has spent a bit of time lately trying to explain the process called
posterization to me. I don’t quite know what the words ‘conversion of a
continuous gradation of tone to several regions of fewer tones’ mean, but I can
now recite them by heart, in the way a pious medieval peasant could recite the baffling
phrases of Latin he heard on Sundays. And I can
observe the results of the posterization of thousands of images, as I trawl the massive online archive of New Zealand periodicals called Papers Past
Paul and I have been using Papers Past as we research our film about the Great South Road. The website's software automatically posterizes the photographs,
sketches, maps, and cartoons of old papers like the Auckland Star, the Southern
Cross, and the Maoriland Worker.
Shades of grey are eliminated, and regions of undifferentiated black and white come to dominate the images. Faces that had looked out of pools of ambiguous shadow are
blanked or blacked; soft rolling hills become harshly contoured; lakes that had
been several shades of grey look like oil has been poured over them.
day Paul explained to me, in the impatient but not unsympathetic tone
teachers use with recalcitrant children, that posterization was a trick
photographers and designers used to know, but that it is considered
anachronistic in the era of the high-quality, infinitely manipulable digital
image. Papers Past would, Paul
predicted, soon acquire new software that would enable it to dispense with
posterization and restore newspaper images to their original, nuanced glory.
I was not entirely
happy at Paul’s prediction, because I have begun to find something compelling
about the dark, distorted images that Papers Past currently offers its users.
Posterization might seem, on the surface, like an enemy of historical research,
because of the way that it destroys, or at least obscures, information about
the past. It can give exultant or miserable faces the same unreadable darkness,
and conflate a forest with a field of wheat. A posterised photograph is an
artefact that resists explication and classification.
But the obscurity posterization produces runs interestingly counter to our society's acquisitive and over-confident attitude towards the past. All too often we tend to see history as a commodity: as an old villa we can purchase or
renovate, or a vase we can display on a mantelpiece, or as the plot for an
entertaining film or television series. Simon Schama has complained about the
way that films ostensibly based upon historical events – even well-intentioned films, like Spielberg’s Amistad – forget about the strangeness and
otherness of the past, and make men and women who lived decades or centuries
ago, and held beliefs very different from our own, into vessels for contemporary preoccupations and prejudices.
As Schama might have pointed out, the study of
history depends on a paradox: in order to understand the past, we must accept
that some of the past is beyond our understanding.
I have been trying
for some time to drag Paul and his cameras down to the National Military Museum,
which sits amidst tussock and snow at Waiouru. The museum boasts the thick stone
walls of a fort, and is ringed by well-preserved field guns. Inside, though, it
has a surprisingly open structure, and in one rambling ground floor room scores
of dummy soldiers wearing the uniforms of different countries and wielding the
weapons of different wars are allowed to mingle. A Boer guerrilla with a carbine rifle shadows a defenceless dummy dressed in the dune-coloured outfit favoured
by Rommel’s Afrikacorps, while a veteran of the Vietnam War flashes a machete. Walking through this strange room, I felt like I had been shrunk in
size and dropped inside the box of toy soldiers I treasured as a child.
corner of the room an empty picture frame stands. The caption under the frame
explains that ‘Historians cannot agree whether an authentic portrait of the
Maori prophet and guerrilla fighter Te Kooti exists. Therefore we have chosen
to represent him in this way’*
Te Kooti was
a contradictory figure: a loyal native subject of the Crown who became a
violent rebel; a student of missionaries who founded his own, proudly autochthonous
Maori religion; a military genius who could not design a serviceable
pa; an arsonist who inspired and in some cases oversaw the construction of some
of the most beautiful buildings in the country, a drunkard who preached
sobriety. It is perhaps not surprising that the reports held in the Papers Past archive cannot agree on what
such a complex, protean man looked like. Some describe him as a large man;
other insist he is slight. Some give him a flowing white beard; some claim his beard is brown and well-trimmed; others describe the tattoos on his bare cheeks.
competing images of Te Kooti could be linked to competing perspectives on his
life and works. A photograph that shows us a man with wide, slightly demented
eyes looks good alongside sensationalist accounts of the prophet’s violent
deeds. Cartoons that show the prophet affected by alcohol reflect a popular
nineteenth century explanation for his rebelliousness.
scholars have found Te Kooti in a photograph of a group of ‘hauhau’ awaiting
deportation to the Chatham Islands in the aftermath of the Ngati Porou civil
war of the mid-‘60s. The prisoners huddle at the bottom of a cliff, clinging to
blankets. If we acknowledge Te Kooti in this photograph, then we must recognise
him as a victim of the Crown: as a young man who fought against rebellious
Ngati Porou, yet was accused of treachery and deported without trial to a
is an institution that values values efficiency and disapproves of imagination,
and the Waiouru museum’s ‘solution’ to the problem of representing Te Kooti
seems to me both efficient and depressingly unimaginative. It could be
argued that the Waiouru curators have a healthier attitude to history that the
film makers Simon Schama criticises, and other commodifiers and appropriators
of the past. They appreciate the complexity and otherness of Te Kooti. But by
refusing to engage with this complexity – by refusing to make and justify a
choice between the competing pictorial and historiographic versions of Te Kooti
– they frustrate efforts at historical understanding just as surely as Schama’s
Kooti’s legend burgeoned after his death in 1893, the people who had been close
to him – his wives, his soldiers, his secretaries – were sought out,
interrogated, and photographed by Pakeha journalists and historians. These aged
men and women were, in an almost religious sense, relics; they had felt the gaze and touch of a man
who had done extraordinary, unrepeatable things.
There is an element of derision, as well as awe, in many of the Pakeha accounts of
meetings with old associates of Te Kooti. Pakeha were troubled as well as
fascinated by the wars of the 1860s and ‘70s, when Maori had briefly seemed
capable of throwing the invaders of their islands back into the sea. The fin de siècle
and early twentieth century journalists and scholars who travelled to remote
parts of the country in search of Te Kooti’s soldiers and lovers wanted to
experience, however, voyeuristically, some of the violent drama of the ‘60s and
‘70s, but they also wanted to reassure themselves and their readers that the
threat to Pakeha power had passed. By mocking the old men and women who had known the legendary Te Kooti as relics of a distant past, Pakeha sought to reassure themselves that the era of rebellion the prophet represented would not return.
In 1927 an
unnamed photographer travelled to Ruatahuna, one of the islands of cultivation
in the ocean of the Urewera forest, and encountered the Tuhoe elder Paitini Wi Tapeka. Sixty-three years earlier Paitini had been one of hundreds of Tuhoe who
marched west to the Waikato Kingdom after hearing about the invasion of that
state by the Auckland-based colonial government. Paitini was one of the last
men to leave Orakau pa, where King Tawhiao’s supporters fought until the last
bullet and beyond, firing peach and plum stones from their muskets at the
encircling British army. After that final battle of the Waikato War Paitini
returned to Ruatahuna. In 1868, though, he joined the army Te Kooti had
improvised in the foothills of the Ureweras.
1869 Paitini was part of the force that Te Kooti threw at the Pakeha settlers
and kupapa of Mohaka, a rivermouth village in the northern
Hawkes Bay. After tomahawking a couple of Pakeha families, Te Kooti’s men lay
siege to the twin pa of Mohaka. They captured one after making a rongo
patipati, or false promise of peace, but were frustrated at the second fort,
and retired into the bush to binge for a few days on the liquor they had looted
from Mohaka’s hotel.
In 1911 New Zealand Herald reporter named J
Drummond visited the Ruatahuna cottage of Paitini. Drummond
portrayed the old man and his wife Margaret, who was once part of Te Kooti’s harem,
as picturesque rustics, living ‘the simplest of simplest lives’ in a land
where ‘Tane was still god of the forests’. Drummond was surprised when Paitini
remembered Te Kooti as a handsome, exceptionally tall man; he had heard others
describe the prophet as ‘ugly, undersized, and ill-favoured’.
photograph that appeared in the Auckland Star in 1927 was
accompanied by a caption:
A LINK WITH TE KOOTI – This interesting
picture shows ancient Paitini, already 103, who was one of Te Kooti’s
lieutenants, and fought against the British in the ‘sixties. He is still living
at Ruatahuna, in the Urewera country, where the Auckland Automobile Association
will call on their three-day excursion into this wild and rugged country a
The Star’s image and caption work together
to present Paitini as a man who is both impressive and pitiable, hardy and
Paitini on a horse, the Star perhaps
reminded its readers of the famous white steed that Te Kooti rode when he
raided Pakeha and kupapa settlements. The ancient Paitini could still ride, but
his mode of transport was subtly mocked by its juxtaposition with news of the
forthcoming expedition into the Ureweras by the Auckland Automobile
Association. By 1927 the car had become a powerful symbol of modernity in New
Zealand. Bridle and bullock trails were turning to gravel and tar, and
motorists, organised and resourced by the evangelical volunteers of the
Automobile Association, were conquering ever more remote regions. By driving
deep into the Ureweras, an area that had been closed to most foot traffic only
decades earlier, the AAA was making a statement about the strength and
potential of its machines.
Lingering in the region where Te Kooti once hid from Pakeha, and relying on a horse to get about, Paitini is, the Star implies, a fascinating but sad anachronism.
But to think
about the elderly Paitini as a pitiful relic is to forget his otherness, and to
impose the values and worldview of Pakeha New Zealand on him. It is to forget
that the Ureweras, and not Auckland or Wellington or London, were the centre of
his mental universe, the place where great and foundational events had
Indigenising the stories of the Old Testament, Te
Kooti’s Ringatu church made the Ureweras, along with many other parts of Te
Ika a Maui, into sites of religious significance. Ringatu theology holds that,
when they stole a boat and escaped from the Chathams, landing south of Gisborne
at Whareongaonga, Te Kooti and his followers were re-enacting the corssing of
the Red Sea by the Israelites, whom they claimed as their ancestors. The years
Te Kooti and his dwindling, hungry army spent in the forests of the Ureweras were a
recapitulation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert.
has obscured many of the details of the 1927 portrait of Paitini, making the
old soldier’s face as unknowable as the landscape he is riding through. Paul
Janman will call me perverse, and point out I am responding not to human agency
but to an emotionless computer programme, but I find something moving in the
way that posterisation has defeated the voyeuristic intentions of the Star’s photographer, and restored some
of the privacy and dignity of Paitini.
The posterized image at Papers Past suggests the
distance between Paitini and us, and between the world of Ruatahuna in 1927 and
our own. Instead of being given an image we can assimilate and appropriate, we
are forced to think and imagine.
Perhaps the museum in Waiouru should
posterize the competing portraits of Te Kooti, and put them all on display.
the exact words of the museum’s caption. I haven’t visited the National Military Museum for several years.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]