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Robin Morrison’s work through contemporary eyes

Robin Morrison’s work through contemporary eyes

by Bethany Edmunds and Olivia Willock - Monday, 14 April 2014

As part of our exhibition A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes, we collaborated with Manukau Institute of Technology, Fresh Gallery Otara, the public and invited experts to explore people, places and themes represented by photographs within the exhibition.

Robin Morrison (1944-1993) was one of New Zealand’s most celebrated photojournalists. His striking, unpretentious images allowed us to see ourselves, and our way of life, as if for the first time. They are revealing and unexpected, and still provoke us today. We were curious to find out more about some of the photographs we selected for the exhibition; to gather local stories of the people, places and social history that Morrison captured for the New Zealand Listener all those years ago.

Morrison, Robin (1981). Otara Markets.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-TR650-M881-NP2.

Opening worlds – taking the exhibition beyond our walls

In collaboration with Fresh Gallery Otara and Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), we took elements of the exhibition to other venues in Auckland. We installed image reproductions in Otara Town Centre and at MIT; including a few of the photos Morrison took of the early Otara markets, local community spaces and local people.

Reproductions of Robin Morrison’s images were installed at MIT asking the question ‘Do these spark a memory?'

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

To share some of these wider contextual stories with the communities they came from, on the 12th March 2014 Fresh Gallery hosted the first of two evenings. Our speakers, Janneen Love (Auckland Museum), Ron Brownson (Auckland Art Gallery) and Vinesh Kumaran (contemporary portrait photographer), conducted an interactive session.

What’s love got to do with it?

Janneen was the exhibition developer for A Decade of Days and our first speaker. She gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition with her unique insight into Morrison’s work. She titled her presentation “What’s love got to do with it?” and in six minutes (the time limit we gave her) she was able to define love (a strong feeling of affection) and how it was woven into not only Morrison’s photos, but also into the work the museum’s collections and exhibitions teams do when caring for the images and developing the exhibition.

Dame Whina Cooper, 1975, Auckland

Permission of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira must be obtained before any re-use of this image.© Robin Morrison, 1975

Love illustrated the process of culling the large number of Morrison’s black and white prints that he had compiled into a folder he titled ‘Decade of Days.’ In this way, Morrison had already begun to curate the exhibition. Through further discussion the team was able to identify strong thematic narratives that were evident in his collection, which then informed the final exhibition design. She offered a discerning and compassionate representation of Robin Morrison, and reiterated the importance of sharing these stories to wider audiences – breaking down the perceived institutional walls and reaching out into the community.

The exhibition team select images from one of Robin Morrison’s image folders which he labelled ‘Decade of Days.’

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Morrison non-intrusively captured intimate moments

Ron Brownson – Senior curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki – opened his presentation by listing the extensive number of publications that Morrison was involved with, a testament to the photographer’s prodigious creative output.

Brownson guided us through many of Morrison’s photographs, discussing his legacy as “one of the key photojournalists of our time” who had the ability to “make connections with his subjects.” He evidenced a series of Morrison’s images from Takaparawha/Bastion Point, where “Robin was one of the very few people Ngati Whātua allowed to photograph at the Marae – there was no sense of him being an alien to that environment.” He also drew comparisons with current photographers’ who are able to non-intrusively record intimate moments in the manner of Morrison.

Target Māori men first, 1978, Auckland

Permission of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira must be obtained before any re-use of this image.© Robin Morrison, 1978

Documenting people and a sense of place

Contemporary portrait photographer Vinesh Kumaran gave us a fascinating insight into his own work, and how he, like Morrison, seeks to establish connections with his subjects. He spoke about his work and how photography can open worlds for its audience, as illustrated by his series of Auckland dairy owners—a theme which Morrison also explored in his images of Ponsonby shop owners. Both Kumaran and Morrison seek to convey the hard work and dedication of these business owners, hence Kumaran’s series title Open all Hours. As he said of one of his subjects: “he wants us to see his pride, that this is his shop”.

Khandy K. Patel, part of a series from 'Open all hours'.

© Kumaran, Vinesh (2012).

Morrison, Robin. Washing Machine Man.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Kumaran showed us his work in South Auckland, particularly his portraits at Polyfest and of people inside their homes, in which he seeks to “put a positive spin on South Auckland”. This is another connection he has with Morrison, who was one of the first photographers to explore and document the people of South Auckland. Morrison’s photos of the early days of Polyfest provide us with a wonderful juxtaposition to Kumaran’s contemporary images, and together show the evolution of the festival and document the experience and community that has been built around this major Auckland cultural event.

Early days of Polyfest

© Morrison, Robin. Early days of Polyfest. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Agene Filoa, Polyfest hair project.

© Kumaran, Vinesh (2012).

Challenges in the digital realm

The evening ended with a Q&A that raised a number of topical points such as the correct identification of people featured in photos, and the ownership of an image in our digital world. Many of the people captured in Robin Morrison’s photos have not been identified. Is it the responsibility of the photographer or the institution displaying the work to ensure the subject is correctly identified? And if we don’t have correct identification, then should the images be left out of public view? Or do we share them with wider audiences in the hope of unlocking some of the background stories?

Ainslie Dewe, an advisor in our digital team, notes that “social media and the web provide the opportunity for co-creation of knowledge, not just from traditional experts but also drawing on the knowledge of the public in ways that have not previously been possible. The images may have already been publicly available but were hard to find. The web makes them more visible and social media provides the ability for anyone to contribute new knowledge about them.”

You are welcome to share your thoughts on this topic using the #amdiscuss hashtag.

About the writers

Bethany Edmunds is Youth Outreach Programmer and Olivia Willock is Social History Programmer, in the Learning and Engagement team at Auckland Museum.

From left Janneen Love, Vinesh Kumaran, Ron Brownson and Olivia Willock.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The Robin Morrison collection at Auckland Museum

In 1993 Robin Morrison bequeathed his entire collection to the Auckland Museum. Our current estimates on the collection size is it contains 50,000 colour, and 50,000 black and white images. It is one of the largest photography collections we have by a single photographer.

The exhibition A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes features a selection of Morrison’s black and white photographs of his city, Auckland, from 1971 to 1985.

Online reading

A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes

Our exhibition featured a selection of Robin’s black and white photographs of his city, Auckland, from 1971 to 1985. Most were found in a folder labelled ‘Decade of Days’ amid the vast collection of images given to the museum before he died.

Robin Morrison

A brief biography of Robin Morrison and a selection of his images.

Robin Morrison online collections Auckland Museum

Browse Auckland Museum’s online catalogue for publications and images relating to Robin Morrison.

Robin Morrison biography on Art New Zealand

Read Rhondda Bosworth’s essay on Robin Morrison life and work.

Sense of Place: Robin Morrison, Photographer

Watch this full length Robin Morrison documentary on New Zealand On Screen.

Vinesh Kumaran

Visit the photographer’s website.

  • Post by: Bethany Edmunds

    Bethany Edmunds is Auckland Museums Youth Outreach Programmer. Outside of work she is an artist, weaver and MC and has a history in museum collections and material culture research. She is passionate about creating opportunities for young people to see the potential of taonga to activate personal responses, using creative tools and Mātauranga Māori, and connecting out to their communities.

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