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

John A. Lee

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John A. Lee

John A Lee, politician and writer, 1981, Auckland

John A Lee, politician and writer, 1981, Auckland

Permission of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira must be obtained before any re-use of this image.© Robin Morrison, 1981

Robin Morrison photographed the writer and influential Labour politician John A. Lee for the Listener in 1981. Lee had grown up in 1890s Dunedin and drew on his impoverished beginnings for his 1934 novel Children of the Poor.

After spending much of his teenage years on the run from the police for petty thieving, Lee was eventually caught and spent in a year in prison. He was released at the outbreak of the First World War and joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was injured and came home four years later without his left arm, but nevertheless a committed socialist.

Lee joined the fledgling Labour party and became an MP in 1922. When the party came to power in 1935 Lee played an important role in building state houses for the poor. However, his radical politics and outspoken criticisms of the party leadership saw him expelled from Labour in 1940.

This photograph was taken a year before he died, in 1982. Robin described how he took portraits like this one: “The only thing I do is that I sit people in a position so that the light is good and ask them to look at the camera. But I'll take a number of photographs, so they can relax into them. And what comes through is as near as possible to the way they are, with no disturbing influence in their faces of anxiety, or nervousness over being photographed.”

Further reading

Read bographies on John A. Lee at NZ History online and Te Ara encyclopaedia.