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Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 1

June 16th, 2020 By Peter Ireland
Peter Ireland and Dr Fiona Oliver, curators of the upcoming exhibition 'Mīharo | Wonder', take us deep into the Turnbull's collection of photographs. Have a look at some of the images that didn't make the cut for the exhibition.

Marking a centenary

In 2019 work began on the second exhibition to mark the centenary of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Mīharo Wonder: 100 years of the Alexander Turnbull Library will open in late February 2021.

The exhibition is being curated by Dr Fiona Oliver, the Turnbull Library’s Curator of New Zealand & Pacific Published Collections and Peter Ireland, Exhibition Specialist for the National Library.

Images that caught our eye but didn’t quite make it

In this five-part blog we open a window into the Photographic Archive, one of the collections looked at extensively when choosing material for the exhibition. Many images from the Archive made it onto an initial list of candidates but fewer made the cut; many hard decisions had to be made and dearly loved images left out — there was simply not room for everything we wanted to include.

This blog creates an opportunity for some of those photos to ‘make it back in’. It is intended to give a sense of the type of images that caught our attention and includes representative works from collections that will feature in Mīharo | Wonder.

Mīharo Wonder

As an approach to selecting exhibition material from the Turnbull collections, ‘wonder’ provides plenty of scope. The word itself is multi-faceted – wonder as amazing, astonishing, piquing curiosity, raising questions, wonder to elicit a response from both mind and imagination.

Wonder as a response to the collections is an individual experience, and so of course, is the selection for this exhibition. Mīharo | Wonder is just that, a personal response, informed by many years of looking in continuing amazement at what is in the collections. Latterly that has meant a much more concerted peering into the deep pool of the Turnbull collections.

Deep immersion in the Photographic Archive brings rewards, a thesaurus of search words yielding images that you are moved by and want to put to one side. But certain collections and certain photographers keep surfacing, keep calling you back: the portraits of William Harding; the dream world of Robina Nicol; the steady determination of father and son William and Edgar Williams to create a diary of the lives of their family and friends, their extensive exploration and travel; the moments in the collection of Adam MacLay that break the mold of staid studio composition, take bizarre and unexpected turns.

The inconsistencies and the aberrations catch the eye, as do those shots which transcend period and intent, that are timeless, atypical. Leo White, founder of Whites Aviation, whose business is represented by more than 90,000 images in the Turnbull, the majority, as you would expect, aerial views, took many brilliant photographs with both feet on the ground.

The pleasure of looking

But to begin, here are seven images as an introduction to the pleasure of looking; we look at the image and the image looks back, asking questions of the viewer. That’s not as neat as it sounds. There is no obligation to look or see anything more than what is immediately apparent.

But good images engage you in dialogue, hold up a mirror to the transient moment to which we are all enthralled, carve out some time to pause. Looking as an end in itself, non-didactic, not tied to imperatives of research or outcome.


Looking for wonder in the collections has a measure of serendipity about it. These two images are close in period and partly for that reason, they suggested themselves as a pair. The first is a photograph of two boys, in an apparently gentle and momentary pointing out of detail, taken by Robina Nicol. The second, by an unidentified photographer at Gallipoli, shows two young men looking as though their lives, and the lives of those they are looking at, depend on it.

Two boys sitting atop a gate, one of them is pointing to something off camera while the other looks in that direction.
Two boys on a gate, c. 1895–1925. Photograph attributed to Robina Nicol. Ref: 1/2-233717-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Two soldiers in a trench, one is looking through a telescope while the other the aims a rifle.
Gallipoli, 1915. Photographer unidentified. Ref: PAColl-3604-04. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Melancholy of sepia

If it is possible to fall in love with an image, then this one is surely a candidate. The rich detail of setting and clothes, the sweet expressions. Together as a family, the woman looking at the camera, the man looking to one side, the boy? Harder to read that expression — stilled, soothed by his father’s hands or, would he rather not be there? The clergyman perhaps reminding us of someone. The melancholy of sepia, the hats.

Portrait of a young family, a young boy is seated on the ground in front of his father.
Unidentified family, c. 1880s. Photograph by Mrs Williams of Wolverhampton, England. Selwyn family photographs. Ref: PAColl-9823-1-41. Alexander Turbull Library.

William Williams is everywhere

William Williams was everywhere! In this shot he appears to be hidden from view, taking photographs of passersby. The image invites speculation as to what he was doing, who the woman was, and what their relationship might have been. Where is she going on this quiet sunny day? You can almost hear the clicking of her shoes on the footpath as she walks through a moment in time.

A woman walks on the footpath in front of white picket fence and a wooden house in the background, the ground is dappled in shade from a tree.
Unidentified woman, c. 1880s–90s. Photograph by William Williams. Ref. 1/4-055609-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Harding-Denton collection

When Frank Denton purchased the collection, and possibly the business, of Whanganui photographer Alfred Martin, in 1889, he also acquired the negatives of William Harding, who had operated as a photographer in the town since 1856. The glass plate negatives of the Harding-Denton collection held at the Turnbull is one of the pre-eminent records of 19th-century portraiture in New Zealand.

This ‘double’ stereoscopic portrait by Denton is intended to be viewed as one, but the difference in the condition of the glass plate and the two images almost suggests two different sitters. Note the beautifully balanced details of huia feather and tassel attached to the chair – of which one would like to see more.

Stereoscopic image of a woman sitting for a portrait with a huia feather in her hair.
Unidentified Māori woman, c. 1900. Photograph by Frank Denton. Ref: 1/2-008343-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Life in precarious equilibrium

This snapshot just had to be taken – who could resist its drama? It captures the idea of life in precarious equilibrium, the rock making its indelible announcement.

A man standing beside a huge rock is dwarfed by its size.
Old Man Rock on the summit of Old Man Range, Central Otago, date unknown. Photographer unidentified, Freelance Collection. Ref: 1/2-080946-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

William Williams — yes he is everywhere

William Williams didn’t shy away from the rigours of documenting his life and travels with the cumbersome technology he had available. The photographs he took of his European holiday with Lydia, his wife, in the mid-1920s, invite comparison with Eugene Atget’s resonant documentation of Paris of about the same period. Served by a very good eye for subject and composition, there is never anything hasty about Williams’ holiday pictures, as this serene, time-filled study of a fountain in Rome attests.

A fountain in the shape of a large, raised bowl is filled with water that is dripping over the edge into a larger pool that is octagon-shaped nearly at ground level.
Fountain in Rome, c. 1925. Photograph by William Williams. Ref: 1/4-100207-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Other blogs in ‘Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive’ series

Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 2 | Robina Nicol

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