Cold comfort photography

Photographers’ Camp on Lake Manapouri, 1889, Burton Brothers, black and white gelatin glass negative, Te Papa C.015447

 It is the beginning of June in New Zealand and if you are a photographer it is the perfect time to go camping.

Despite the dire warnings from his friend (referred to as ‘Titfaddle’) concerning the folly of making a six week camping trip in the middle of winter, Alfred Burton and his son Harold, left Dunedin for Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri in the first week of June. The following are excerpts from Alfred’s published diary of the trip. They take in a number of subjects from the state of the scenery, to the use of photographs by artists and the study of native bird calls.

June 28.—Another glorious day! Is it possible that we are going to get weather of thus pattern, or anything near it, through most of the trip? If so, how I shall “get at” Titfaddle. We broke ground with the camera, finding a very embarrassment of riches in the wealth of pictures on every hand. Oh, these lovely bush covered islands! [1]

July 12.— There was no disappointment. The sun more than realised the promise of his silver sister, and ’twas only the dipping of the former luminary behind the mighty peaks that cut short a day most dear to the photographer’s heart. [2]

July 14.— Another change of weather: very wet. As we lie in our tent we are enabled to study the various noises and calls of the birds. For instance, there is the harsh croak of the grebe; the mournful whistle of the mischievous Maori hen; and the rasping note of the kaka, alternating as it does with a musical whistle. Then comes the sweet quavering of the kiwi, contrasting with the angry catlike screech of the kakapo, which again is varied by his wonderful booming note, only heard at pairing time. There is, too, the startled cry of the teal, and the sibilant whistle of the blue duck, clearly to be heard through the roar of the mountain torrent, by which he delights to make his home. We listen, also to the home-suggesting quack of the grey duck, and to that most persistent of the voices’ of the night— the New Zealand owl’s anti-Semitic cry of “More pork”.[3]

Head of Lake Manapouri from Pomona Island, 1889, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1981 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.000985)

July 27.—Did a capital day’s work; weather splendid; subjects “as thick as three in a bed.” […] Upon the subject of these same “subjects” I want to unburden myself a little, and this occasion will do as well as another. A photographer, at considerable expense, carries his camera into the mountains, endures considerable “roughing,” devotes himself to the one pursuit of photographing the scenic glories around him—in fact, lives, moves, and has his being in the making of negatives and yet more negatives. He spots a scene; tries it from this point; tries it from that; finally decides; pitches his camera; summons his staff; sets one with axe to fell a tree, and another with billhook to clear away scrub; and so “composes” the picture. Meanwhile he takes note of the condition of the light, the position of the sun, the character of the clouds, and the calmness or otherwise of the water. Eventually he produces a picture which obtains for him some little kudos. An “artist” sees it, purchases a copy for, say, eighteenpence, and makes an effective oil painting from it—being indebted to it for everything but colour. Is the photographer entitled to any portion of the credit? For instance, I saw in an exhibition in Dunedin some time ago a large oil painting of Passage Point Cove, Acheron Passage, Dusky Sound. Every detail of that picture was copied from a photograph of mine. I found the spot and composed the picture, and I think I may say that I know that the painter could not possibly have been on the ground. Ought not that work of art to have been described as “painted by So-and-So, from a photograph by Burton Brothers”? Or is an artist justified in saying, “The photograph I used was mine; I paid one and-sixpence for it”? I pause for a reply. The Australian illustrated papers are also sinners in this respect. They copy our photographs and then coolly, put their artist’s name on the engraving! Even the New Zealand Government use them without the slightest acknowledgment. How is this for “protection to native industry,” eh, Sir Harry Atkinson? [4]

August 15.—Plodding behind our waggon, with a smart snowstorm pelting in our faces. This was rather refreshing, with 18 miles between us and our destination! However, by midday the weather had improved, and the mist rolling away, the line of Manapouri’s mountains —marvellously beautiful— stretched across the horizon, miles away beyond the intervening flat. Just at nightfall we reach our camping ground—a little bush in the very centre of the surveyed township of Manapouri, just where the river Waiau leaves the lake. [5]


Some of the large format photographic prints taken by Alfred Burton on this trip are currently on display in the ‘Framing the View’ section of Nga Toi / Arts Te Papa through until October.

There is more about Alfred’s winter photography trip in the latest Off the Wall magazine.

Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Documentary Photography



[1] Alfred Burton, ‘Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, a photographer’s diary’, Otago Witness, 21 September 1889, p. 1.

[2] Alfred Burton. ‘Lakeland’. Otago Witness, 3 October 1889, p. 15.

[3] Alfred Burton. ‘Lakeland’. Otago Witness, 3 October 1889, p. 15.

[4] Alfred Burton. ‘Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri’. Otago Witness, 28 September 1889, p. 1.

[5] Alfred Burton. ‘Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri’. Otago Witness, 28 September 1889, p. 1.

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