Through Shaded Glass

Women And Photography In Aotearoa New Zealand 1860–1960. Lissa Mitchell, Te Papa Press, $75.00

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In spotlighting our early women photographers, Lissa Mitchell writes, she’s not seeking to exalt them as individuals—“but rather to combat anonymity and generalisations, particularly in the case of working-class women”.

What she’s also done here is elevate their work. The book brims with images of chubby toddlers, pretty brides and debutantes, gardens. Frilly dresses; exuberant retouching jobs in soft pinks and blues. There is frequently a joy that comes through in these images—sometimes it’s obvious the people in them, especially the groups of women, felt more comfortable with a woman photographer.

One of my favourite images was taken in 1915, by Winifred Couper, who lived alone in the Marlborough Sounds and focused her camera on the everyday. Couper left an archive of more than 150 gelatin dry plate glass negatives and prints. The photograph that struck me shows Couper’s 12-year-old niece swamped by cosmos. It’s the sort of work that is easily dismissed. Intimate. Soft. Yet to Mitchell’s eye, and to mine, the frame “conveys a sense of magic and possibility”.

I was taken, too, by a shot in which Wellington photographer Eva Cooper has captured, in the foreground, the head and shoulders of her own shadow. Ostensibly the image is a portrait of Cooper’s son. But it’s also, at least in retrospect, a statement.

Mitchell’s text validates as well the various ways women participated in photography. Often they weren’t the ones clicking the shutter, but they ran the studio, took on work retouching portraits, mounted prints, painted backdrops.

Mitchell is a curator of historical photography at Te Papa: her own mastery is clear on each page.