Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Darkening the past

Paul Janman 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. 

The other 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.
In one 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.
The 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. 
Some 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 distant land.
The military 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 targets. 
As Te 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.
 
In April 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’. 
The 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 fortnight hence.
The Star’s image and caption work together to present Paitini as a man who is both impressive and pitiable, hardy and obsolete.
By showing 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 occurred. 
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.
Posterization 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.
*These aren’t the exact words of the museum’s caption. I haven’t visited the National Military Museum for several years. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

16 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Very witty and interesting. I have the "posterizing" facility and used it in one image on EYELIGHT I think: in fact I used a programme called PAINT which has a lot of facilities including posterizing and "invert colours" and much more (it is free and those how developed it do a lot of experimenting).

I suspect a bit of "devilry" at work here, or shall we say, poetic license...

I played with images when I did a satirical thing about a theoretical visitation to Mongolia from outer space (on EYELIGHT)...

But Te Kooti has captured peoples' imaginations. He is like Napoleon. You might not "like" him but he cant but be admired as a great general (the youngest ever at age 24 by that time).

Usually with a photograph you can adjust contrast and light as well as colour.

10:22 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

"Devilry and poetic license" is right Richard. I remember our conversation on this subject quite differently Scott! But then, such is the mystique of history as you rightly put it.

The Papers Past images haven't actually been posterized with any software of course. The same 'effect' as you find in photoshop etc can be achieved by just repetitively photocopying an old photo until it becomes pure contrast. I actually like this 'analogue' technique much better than the digital effect, which usually produces very obvious and uninteresting results.

The other thing is... that once the original image is lost there is not way to recover the information by any yet known software. It will be posterized and obscured forever.

The problem I'm encountering right now as I edit our film is generating a dialectic between the obscure 'old type' but present day footage we have and the hyper-real high definition stuff we also have. I'm determined that something interesting will come of this discourse between our competing mental ideas of the 'way the past should look'.

Then again, we might still decide to surrender to endless, beautiful metaphors. Why not eh?

11:23 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I didn't see that Mongolia-Outer Space Richard: do you have a link? I was a big fan of the Mongolia poems you sued to do...

11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

u r all stupid cunts.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

What I love about this site (and others like it I have no doubt) is indeed to use the term 'dialectic', is that fascinating interchange and interplay of complex and subtle ideas shades, colours, and 'textures': created when people, educated, ill-educated, intelligent or less lucky: come together in this fraught plain at and indeed when this significant and perhaps perilous turn or fatal twist of Time sneers down upon us strange beings turned "human" (some would claim with souls, others would simply describe as the resultant of perhaps 200,000 years of change): that we can thus have and savour to our delight or other, the deep insights as are found for example in this post, and indeed in such wonderfully poetic side swipes as:

"u r all stupid cunts."

Surely a wonderfully succint, perhaps Hemmingwayesque "mutter" to the Universe itself. Such almost better-than-the-Chinese as Huxley said of Sappho's famous "midnight and the Pleaides" poem he translated from the Greek in 'Texts and Pretexts' is rarely seen in these days of savagary, pornography, and general cynicism: perhaps a greater, more wonderful poetic example, could only be found (outside of Basho, Tu Fu, Pong Si, or any of the Chinese, Pound or such as Pope), is that (similarly) anonymous masterpiece (of which I MUST tell you):

Here I sit broken hearted.
I paid my penny
But only ....

But here it (the Text) mysteriously and infuriatingly, even disturbingly, breaks off...we are puzzled. What is this thing "a penny" - some reference to Beethoven, and his rage over? Or is it something even more profound. Why is the writer "broken"? What for or to whom did he pay? Is he or she now totally centless, if not senseless, and indeed bereft? These and many ghosting questions arise as if we were interrogating The Sybil Herself...

Here we must think of 'The Eternal Fragment', that wonderful thing whose archival and archetypical power lies indeed, if time can lie, in its sense of not-quite being or of not having ever been, and yet not being indeed a has been. And, indeed, a bean has Being in the Heideggerian or at least in the Phenomenological sense (let us not diminish the ontology of the humble bean)...

There is sense in common felt in reading the "bark" or grunt of the savage - yet surely wonderfully astute and indeed profound: there is a sad sense of a Being struggling with his or her tormented reality, and the desire to share this sentient insight, this beauty generated from ugliness, boredom, horror and the strange ecstasy of those who see so far they are driven by the frustrations they attempt to utilise or bend into 'communicating' that freedom of sight, to those around them. But there is sense too of the near-futility of those who for hundreds of years have availed themselves of the august and ornate facilities of the Auckland Bus Station or similar Public Facilities. The existent Expressionist scream: the famous Nordic 'Scream', so loved it is so often stolen and molested like a lost Woman, or like Women Itself: Elizabeth Bishop's scream that envelops and overwhelms her famous Village. And yet it is indeed something more and less than any of this....

5:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott - re the Mongolia thing I'll find the relevant link or refer to it somehow. I usually comment on my own post and when it comes to me by email I use that link...I suppose there is an easier way.

I was looking through my poems and it is interesting how there are poems I sometimes think are "great" than even an hour or so later or at another time I think they are a load of cobblers!

I suppose with art of any kind it is rare to 'hit it' so to speak.

I worked and worked on one poem but then I realised I ahd added too much to the original that took me about 3 minutes to write. The original though was not what I wanted, I wanted to try to do a "conventional" poem where I was forced to work etc a la Yeats (sometimes one line or paragraph a week he revised so much), or A Curnow etc rather than the Keatsian or Mozartzian rapidity, although I think the greatest works (usually) are worked on for some time.

It is amazing that such as Smithyman wrote so quickly or so much and maintained a high level.
Our own Hamish Dewe has smaller, more concise works, Ted Jenner works relatively slowly: everyone has a different approach. Jack moves in mysterious ways... Morrissey, is at least a "professional" (in a sense) and he and those who become full time writers are to be admired but it is hard going.

In that Mongolia post I played around with images I had taken, and invented names for things (as if I was using Mongolian) and so on... I was just tu-tuing around, it kind of "happened", quite unplanned, just a bit of fun.

6:04 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Here is the link. I could send one to FB also.

http://richardinfinitex.blogspot.co.nz/2010/02/room-znnc.html

9:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fuk u taylor

11:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got a very small comment to make on a very substantial and fascinating post. Papers Post is a magnificent resource for historical research but it's absolutely not comprehensive. The best estimate I've seen is that about one-third of eligible (ie not copyright-restricted) newspapers are currently digitised on the site. In some regions it's more like one-tenth. Take Canterbury - neither the 'Star" nor the "Times" are up there beyond 1920. And of course there's nothing anywhere more recent than 1940, so if you're researching WW2 or postwar NZ, it's back to the microfilm and the bound volumes of hard copies for you. By all means rummage in this superb map as Maps is doing, but don't make the mistake of thinking you're searching everything available for a specific period or region.

9:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott Hamilton is a person who has no integrity. I know him personally and he makes promises to people he does not keep.

He has a low character, is a jealous person, who is petty, and a game player.

This is also reflected in is blog which is poorly researched, and has allowed his personal feelings to compromise any objectivity on the subjects he writes about.

Basically, the guy is a liar.

8:38 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

'This is also reflected in is blog which is poorly researched'

So poorly researched that chunks of it were published by one of the world's leading academic presses, in a book that has been praised by reviewers in two of the world's leading journals of history and sociology.

I think you're a bit of silly sausage, anon. But if you want to prove me wrong you could always try and make an argument about something I've said.

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CUNTS

1:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Someone who accuses another person of not having integrity without saying how THEY are is in fact, without integrity.

9:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I meant of course "without saying who they are" ....

I've known Scott for some time and he has integrity and many other qualities - as well as some faults - but who doesn't have them?

Humanum est errare.

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Luddism retooled said...

It is naive to think posterization is an inherently meek technology.

Stallin used it
http://www.livingprinciples.org/utopian-image-%E2%80%93-politics-and-posters/

9:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lord is a warrior and in Revelation 19 is says when he comes back, he’s coming back as what? A warrior. A might warrior leading a mighty army, riding a white horse with a blood-stained white robe … I believe that blood on that robe is the blood of his enemies ’cause he’s coming back as a warrior carrying a sword.

And I believe now – I’ve checked this out – I believe that sword he’ll be carrying when he comes back is an AR-15.

Now I want you to think about this: where did the Second Amendment come from? … From the Founding Fathers, it’s in the Constitution. Well, yeah, I know that. But where did the whole concept come from? It came from Jesus when he said to his disciples ‘now, if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’

I know, everybody says that was a metaphor. IT WAS NOT A METAPHOR! He was saying in building my kingdom, you’re going to have to fight at times. You won’t build my kingdom with a sword, but you’re going to have to defend yourself. And that was the beginning of the Second Amendment, that’s where the whole thing came from. I can’t prove that historically and David [Barton] will counsel me when this is over, but I know that’s where it came from.

And the sword today is an AR-15, so if you don’t have one, go get one. You’re supposed to have one. It’s biblical.

1:50 am  

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