscapes, farming scenes, naval vessels, visiting American soldiers in war time, were just some of the myriad topics he covered.
The immediate background to the present exhibition is the recent discovery of 50,000 of Collins’ glass negatives in a farmhouse garage near Rotorua, their preservation by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the establishment there of a digitised archive. As recounted in didactic panels in the exhibition, many of the negatives were broken or otherwise degraded by moisture, changes in humidity or other environmental factors. Some were fused together, stained by dirt or fungus, or had suffered grievous chemical degradation such as delamination (the separation of the photographic layer from the glass) or other indignities.
Nevertheless it is precisely the ruinous damage to many of the plates which has appealed to the collaborative group behind The Passing; they have seized on them imaginatively to make a plangent statement about time, history, social change, entropy and decay and the intimate and necessary involvement of the medium of photography in these processes.
One of the rooms is taken up by a video and soundscape presentation. A large screen is filled with a single photograph by Collins of bushmen at work felling a huge kauri. Six men are involved, three on either side of the trunk of an enormous tree. Only the bottom three metres or so of the massive trunk are visible; the bushmen, reduced to pygmy size by the scale of the trunk, are operating a large cross-cut saw which has begun to cut through the giant bole. Even so, their faces are clearly visible as all but one of them turn to face the camera; one is Māori, the others Pakeha. Dressed in trousers and shirts or singlets rolled above the elbow, they appear to be in their twenties, except for a balding man facing away from the camera; each stands or crouches in a different posture related to the task at hand.
At the beginning of the continuously looped video the image is still but gradually shapes begin to move across the surface of the image, sometimes travelling diagonally upwards to the right, at others from a different direction; progressively these abstract-seeming shapes (although they may originate in surface details of the patterns on the bark of the kauri or from the surrounding vegetation) become more dominant and begin to obscure the underlying image until it is submerged completely by either white-out or blackout. Meanwhile a low electronic-seeming sound, hard to characterise but like a hum or unidentifiable rumble accompanies the gradually changing image, seeming to associate itself with the relentless passing of time. Reflecting on this work, I found myself remembering from schooldays Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In the second room three separate works are offered for contemplation. The smallest is an illuminated quarter plate negative of a portrait of Tudor Collins taken in 1940 in front of lava fields at Rotorua. It was evidently the first negative in the first box of the 50,000 images taken possession of by museum staff. Showing the negative emphasises (I assume, among other possible connotations) the materiality of the photographic process.
One of two large works on facing walls is a hugely enlarged print of a seriously damaged negative in which (at least) two images have fused together – one shows a group of four children all facing the camera wearing swimming togs though only the lower parts of their bodies are visible; above the waist their images have degraded into an unreadable abstract mess, though towards the top of the photograph the branches of trees from another negative are visible, and a kind of accidental metamorphosis occurs, ‘fused through chemical reaction into an allegory of children turning into trees’ (according to the didactic panel) – like a version of the Diana myth.
On the opposite wall is a large montage of literally dozens of different sized photographs or fragments of photographs informally organised into clusters, somewhat reminiscent of a Killeen cut-out or a David Hockney multiple. Some of these images are by Tudor Collins, but others (I’m told) come from family collections or are found images; some are in good condition, others fused or degraded. A predominant theme them running through this complex montage is brides and weddings. Discernible are women in bridal gowns carrying bouquets of flowers, sometimes a single flower is isolated, or a portion of a beautiful young face. Some are complete photographs, others are pages from photograph albums; still others are tiny fragments; stitching with thread (a device used in previous F4 works) is used to cobble certain images together. The total effect is poignantly resonant and arouses feelings about life and photography of the sort Roland Barthes analysed so movingly in Camera Lucida.
We are invited to view the exhibition not as separate works of art but as a single composite installation, ‘parts of a whole’. There is an implicit connection between the subjects of the various components and the degraded state of the physical objects. They all strongly evoke the distant past, an era in which our antecedents lustily engaged in marriage and procreation while simultaneously raping Mother Nature in a fury of invasive and extractive assaults, of which the desecration of the incomparable kauri was one among many. The devastation time has wrought on the physical objects which convey these evocations of blighted innocence is a kind of material enactment of the aspects of life recorded. I hope we are not being invited to feel cosily superior to our ancestors. Such processes are still going on, both in our physical and social environment and in the technologies we devise for documenting such phenomena.
Peter Simpson is a writer, editor and occasional curator who lives in Auckland and has published books on Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Allen Curnow, Colin McCahon, Leo Bensemann, Peter Peryer and Charles Brasch. He received the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Non Fiction in 2017.