Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Going to war with William Temple


Walking down the hall of my parents' Drury farmhouse is a little like travelling backwards through time. On the walls at the top of the hall are photos, in kodak colour, of people and scenes I remember from my childhood - of sideburned men in stubbies and women in paisley dresses leaning over barbeques, or wandering down beaches, or crouching between a television and a teetering Christmas tree. I see myself as a ludicrous six year-old, pulling an English setter's ear in one photograph and reaching for a frisbee in another.

When I take a few steps down the hall, though, colours fade, bodies stiffen, and faces become strange. My parents, uncles and aunts may show off bare legs and smiles, but their parents stand solemnly in trousers and long dark dresses. They pose for cameras in the same living room as their descendants, but the television and Christmas tree have been been replaced by squat wooden armchairs uncomfortable to look at, and a fireplace as dark as a cave.

If I look at the portraits near the bottom of the hall I find that the lounge has been replaced by a nineteenth century photographer's studio, with a background screen like a sheer grey cliff, and sticks of polished prop-furniture. My great-grandfather, the man who built this house, stands in front of the screen in the undersized dinner jacket the photographer's assistant has handed him. He stands formally, even gravely, although a dark beard pours uncontrollably down his torso, and his small dark eyes hint at some obscure anger.

In nineteenth century New Zealand, photographers were accustomed to dealing with clients who wanted portraits to send to grieving relatives in the Old Country they had left behind. The formality of many of the old photographs that hang in our houses is not, then, surprising. I think that we find this formality obscurely comforting, because it creates a distance between ourselves and the world of our ancestors. We citizens of the twenty-first century like to think of ourselves, with our fibre optic cables and ethical shopping habits and cheap international travel, as the most sophisticated and enlightened humans ever to walk the earth, and we regard our forebears, with their dull fusty clothes and over-elaborate manners and ridiculous devices like the gramophone and the fountain pen, with a sort of affectionate amusement. Just as the black and white photo has been superseded by the colour snapshot, so the world of our nineteenth century ancestors has been, we think, countermanded in favour of ours.

But not every photograph of the past is as reassuring as the family portraits on my parents' walls.

If New Zealand can be called a family - a large, diverse, and growing family, full of factions and quarrels and confusion, but a family nevertheless - then the archives of Wellington's Turnbull Library might be considered a sort of family photo album. Along with its millions of manuscript pages, the Turnbull holds tens of thousands of images snapped in this country over the past hundred and sixty years. A score or so of the photos in the Turnbull were taken in the early 1860s by a man named William Temple. An Irish-born soldier-surgeon attached to the Royal Artillery Regiment, Temple arrived in this country with his comrades in 1861, at a time when the politicians in Auckland's parliament and their friends in the local business community were plotting a war.

To understand the war that gave William Temple's life and art their shape and meaning, we need to understand the peculiar division of power in mid-nineteenth century New Zealand. Troubled by the scale of Pakeha settlement in the decade after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Tainui iwi and some of its traditional allies created the Maori King Movement, or Kingitanga, in the middle of the 1850s. The first Maori King was crowned in 1858, and by 1861 the 'Waikato Kingdom', as it was commonly known, was a unified independent nation, stretching from the Mokau River in the south to the mouth of the Waikato in the north. Tawhiao, the nation's leader, kept his court in Ngaruawahia, an ancient Tainui settlement on the junction of the Waikato and Wapia rivers.

Tawhiao was a Maori nationalist, but he was not an isolationist. Fleets of Maori-owned schooners delivered wheat, flax, and potatoes from the Waikato Kingdom to Auckland and other towns, and brought back books and machinery. Flour mills were established on many of the streams and rivers that flowed through Tawhiao's kingdom, and a printing press in Ngaruawahia produced a newspaper for his subjects.

Auckland's political and economic elite knew that Tawhiao's realm had to be destroyed, if the central regions of Te Ika a Maui were ever to be brought under Pakeha control. In 1861 hundreds of British soldiers, including members of the Royal Artillery Regiment, were put to work building a road that went south from Auckland towards the border of the Waikato Kingdom. Breaking rocks was an exhausting business, and soldiers complained about being made to do 'convicts' work', but road-building was less dangerous than war, and the Regiment's surgeon sometimes found himself with little to do. Perhaps noticing William Temple's langour, a friend he had made after his arrival in Auckland apparently gave him some photographic equipment, and encouraged him to take up the hobby.

Today small efficient cameras and the digitisation of images mean we can take, view and store photos as easily as we scratch our noses. In the 1860s, though, photography was a protracted, exacting business, requiring patience and judgement. The process began in a darkened room or tent, where the photographer covered a plate of glass with a sticky, flammable chemical solution. After setting his camera up on a tripod in a well-lit room or outdoors in the sunlight, the photographer slid the glass plate into the machine, lifted the cap from the lens, and let the light flow inside, where it reacted with the still-wet chemicals. The plate would be 'exposed' in this way for between twenty seconds and five minutes, depending on the quality of the light. The photographer had to ask his subjects to refrain from all movement during this time. If the subjects did so much as shift their feet or cough, then their portraits might be blurred.

After replacing the lens cap, the photographer retrieved the glass plate from his camera, returned to his dark room or tent, poured another chemical solution over the glass, and waited for an image to emerge. If he had applied his chemical solutions properly, had kept his lens unlidded for the appropriate length of time, and had prevented his subjects from wandering or fidgeting during the exposure, then the photographer had a reasonable chance of producing a recognisable image. Photography would certainly have helped to rid William Temple of spare time.

During 1862 and the first months of 1863 Temple recorded the slow progress of the Great South Road, through swamps and over thickly bushed hills, in a series of photos. As the road moved away from Auckland, soldiers were stationed in forts built by its side; civilians followed the soldiers, establishing farmlets, stores and pubs.

When the Great South Road reached Pokeno, near the northern border of the Waikato Kingdom, it could go no further without the help of war. A fort called Queen's Redoubt was built at Pokeno, and troops began to mass there, as the government in Auckland demanded that Tawhiao accept its authority, and defiant replies came north from Ngaruawahia. While they waited for the inevitable invasion of the Waikato, the troops at Pokeno amused themselves with drinking binges, bare-knuckle boxing matches, and card games. Sometimes the troops traded with Maori who paddled towards them up the Waikato and its tributaries on waka laded with food. After the government in Auckland issued an edict demanding that all Maori swear allegiance to the Queen or forfeit their rights as citizens, columns of refugees began to move down the muddy Great South Road and past Pokeno, to the temporary safety of the Waikato Kingdom.

After Pakeha forces finally invaded Tawhiao's kingdom in July 1863, William Temple moved south with the Royal Artillery Regiment. On the afternoon of November the 20th, Temple's regiment helped bombard the massive pa Tawhiao's army had built at Rangiriri, on a piece of dry land wedged between the Waikato in the west and a system of swamps and lakes in the east. After two hours the big guns fell silent, and hundreds of soldiers charged towards the palisaded earth walls of the pa. They were met by round after round of rifle and musket fire.

Three successive assaults were made on Rangiriri, and the pa's outer trenches and pits were gradually captured. William Temple and his fellow doctors were kept busy, as dozens of wounded men were carried and dragged back from the edge of the fortress. With dusk approaching and the heart of the pa still flying Tawhiao's flag, the British commander General Duncan Cameron became frustrated, and ordered the Royal Artillery Regiment to join the assault. The regiment's men must have been surprised and dismayed by Cameron's demand: they were used to attacking their enemies from a distance, not charging them and fighting at close quarters. Where most of the other men who attacked Rangiriri had rifles, Temple and his comrades had to rush the palisades wielding useless swords and clumsy, inaccurate revolvers.

The commander of the Royal Artillery Regiment, Captain Henry Mercer, was shot down as he led his men in their hopeless assault. Several other men quickly fell, and most of the rest of the regiment retreated. William Temple, though, ran into the line of Kingite fire and, with bullets drilling the air around him, knelt over Mercer's bloodied body. Mercer had expired, and Rangiriri would not fall until its defenders ran out of ammunition the next morning, but Temple's boldness won him the Victoria Cross, and saw him celebrated in the media and in politicians' speeches. After serving out the Waikato War he was able to take up a series of prestigious medical posts in Britain and India, before retiring to a country home in Kent. William Temple's career as a photographer seems to have ended shortly after the invasion of the Waikato. The war probably left little time for the difficult business of image-making, and the renown Temple enjoyed after Rangiriri may have turned his attention away from the hobby.

Temple showed no discernable interest in preserving the photographs he took in New Zealand, and the works held in the Turnbull seem to have survived only because they were included in an album compiled by Charles Urquhart, a member of the 65th Regiment of the British army, which helped build the Great South Road and capture Rangiriri.

In Urquhart's album, Temple's images sit beside work by much better-known cameramen, like John Crombie, one of the pioneers of commercial photography in New Zealand. The studio Crombie set up in Shortland Street in 1855 became so successful that he was soon on good terms with Auckland's political and business elite. Crombie was popular because he gave his audience what it wanted. His contributions to the Urquhart album include pompously proper portraits of Thomas Browne, the governor of New Zealand in the late 1850s, and Sir Charles Clifford, the speaker of the warmongering Auckland parliament. When Crombie wasn't working on portraits, he shot stout colonial buildings, verdant paddocks, fine paved roads, and other symbols of the progress the British race was bringing to a barbarous land.

William Temple's photographs were little-known in the nineteenth century, and although they have found their way into some books about New Zealand history, they are usually presented as illustrations, rather than important works of art. Temple's Victoria Cross ensures him entries in various military encyclopedias, but few of the authors of these capsule biographies mention his photography.

It is not hard to see why Temple's photographs have failed to win wide renown. He was an amateur working on an unstable frontier of European society, and his images show both his lack of technical skill and his frequent failure to control his subjects. Temple often left his glass plates exposed for too long, so that his photos were born looking grey with age. Sometimes his exposures were too short, and shadows spilled over his images. The figures in the photos are often blurred, suggesting that Temple had trouble getting his subjects to stay still. The curious, frightened or hostile Maori and boozy British soldiers who populate Temple's oeuvre would have known little about photographic technology, and probably had scant interest in holding poses for minutes at a time.

But it is not only the technical flaws of Temple's photos which make for difficult viewing. Temple appears to be trying, in many of his works, to emulate the stylised treatments of New Zealand subjects which brought photographers like John Crombie success. Again and again, though, his technical shortcomings and his difficulty in controlling his environment prevent him from producing picturesque cliches, and lead instead to chaotic, disturbing works. In a photograph the Turnbull archivists have titled Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman, three soldiers - Henry Bates, a translator attached to the 65th Regiment, Charles Urquhart, and William Temple himself - are gathered inside a squat hut around a young Maori woman whose name is given, in a note in the Urquhart album, as Ann. The image bears no date, but was probably made near the border of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863.

The men in the photo have dirty, unsmiling faces. Bates' visage is slightly blurred, because he has turned his weight towards Ann during the exposure. His left hand grips a tomahawk.

The Kingite guerrilla bands which raided Pakeha settlements along the Great South Road during the early months of the Waikato War often used tomahawks to execute the settlers they surprised. Auckland newspapers reported these killings in detail, and the tomahawk became an object synonymous, in many Pakeha minds, with Maori savagery.

As a translator, Bates is likely to have had contact with captured members of the Kingite raiding parties, and with Maori civilians suspected of supplying the raiders with food or shelter or intelligence. Is Bates brandishing a captured weapon of war? Why is he brandishing the tomahawk, and why has he turned towards Ann?

Temple sits on the other side of Ann. He is well aware of the importance of staying still during the exposure of his camera's lens and plate, yet he has abandoned his original pose, turning his head and upper body sideways and staring at the girl. Inevitably, his head is slightly blurred. We have the feeling that he cannot control his interest in Ann.

Charles Urquhart sprawls behind Bates, Ann, and Temple, in the shady interior of the hut, on what might be a crude bench. Unlike his friends, he stares directly at the camera. His eyes are unusually wide.

Together, Bates, Urquhart and Temple almost encircle Ann. Her lips are pressed tight together, her eyes stare straight ahead, and she has folded her arms defensively across her chest. Is she a captured supporter of the Waikato Kingdom, or a member of one of the iwi and hapu which allied themselves to British forces in 1863? Has she been asked or ordered to pose with Temple and his comrades?

During the New Zealand Wars Pakeha newspapers valued photographs of 'loyal' Maori fraternising with colonial and British troops. Temple may have intended his photograph as a contribution to this genre. Certainly, there are features of his image which suggest careful preparation.

By the second half of the nineteenth century many Maori had ceased to wear korowai, preferring European-style garments, but painters and photographers liked the romantic connotations of the old cloaks, and often asked their Maori subjects to don them when they posed. Artists like Goldie and Lindauer kept cloaks in their studios, so that their models could be adorned 'authentically'. Temple may well have asked Ann to pose with a korowai that he or one of his comrades had acquired.

The presence of Henry Bates in the photograph also suggests planning by Temple. Bates' fluency in Maori would likely have made him, for Temple and other monolingual Pakeha at least, a symbol of the links between the old and new peoples of New Zealand.

If it is intended as a piece of propaganda, though, Temple's photo surely fails. Bates' tomahawk, Temple's avaricious gaze, and Ann's apparent unhappiness combine to create a sinister atmosphere.

It is possible to link the eerie feeling of Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman to the behaviour of British and colonial troops in the early 1860s.

The troops who built the Great South Road and invaded the Waikato were notorious, even amongst their Pakeha brethren, for their drunkeness and their love of looting and arson. During the conquest of the Waikato Pakeha soldiers looted and burned not only Maori kainga but European settlements like Raglan. They were so destructive that, after the end of the war, the government which had sent them into battle found it necessary to form a commission to award compensation to the Pakeha and 'loyal' Maori whose homes, stores, and farms they had ravaged.

Soldiers were regularly flogged for desertion, theft and drunkeness, and sometimes appeared in civilian courts accused of more serious offences. In January 1864, for instance, a member of the First Waikato Regiment named Michael McGuire was charged with raping a fourteen year-old Pakeha girl in one of the settlements along the Great South Road. Later that month the Otago Daily Times, which had a regionalist suspicion of the war the Auckland-based government was prosecuting in the Waikato, made an attack on the 'want of discipline' inside General Cameron's forces, accusing them of intimidating and robbing the people they were supposed to be protecting. There were stories of 'enemy' women being abducted and assaulted by British and colonial troops during the Waikato campaign, but these were rarely published in the media or investigated by police. For most Pakeha it was brown barbarians, not white soldiers, who ravished the women they captured during their campaigns. Indeed, there was a widespread fascination with the alleged sexual exploits of Maori warriors amongst nineteenth and early twentieth century Pakeha. Artists sometimes turned to the subject, knowing that it would titillate their audiences. In a famous painting called Spoils of War, for instance, Louis Steele showed a frightened, bare-breasted woman tied to the palisades of a pa which had just been stormed by enemies of her tribe.

If Steele's painting excited Pakeha audiences, Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman would surely have disturbed them. The barbarism it reflected could not be attributed to another people. In a photo taken at one of the clearings European settlers made in the forest that surrounded the Great South Road, Temple shows us a woman and two men standing near a hut which appears to be made from punga logs. The hut opens on to the dirt of the Great South Road, which is its inhabitants' only connection to the markets, taverns, and churches of Auckland. Behind the hut rimu, taraire, and puriri rise, overwhelming the sky.

Temple's photo superficially resembles a standard depiction of Pakeha settlement on the New Zealand frontier. Numerous nineteenth century photos and paintings show pioneers posing with a home they have built on a piece of land cleared from virgin forest. In these images, the pioneers become, through the example of their hard work and skills, evangelists for British civilisation. Their little settlements are seeds planted in an alien, inferior land, seeds that will eventually grow into the productive farms and well-ordered towns of a thriving colony. Even those artists who were critical of the impact of European civilisation on New Zealand tended to present it as an unstoppable force. In melancholic paintings like Logging in the Coromandel, for instance, Alfred Sharpe shows settlers carefully and tidily establishing themselves amidst the forests they will inevitably destroy.

Although Temple shows us a homestead of sorts won from the bush, there is little evidence of ineluctable progress in his photo. His pioneers have not built a sturdy colonial cottage, but a dwelling that resembles the whare Maori often threw up at seasonal hunting and fishing grounds. This structure suggests transience, not permanence.

The two males in the photograph stand together, some distance from the woman and her washing line. Historians like Miles Fairburn have reminded us that nineteenth century New Zealand was both an intensely masculine and a very lonely society. Many males spent their adult lives roaming from settlement to settlement, working as casual labourers. These transients shared a culture of drinking, fighting, and gambling, and scorned martial and filial ties. Even when they married and settled down, men were often hostile or indifferent to their women. In The Ideal Society and its Enemies Fairburn spends some time quoting the melancholy letters of housewives stranded on nineteenth century New Zealand farms.

In Temple's photo shows the men standing close to the hut, while the woman is a blur beside her washing line. Has she secluded herself at the line, hanging up clothes she has soaped and scrubbed clean with a quiet fury while her husband and his friend drink and play poker in that barbarous hut? Has she refused to stay still for Temple's photograph because she is ashamed of her fate, and does not want her face recorded by his camera?

The poverty of the settlers in Temple's photo should not be surprising. Even after the conquest of the Waikato and the confiscation of millions of acres of Maori land, settlers found it hard to make a living from the soils of Te Ika a Maui. Many of the men who invaded the Waikato were rewarded with small blocks of land, but their attempts at beef farming, cropping, and market gardening were often defeated by distant markets and a lack of infrastructure. Some of the soldier-settlers walked off their plots; others became embittered peasants. Only after the advent of refrigerated shipping and a series of major drainage schemes did the Waikato begin to prosper at the end of the nineteenth century.

A cannier propagandist than Temple would have photographed the three settlers standing together in the little clearing on the Great South Road, perhaps in front of their clothesline rather than their hut, and prevented the woman from going about her work while the camera lens and plate were exposed. If Temple were a better propagandist, though, he would not have given us such an insight into the lives of frontier Pakeha in the 1860s.

William Temple is both the worst and best of New Zealand's early photographers. He lacked the technical skills and control of subjects that made photographers like John Crombie successful, but his was a lucky failure. Because he was unable to stage his shots, mix his chemicals, and time his exposures properly, Temple unwittingly let reality infiltrate his photographs. In the minutes when Temple's camera lens was uncapped fixed poses and expressions dissolved, as subjects and scenes turned from cliches into fragments of history.

Because they lack the sentimentalising formality of many nineteenth century New Zealand photographs, Temple's images can seem disconcertingly contemporary. His portrait of Ann and her sinister admirers might have come from occupied Iraq or Afghanistan. Even Temple's technical shortcomings seem strangely contemporary: his uneven, disorienting distribution of light and blurred figures remind us of photographers like Michael Ackerman and Julian Schnabel, who try to undermine the propagandistic use of images by defamiliarising and even disfiguring their subjects.

Temple's photographs have been ignored for too long. Whether we like them or not, they are part of our history. We should hang copies of them in the halls of our homes, alongside old family photos.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

6 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Brilliant Scott! I have only just got to this.

Great history and insight!

In photography (and other areas) there is a trade off between being too "smooth" (proficient or technically good).

The large plate cameras had one advantage of good definition allowing potentially bigger enlargements. And even with SLR cameras it was advisable to use a tripod. I sued to use a portable light meter and a Pentax with a number of lenses. I many ways that was more convenient than my present digital camera. And my grandfather in England used those old plate cameras (two of them) to develop stereoscopic photography in WWI for the RAF. But the only most of his are of people I have no idea who they are...If people kept still the photographs could be very beautiful but often quite still, or stiff and solemn, as you say...

But this a very interesting angle on the NZ wars via photography. So much for the glorious NZ (British) Army.

And the barbarity (and other qualities and foibles of) the invaders or settlers. Soldiers not much better than brutal mercenaries sent by warmongers and greedy colonizers and land grabbers. Later to go to fight for Imperialism and in that most barbarous of wars The Vietnam War. And later in Afghanistan, an equally barbarous and stupid invasion. Not surprising considering the cruel nature of the invaders into Maori lands.

12:16 am  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

"...The large plate cameras had one advantage of good definition allowing potentially bigger enlargements..."

as in this famous image from 1848 in the USA...

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/07/ff_daguerrotype_panorama/all/1

11:55 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Sanctuary - Incredible!! And an amazing look back into history. If you go to Jack Ross's BLog one of his posts he found some old photographs. (But via a cheap old camera not a large plate camera) They are indistinguishable (almost) almost but there is an eerie quality. The Philosopher Barthes talks about the nature and sometimes the history of photography in his Camera Lucida.

The modern "equivalent" of those old cameras was the Hasselblad. (I am not sure of the spelling.)

Art and science (in fact all disciplines potentially) combine in many cases and photography is another example.

3:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

many contemporary artists use the wet plate process despite its awkwardness

9:21 am  
Anonymous katiebeyerphotography@gmail.com said...

I could say that those little bottles, box and some pictures are very antique. I always get fascinated reading history and seeing antique things and pictures.

12:54 am  
Anonymous Jenny said...

I could say that those little bottles, box and some pictures are very antique. I always get fascinated reading history and seeing antique things and pictures.

12:55 am  

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