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What lies beneath

It's a New Zealand story – the vintage car found in a derelict barn, the field cannon buried in a paddock, antique bottles under cleared earth...

The black and white photographs from the early 1900s that makes up the Tairawhiti Museum exhibition Places and Faces are made from glass plate negatives made by JF (Fred) Foster.

“The plates were ‘rescued' during the demolition of 6 Wi Pere Street, Gisborne, (an early Foster home) when found under the house,” says an introductory note to the display.

“They were brought into the museum in rotting cardboard boxes with insect-eaten newspaper and years and years of dust and insect leavings.”

Much careful cleaning of the plates was needed before the images were digitally scanned, says photographic curator Dudley Meadows.

“Some have had water damage. The emulsion has been affected by humidity and rain and dry conditions.”

This gives a swirly, dreamy look to some of the images, says Meadows.

Foster's photographs largely depict family groups in front of their homes. The frozen tableaux and expressionless faces create a New Zealand Gothic atmosphere in many of the pictures. Two women in bonnets and long skirts stand by a large shrub at the edge of a gravel path that leads to the shaded veranda in one picture. Between the young women is a small girl in bonnet and bow with a low-slung sash and one hand on her hip. Her imperious pose contrasts with the more deferential, possibly sullen, mien of the straw-hatted boy behind them. While the big white cockatoo on one of the women's shoulders brings a slightly surreal aspect to the picture the boy brings out an almost ominous atmosphere in the picture.

If the horror-flick The Omen comes to mind with that picture, viewers of a photograph of a Matawai group in front of Hustler's Store of might well recall the TV series Deadwood.

“As the viewer looks at them, the sense is reminiscent of unearthing something,” says Meadows.

“It's like there's a window peering from the edges of history.”

Meadows believes Foster's pragmatism outweighed, for the most part, artistry. He saw door knocking and pitching the idea of a family photo out front as a way to make some money.

“I don't think he was trying to be an artist. It was more about selling the photographs to the families. Other pieces though show he has an eye for composition.”

Faces in Foster's photographs are mostly unsmiling. This was common in pictures shot in the studio where the sitter was required to remain motionless, says Meadows.

“Another reason there is no smiling in early photographs are because smiles didn't happen until cameras were brought into homes for everyday people.”

In the early days of photography, the person behind the camera's main reference was paintings.

“When Kodak made cameras available they captured more spontaneous moments.”

Places and Faces, early photographs by JF (Fred) Foster, Tairawhiti Museum.


FACES IN THE PLATE: Water damage to emulsion around the edges of Gisborne photographer Fred Foster's early 20th century glass plates created a 'swirly, dreamy look that somehow enhances the glimpse into the past', says an introductory note to the collection of Foster's family photographs. Picture supplied