Changes in the way objects are imaged can be related to social and cultural shifts. Photographing craft is not neutral, the image can often tell us as much about the trends of the time as the object itself.
From the clean modern depictions of craft in the 1950s-1960s, to the highly aestheticised 'stand alone' object of the 1980s-1990s. In the 2010s, craft is shown as an integral part of a woke lifestyle, deeply rooted in our everyday lives.
By Finn McCahon-Jones
Early Photography in New Zealand
The development of photography parallels the development of New Zealand. The first photos were taken in New Zealand in 1853, and have recorded our country ever since. Around 1850 in England and France, photography became readily available, becoming the newest form of art. Up to the 1850s, the main way to produce an image for a catalogue was by painting, drawing and engraving – photography took the labour out of image making, and provided a truer representation of objects and scenes.
During the 1950s, modernism established itself in New Zealand, bringing a clean, refined style that was reminiscent of what you might see in an art gallery. Crafts such as furniture, textiles and pottery were embraced by architects and interior designers as a way to introduce bold shapes and lines into the interior. The function of craft in these spaces was to be formal beyond being purely functional. Craft photography followed suit. The Victorian fashion to show the context of the room and environment vanished, and objects were instead ‘clear cut’ and presented as floating images on a page, or on stark backgrounds.
Textures of Nature
During the late 1950s-1960s a new generation of craft artists emerged who were interested in a New Zealand craft vernacular. They started making objects that used and reflected the materials and identity of Aotearoa New Zealand. Potters took to the hills and dug their own clay, and textile artists scoured the land for plant fibres, wool and natural dyes. The photography of craft at this time began to move away from modernism's clean aesthetics and started to incorporate the wider landscape.
Peter Cape published Artist & Craftsmen: In New Zealand (1969) with photographs by Steve Rumsey. The cover of the book has pottery, bronze sculpture and a woven blanket carefully nestled in the bush, surrounded by leaf-litter and fern fronds. Here the craft-objects are placed against the landscape to reinforce the connection between the materials and the place they come from. The photography in this book cleverly captures candid images of the potters toiling away in their studios – depicting both the lifestyle and production of the pots. These studio images are carefully juxtaposed with romanticised images of the finished articles nestled in glades, or installed in the landscape.
This dualism of showing the artist in gritty action, juxtaposed with a romanticised image of the artist's commodity to be imagined in the viewer’s own environment, is a documentary theme that carries on into the 1980s. This is a reflection of the need to successfully advertise in the newly opened market.
In the catalogue essay for Bone Stone Shell: New Jewellery New Zealand (1988) John Edgar writes about the jewellery in this exhibition being the product of ‘a growing awareness of our place in the South Pacific …’ and that the jewellery is ‘designed for and worn by New Zealanders.’ There is a shift away from showing the landscape as a source of materials to seeing the landscape as a delicate and finite treasure.
Bone Stone Shell has images by two photographers; John Daley and Michael Chitterton. Daley took the images of the artists. Each of the 12 artists are depicted in their environment – urban, suburban or in the wild. In this publication there is a distinct feeling that the landscape is not being commodified, but that the artist is aware of their place in the environment. In stark contrast are Chitterton’s images of the jewellery. Hamish Campbell’s necklace is photographed around the torso of a white plastic mannequin which is lying on top of a shell bank. It feels like an intentional divorcing of the material from the environment and reinforcement that these are commodities. The rustic lifestyle of the 1970s is no longer being sold, and instead the slick urban consumer lifestyle of the 1980s-1990s.
During the late 1980s-1990s craft photography takes on the aesthetic of auction catalogues, where objects are photographed against neutral backgrounds, with only their shadows. Here the object is being shown as an individual art piece devoid of time and space - the focus is on the object, not the production or the maker.
During the 1980s New Zealand had moved from a provincial market to an international one after the government lifted import restrictions, every industry in New Zealand had to compete against every other market, using whatever means they could.
This is reflected in Cecilia Parkinson & John Parker’s book Profiles: 24 New Zealand Potters (1988) which adopts this international style, quickly moving away from any reference to the landscape, instead, adopting the look of an art catalogue. The images in this book, although by different photographers, all have a similar aesthetic – bright, warm and lustrous. These pots are photographed under electric lighting and look like any artwork photographed for a catalogue. There is nothing New Zealand about the images or materials. The publication is actively positioning itself, and New Zealand craft, into the international market.
In 2019 Instagram is as good a place as any to see craft. At the moment New Zealand is in the midst of another craft revival which exemplifies the hand made, local materials, sustainable living and ecologically sourced goods. Documentation of craft follows this same ethos: Natural lighting is preferred and craft objects are shown in action, in the home. Arranged in jars, on desks, on the bench or piled with food on the table. Craft is depicted as being central and integral to contemporary living.
Ophelia Mikkelson exemplifies this trend by showcasing a seamless 'feed' of images on her Instagram account that blur the line between commodity and personal photographs. These objects are not solely focused on their functionality or aesthetic value, but more about the overall lifestyle they create.
Jeweller Elena Gee photographed in the natural environment for the Bone Stone Shell exhibition catalogue (1987). All Rights Reserved © John Daley, collection of Te Papa,