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Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 3 | George Bull and Leo White

September 2nd, 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 3 of this series we explore the photography of George Bull and Leo White.

War photographer George Bull

The participation of New Zealand troops in World War II is well documented in the Photographic Archive of the Turnbull Library with images by George Kaye, Harold Paton and George Bull, all of whom worked as official war photographers.

But it was Wellington photographer George Bull who got the job of recording the visit to Italy by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Peter Fraser in 1944; a visit which coincided with recent heavy losses of New Zealand troops at Cassino in May, and the D-Day landings on 6 June.

Peter Fraser complex, hardworking and principled

Fraser was a complex, hardworking and principled figure. Jailed for a year in 1916 on a charge of sedition for his outspoken views against conscription in World War I, he fully supported New Zealand’s participation in World War II as a necessary response to the threat of Hitler.

In the post-war years Fraser became respected as an international statesman and lead New Zealand’s delegation to the founding meeting of the United Nations where he argued strongly against the right of veto for the major powers. In internal politics, Fraser pushed for the development of the arts, education, health, women, welfare and Māori.

In Sir Alister McIntosh’s reminiscences of working with Peter Fraser — available in the New Zealand Journal of History (pdf) — he noted the Prime Minister’s dependence on ‘weak tea and buttered toast’.

Fraser looks right at home in this scene with senior New Zealand officers — a cup of tea in hand and wearing Brigadier Crump’s beret.

Group of military men sit in on chairs in an impromptu circle holding teacups and saucers.
Colonel Owen Bracegirdle, Lieutenant-General Edward Puttick, Peter Fraser, and Brigadier Stanley Crump taking tea in the Volturno valley area, Italy, 30 May 1944. Photograph by George Bull. Ref: DA-05908-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Emergent documentary style photography

This quietly absorbing image shows Fraser on a busy Rome street with General Freyberg, Divisional Commander of the New Zealand troops, walking at a respectful distance behind him. This George Bull picture fits within the emergent documentary style that found a distinct expression in 1947 with the formation of Magnum by a group of photographers including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Street scene with men in khaki clothing standing besides cars parked against the kerb.
Peter Fraser walks to his car on his way to visit the Vatican, 9 June, 1944. Photograph by George Bull. Ref: DA-06173-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The clearest examples of work in the documentary style in the Turnbull Library from this period, are the images of John Pascoe, an official war photographer, who documented life on the home front in New Zealand.

Small details of the photograph catch the eye: the hooped fence around the grass, the dusty New Zealand staff car complete with silver fern emblem, the soldier in a hurry to the left of Fraser in the background.

But it’s the figure of Fraser which draws most attention. The military cut to his clothes albeit topped with his hat of choice. His hands are clenched as he walks along. Is this Fraser adopting a detail of military bearing to his presence, or simply a man with a lot on his mind, trying to ease the tension?

Portrait of Private Tonihi

Peter Fraser had an impressive reputation as a public speaker, and he has a patient listener here. You can feel the heat of early summer and the hardness of the rocks which the soldier is sitting on, but it’s more difficult to gauge his thoughts about the words of the Prime Minister? And whether or not Private Tonihi is aware of the presence of the photographer it’s not apparent in this object lesson in how to create a good portrait.

A man dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, sits on a rock on the ground, elbow on knee, listening intently to a speaker who is out of the frame.
M. Tonihi of Whanganui listening to Peter Fraser at the New Zealand Advance Base in Italy, ca. 3 June 1944. Photograph by George Bull. Ref: DA-06055-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Bridge over the Tiber in Rome

It’s a warm morning and Peter Fraser and General Freyberg are taking in the sights on a bridge over the Tiber. The locals are going about their day, but their attention is drawn to the subject of the camera’s focus. The writhing marble statuary speaks to the war close at hand. A businessman with his satchel and the small boy looking at the camera, add a Cartier-Bresson-like ‘decisive moment’ to the scene.

A few men dressed in khaki uniforms stand beside a large, marble statue.
Peter Fraser and General Bernard Freyberg on a bridge over the Tiber, Rome, ca. 9 June 1944. Photograph by George Bull. Ref: DA-06174-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Photographer Leo White

Leo White was born in Auckland in 1906. His love of photography was sparked as a boy when he acquired a Brownie box camera. Before he turned 20, White was a photographic contributor to major New Zealand periodicals — The NZ Herald, The Auckland Star and The Christchurch Weekly Press.

White was also passionate about flying and took his love of photography with him, capturing some of the first aerial views of Auckland in 1921. He was appointed an official photographer with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1942 and by 1945 he had established Whites Aviation. For the next fifty years the company built up an unparalleled record of New Zealand from the air.

In 2007 the Alexander Turnbull Library acquired the collection of White's Aviation Ltd, consisting of 90,000 negatives, and 50,000 prints, predominantly aerial views. But the collection also contains photographs Leo White took while on his travels, which hark back to the work he did as a young photojournalist.

Being in the right place at the right time

Business took White abroad, and images show his stays in Hong Kong, the Pacific, and the United States among other places. These three images capture a sense of White’s ability and his obvious enjoyment of photography in a series of interesting moments captured with freshness and skill.

Hats are the motif in these three images by Leo White. In the first, the helmets of policeman, the hats of the royal visitors, and those of the gathered crowd reflected in the shining panel work of the open car. The Duke with his kākahu, and the couple’s gifts of huia feathers, worn jauntily in their hat bands.

Duke and duchess are riding in the back of a car with no roof wearing a uniform and fancy dress.
Duke and Duchess of York leaving a reception, wearing huia feathers in their hats, 1927. Photograph by Leo White. Ref: WA-25130-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The woven white hat and top hat a la the Mat Hatter worn by locals on a Tahitian street.

Three people sitting on a bench, two are wearing hats, a bicycle sits against the wall in the background.
Tahiti, October 1952. Photograph by Whites Aviation. Ref: WA-31567-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

And in Auckland, White has reacted quickly to the opportunity of being in the right place at the right time. The art deco style of the Pasadena development in New Lynn looks like a street on a Hollywood film set with Oliver Hardy in signature bowler hat taking a break for lunch.

A lone man stands against a large brick wall that is painted with a tropical beach scene.
Mural, Pasadena Development, New Lynn, Auckland, 28 August 1961. Photograph by Whites Aviation. Ref: WA-55728-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Other blogs in the ‘Looking for wonder’ series

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