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Photographs tell their own stories about time and place


Like many people who work in museum collections, and in particular Collection Management like myself, over time you develop an affinity for specific areas of the collection. While I love the diversity and depth of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection, I’d have to say one of the collections I’m drawn to most is the photographic collection.

This collection is made up of around 30,000 images with over 13,000 of these images available to view on our online catalogue. What I love about this collection, is that it contains an almost complete representation of the Hawke’s Bay region since the beginning of European settlement. It’s hard to imagine how much the region has changed, but you don’t have to imagine when you view these photographs. The collection also includes a variety of historic photographic processing methods from daguerreotypes to glass plate negatives to albumen prints and born digital files. Each processing method is unique in its own right, and each represents a moment in human innovation, instilled with our desire to continually improve the quality of our photographs.

The print pictured for example is made from a glass plate negative taken by the photographer and explorer Russell Duncan. If you look very closely, you’ll see in the background a dry-plate camera on a tripod. The advent of dry-plate glass negatives in 1871 resulted in an increased interest in photography enabling both amateur and professional photographers alike to create superior quality photographs compared to other processes that proceeded this technology. The fine detail and beautiful quality of glass-plate negatives is part of the reason expensive cameras such as the one in this photograph remained popular, even after the introduction of photographic film rolls and cameras by George Eastman (Eastman Kodak) in the late 19th century.

I should be clear that while I love the photographic collection, looking after it is not without its challenges. Generally speaking, photographic collections present some of the most fragile and complicated objects to care for. The life expectancy of each image is determined by considering several different factors including: the type of photographic process used, how well the photographs were originally processed and how well the photographs were cared for prior to coming into the collection.

You could say that photographic collections are fussy – like Goldilocks with her porridge. They do not like the environment too hot, too moist or too dry. They dislike light. They do not like to be touched. They are sensitive to external contamination from acidic products, adhesives, metal fasteners and exhaust fumes. They are subject to internal chemical contamination due to poor processing or inherently unstable materials like early cellulose plastics. Born digital photographic collections also present their own new challenges when it comes to preservation such as accidental image loss, corrupted files and obsolete technology.

Given all these considerations, some might argue that photographic material is a collection management nightmare. It is challenging, but it is also interesting, and requires a lot of problem solving. It involves a lot of nuanced understanding about the history of photographic process and how each photographic process may require its own unique storage and preventative conservation measures. Each photograph tells us something about a time, a place, a person, a material, a technology, and what it needs to be safeguarded long term.

So what’s in a photograph? The short answer is simply what the viewer chooses to see. We’ve all heard the saying “a picture says a 1000 words” but just like a book, you have to be willing to read it, in order to understand it. For me, photographic material is a complex interchange of materials, techniques and processes, combined with a historical understanding of time and place. All of this provides insights and informs the decisions I make about how to care for this fabulous collection.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 4 March 2023 and written by Nicole Wall, Collections Manager at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Four people having a picnic by the Tūtaekurī River, 1890s/19th Century. Russell Duncan (b.1855, d.1946) Russell Duncan Collection.
Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 5395 [92997]

6 March 2023

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