History of New Zealand photography

Page 1 – Introduction

Andy Palmer, 'Taranaki', 11 June 2003

Today it’s hard to imagine life without photographic images. Their ubiquity extends from the newspaper to the art gallery, from the billboard to the family album, from product packaging to the internet.

The history of photography in New Zealand dates from early European settlement. Daguerreotypes may have been made here as early as 1841, a year after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Because of the limitations of the equipment early photographs were principally studio portraits, of both Māori and settlers. But as soon as technologies allowed, the more hardy photographers took their gear outside and started capturing the landscape and recording the growth of our towns and cities.

New developments in photography soon made their way to our shores, with each allowing more people to pick up a camera and start making images. In less than 200 years the medium has gone from unique copper-plate positives to endlessly reproducible digital bytes, via glass plates and numerous types of film.

George Silk, Brian Brake and Anne Geddes are among a small number of New Zealand photographers who have made a name for themselves on the international stage in the commercial, advertising, or fine art genres. However, it is debatable whether any have had a lasting influence overseas.

While Māori were a common subject in photography’s early days, local practitioners tended to follow overseas fashions until the wave of New Zealand nationalism struck in the mid-20th century. Today, most of the high-profile practitioners once again aim for internationalism rather than producing images with a recognisable local flavour.

Since the 1970s photography has grown in public popularity and exhibitions regularly attract large audiences. Mirroring overseas trends, art collectors were slow to accept the peculiarities of the photographic image in comparison with visual arts such as painting. However, attitudes have changed in recent years.