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Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 4 | The unnamed in the collection of Adam MacLay

September 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. In part 4 of this series we explore the work of Christchurch photographer Adam MacLay.

To be photographed was the thing

Adam MacLay’s photographs are various in subject matter and as a collection, densely populated with the citizens of Christchurch from the late 19th century and the first half of the twentieth.

A search for Adam MacLay on the Libary's website returns digitised images typical of the variety of MacLay’s subject matter. There are several studies of poultry, a horse-drawn hearse, the wharf area at Oamaru, participants in the Daisy Camp at Sumner in 1893 and the members of Mistletoe Lodge of the United and Ancient Order of Druids who won a card tournament in 1908. To be photographed was the thing.

Gallery view of MacLay's photographs showing a series of black and white images of different dimensions.
Gallery view of the digitised Adam Henry Pearson MacLay negatives. Ref: PA-Group-00396. Alexander Turnbull Library.

It is affecting to look at century-old photographs, at the closed off world of departed spirits, but there is an added poignancy to the MacLay collection in that most of the subjects are unidentified. It is no less a collection for that and as the sum of private commissions not intended for public inspection, there is a certain propriety observed in this.

Who was Adam MacLay?

Adam MacLay was born in Christchurch 26 February 1873, the son of Robert Pearson MacLay and Jane Doherty. He had at least two studios during his career, both on Colombo Street in Sydenham. And he may have had an interest in boats?

Papers Past includes an advertisement MacLay placed offering a four-horsepower Michigan motorboat for sale in 1914. There is no record of him being married. He died in September 1955 and is buried at the Linwood cemetery. MacLay’s negative collection was presented to the Turnbull Library by his sisters in July 1956.

But we do get a strong sense of MacLay from his photographs. Busy, hard-working, equally at home in the studio or as the itinerant photographer, creative in his settings, with a penchant for the use of backdrops that he took with him on the road – often nailed up on the side of a shed – studio convention al fresco.

When looking through the 7,000 MacLay images there is repetition and longueur but there is also much wonder, strangeness, beauty, longing and moments of amusement. It is a valuable record of a period, with many of MacLay’s images also belonging in a catalogue of the best of New Zealand photography.

See the digitised Adam MacLay negatives (PA-Group-00396)

An unfinished seascape

The backdrop of this portrait looks like an unfinished seascape, but the pitchfork and rustic fence suggests an arcadian scene. Did the young women choose this setting? What readings of this image were afforded then and what, if any, are available to us now?

A woman in dark-coloured dress stands beside a pitchfork in a posed scene in front of a painted backdrop.
Unidentified woman, ca. 1905 – 1926. Photograph by Adam MacLay. Ref: 1/2-183413-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

What colours are his uniform?

There is a second image of this unidentified trombonist; in the other he is minus his hat; at MacLay’s suggestion we assume? What type of studio lighting helped MacLay achieve such an alive-looking portrait? What is on the young man’s mind? What tune might he have summoned up if asked to play? What colours are his uniform?

A man in band uniform and hat stands holding a trombone with a puzzled look on his face.
Unidentified man, ca. 1905 – 1926. Photograph by Adam MacLay. Ref: 1/2-183721-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Unidentified woman wearing jockey’s silks

MacLay has got this image just right. The most delicate background sets off this striking study. We assume the young woman was a jockey, though perhaps not? Did she borrow these beautiful silks (of red and green?) for the occasion. A classical, timeless, affecting portrait.

A portrait of a woman wearing a jockey shirt and cap shows her staring into the camera lens with a wistful if ambiguous expression.
Unidentified woman wearing jockey’s silks, ca. 1905-1926. Photograph by Adam MacLay. Ref: 1/2-185902-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

A counterpoint to the starch-white children

Two children, one in focus, the other scratched out of the scene. There are several photographs like this among the MacLay negatives. These show him weighing up his images, scoring out unwanted detail, composing the best features – and we should be grateful he retained these examples of his work. An unsettling image complete lowering trees, the dry, spiky grass, a well-worn path and the egregious presence of that piece of paper on the ground, a further counterpoint to the starch-white children.

Two children stand side by side in identical white costumes, each holding a cane with flowers on the handle, once child has been partially scratched out of the negative.
Unidentified children, ca 1905-1926. Photograph by Adam MacLay. Ref: 1/2-185861-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Both a threshold and an invitation

A touching photograph, taken in the doorway of this women’s home, a frame, which, for this intimate tableau, acts as both threshold and an invitation into a person’s life. There’s not a detail wasted here. The flowers, the tablecloth, the art print and the map on the wall. A captive, bemused cat, the strength and dignity of the woman’s face. A signature MacLay image, patient, sympathetic and resonant with wonder.

A woman sits on a chair posing for the camera with a cat in her lap.
Unidentified woman and cat, ca. 1905-1926. Photograph by Adam MacLay. Ref: 1/2-184013-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Other blogs in the ‘Looking for wonder’ series

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