Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 4 | The unnamed in the collection of Adam MacLaySeptember 16th, 2020 By Peter Ireland
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 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.
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.