Traces through Time: Digitising Archival Exhibition Photographs at the E H McCormick Research Library
Established and funded by John Mayo, the annual Marylyn Mayo Internship offers training and work experience for people who would like to pursue a career in the arts. Each year, interns contribute to work in different areas of the Gallery, including in curatorial, education, public programming, print and electronic publications, communications, audience research and development, conservation and collection management. Previous projects have included restoring Frances Hodgkins’ Still Life: Anemones and Hyacinths, circa 1925; researching dates for artworks in the collection; assessing and devising a strategy for documenting time-based artworks in the collection and researching, writing and digitising material for the Gallery’s Lindauer Online Project.
This year, as the 2022 Marylyn Mayo Intern, I have undertaken a documentation and image capture (digitisation) project on a collection of exhibition installation photographs (circa 1970s–90s) held in the E H McCormick Research Library. This project has centred around the arrangement, description and rehousing of the exhibition installation photographic material. The images predominantly depict exhibitions, the artworks included and their layouts and installations in a range of analogue photographic materials, such as transparencies, negatives and prints. Working with these images, I have made a detailed assessment of the collection, created a full itemised listing and rehoused the collection to have it ready for digitisation by an external provider. This collection of photographs is an invaluable record of the history of not only the Gallery but the local arts community in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, and our goal for this project was to make this collection discoverable and accessible to a wider audience – eventually, all photographs will be displayed on the Gallery’s website; in the meantime, you can view them at the E H McCormick library.
Delving into the drawers in the library’s storeroom, I quickly realised how special this collection is. Covering a wide time period and a range of exhibitions and artists, the content of these images is varied and vibrant, and provides fascinating insight into the intersections of art, people and place across time.
Images of exhibition openings proliferate. Often pictured are artists, public figures, politicians, academics and Gallery staff admiring the art, giving speeches and mingling with guests. These images are poignant to view, as, in 2022, many of the people pictured would most likely have passed away. These images are indicative of the important cultural record preserved in this collection.
Capturing incidental details and conveying the atmosphere of specific moments, the exhibition installation images provide snapshots of the zeitgeist of Auckland from the 1970s to the 1990s through the people depicted, their fashion and hairstyles; the vehicles parked outside the gallery; the nearby buildings, parks and everchanging cityscapes and landscapes. All these markers of time are centred around the Gallery – its changing façade, exhibition spaces and architecture. Over time, the original purpose of this collection as exhibition documentation has expanded and evolved, becoming an archival record of society, culture and the Auckland art scene at this time.
Through my work I discovered an interesting story held within this collection that highlights the importance of unlocking the research potential of these images. While rehousing the images for The Reader’s Digest Collection: Manet to Picasso exhibition held in 1989, I came across a large number of portraits of a woman. She was not named or identified on the envelopes or photographs. With the help of Philippa Robinson, Research Library and Archives Manager, we used the exhibition information files to find a newspaper clipping that featured one of the portraits. We discovered that the unidentified woman was Florence Loeb, the daughter of Parisian art dealer Pierre Loeb. She had even modelled for Picasso as a teenager. Florence had given a lecture at Auckland Art Gallery for the 1989 exhibition and the images in the folder offer insight into an interesting person and her connection to the exhibition.
Alongside the ability of these images to transport the viewer to the past, the collection also has a tangible, physical presence. Analogue photography has predominantly been replaced by digital techniques in our everyday lives. As the images were stored in their original receptacles, such as kodak sleeves, until this project, they provide a record of technological processes and materiality – tactile objects produced and shaped by human touch and interaction. The original envelopes often had instructions scrawled on them: ‘this way up’, and ‘best negative’. Some even have paper diagrams in the envelopes that show the suggested cropping for an image, and these have been retained as interesting objects in themselves.
Film-based analogue photographic materials are, however, impaired by an inescapable ‘inherent vice’ in which the chemistry and substrate of the film constantly degrade themselves. Although most of this collection is in good condition, there are some signs of deterioration. These material factors highlight the importance and necessity of digitising this collection. Digitisation will assist in the preservation of this photographic material, capturing it in its current state and freezing it in time in a digital format. Applying a new layer of technology to the collection also allows a new kind of engagement with the collection. In a digital format, there is less risk of repetitive handling of the original material and it will be easier to access, share and highlight the potential of these images.
I would like to convey my gratitude to Dr John Mayo for continuing to support the Marylyn Mayo Intership. Working at the Gallery has been incredibly inspiring, and I am thankful for the opportunities, experience and connections the internship has offered me. I have learnt so much about archival processes, the handling and rehousing of material and the importance of preservation through digitisation for analogue collections. It has been so special to work with this collection of exhibition installation images and I hope that the digitised images will reinvigorate interest in Auckland Art Gallery’s rich exhibition history, stimulating and facilitating new research. This series of exhibition installation images sits within a wider collection of images depicting the history of Auckland Art Gallery. The project will be extended through a second internship in which these additional images will be arranged and processed. I hope that my contributions to this ongoing project will enable a wider audience to experience and engage with this fascinating collection of images.