John McGarrigle and the American Photographic Company

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Friday 5 February 2010
Ron Brownson

One of the most intriguing photographers to work in Auckland during the 19th century was the talented and enigmatic John McGarrigle. He promoted his business as the American Photographic Company (Do not confuse this with the photo studio of the same name that operated in Dunedin). McGarrigle created many exceptional carte de visite portraits of Maori. I have always thought that they were less formal and more natural than the engaging cartes made in the 1870s by Auckland's Pulman and Co. If we only knew more information about McGarrigle's studio!

The National Library’s Time frames states that McGarrigle’s studio flourished from the 1870s to the 1890s but this date range is not correct. The precise dates of his Auckland operation have not yet been discovered but they are certainly early in the practice of local photography. I know that he was active from the mid-1860s to March 1874, when he closed his business.

The American Photographic Company was a small operation. John McGarrigle seems to have both owned the business and taken all the portraits himself. His approach always respects his sitters and they are well lit from the skylight above. The sitters either look directly at the camera or just slightly to the side. They seem totally engaged with the portrait's event. Only a plain backdrop is used and the portraits are frequently close-ups, either straight head and shoulders or shown seated at half-length. His lens is precisely focused on the face and the sitters remain utterly still. Not easy in such a long exposure.

John McGarrigle created some of the best early photographic portraits of Maori. Some sitters wear street clothes, others are costumed for this special occasion. It seems that the photographer had no preference for either traditional Maori costume or European clothing. I never sense that he fabricated his sitter's appearances although, of course, he had the usual 'library' of costume props around his studio. Every photographer of this period kept clothes for clients to wear. Although, when McGarrigle uses such a costume 'set-up' to make portraits, it is always simple. Such a direct approach shows why this portrait of a Maori youth is a stand-out image by the American Photographic Company.

The Gallery purchased this portrait in 2003. It seemed kosher at first - a rare carte de visite made by the Burton Brothers (2003/28). Yet, I was never convinced that it fitted with the Burton's studio style, it is too simplified, too essentialised in its detail.

The Burton Brothers name is printed right there at bottom left but I can now confirm that this portrait was not taken by either Alfred Burton (1834-1914) or Walter Burton (1836-1880).

Their firm issued this carte de visite but they did not make the image. I am certain that John McGarrigle made the wet collodion glass negative in his studio at the corner of Queen Street and Wellesley Street East. (I am writing this blog only 200 metres away). It dates from sometime between 1865 and 1874. Consequently, this portrait belongs with the first period of New Zealand's carte de visite portraiture.

In 1878, four years after he closed down, John McGarrigle sold his American Photographic Studio’s glass negatives firstly to Hayes and Mandeno of 194 Queen Street. They then on-sold them to Dunedin’s Burton Brothers. The Burton's were selling albumen prints taken from the glass carte negatives by 1880. Interestingly, this carte de visite is actually one of the Burton Brother's scarcest photographs. I have not traced another print of it.

No vintage print made by McGarrigle is currently recorded as being held in any public collection and no other vintage image produced by the Burton Brothers is catalogued as being in the public domain.

When exhibiting this portrait in the exhibition Flaunt during 2003 we noted - ‘Cartes de visite eaHere is an scan of the photograph and you can see that there are illuminating differences between McGarrigle's wet plate negative now owned by Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and Auckland Art Gallery’s carte de visite. The negative has a more extensive tonal range – the top lit from the skylight is even more apparent. The Gallery’s sepia carte de visite is much softer in tonal range with all highlights being less distinguishable.

This portrait is entirely set up. The figure is obviously not a boy but a young teenager. He is not dressed in anything like 1860s street wear. Ngahiraka Mason, the Gallery's Indigenous Curator Maori, and I both believe that the careful haircut indicates the likelihood that he attends a Church of England Mission School. His tiara is a surprising addition that, to me, makes clear allusions to Roman portrait sculpture where ceremonial laurel wreaths were worn to indicate a significant public achievement.

One never encounters contemporaneous portraits of European teenagers at Auckland waering such material. I noted here that a characteristic of McGarrigle's portrait style is his penchant for producing three-quarter views towards his sitters. He concentrates his focus point on a person's eyes and uses a narrow focal length to gives his portraits their immediacy and intimacy. Few portrait photographers working here made more memorable studio portraits at that time as John McGarrigle. Only the earlier portrait work of Hartley Webster and Dr John Kinder bears comparison.

I am grateful to John Sullivan, Curator of the Photographic Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library of the National Library of New Zealand and Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand for their assistance with my research for this entry.

The Te Papa image credit for this negative currently reads:
Maori boy
Burton Brothers
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand

I wonder whether they might consider changing it to read:
Maori youth
John McGarrigle, American Photographic Company
1865 -1874
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand 
All the best for Waitangi Day 2010.