The novel The Luminaries is set in Hokitika in 1866 with most of the story taking place amongst a selection of businesses in Revell Street. The mystery is relayed, distorted and formed through different conservations and social interactions between the characters. However missing from the numerous businesses portrayed in the book is a photographic studio, and its operator, which is surprising.
Like any other profession, photographers were as attracted to Hokitika from about 1865 as any other business. It would have been good to see what Catton could have done with an intriguing storyline featuring a photograph taken in the street or of someone in the mystery. Or the part photography could have played in Mrs Wells’s spiritualism experiments. Instead photography remains absent – at least in fiction. As the photograph (below) shows, spirit photography was being made in Dunedin at the time and most of the characters visited the city before going to Hokitika.
The lives of early photographers are often intriguing tales of fortune and failure – much like those of gold miners. In the year before 1866, photographer John Denslow, having recently relocated from Dunedin, announced that his studio The Royal Portrait Gallery was to open in August of 1865 with an advertisement in the West Coast Times newspaper. Denslow’s studio was to be in Revell Street ‘nearly opposite the Camp’, which was the hub of official administration in Hokitika during the 1860s. However, what happened to the photographer is unknown and a few months later the business was for sale by auction.
But Denslow was not alone, in October of 1865 another photographer. Braham La Mert was advertising in the West Coast Times that he had found premises in nearby Camp Street and was about to set up a studio. Oddly enough La Mert’s experience travelling to Hokitika by ship resembles the story line in The Luminaries. One night while on the deck of the steamer New Zealand, La Mert witnessed a violent assault on the ship’s captain by another passenger who was upset by the captain’s objection to him having two women in his cabin. But by January 1866, La Mert had been declared bankrupt and was long gone and his former studio was for sale.
The most successful photographic enterprise in Revell Street opened in early 1866. In the same year that The Luminaries is set, the Tait Brothers began their long running studio opposite the Prince of Wales Opera House. The brothers initially operated a studio each – John Tait in Revell Street and Alexander Tait in Mahwera Quay in nearby Greymouth – but both studios became known as Tait Brothers. All through the year that the novel is set, the local newspapers reported the activities of the Tait’s including the opening of the Revell Street studio and the taking of a photograph of a tug boat stranded on the Hokitika bar. Photographs such as these were regularly advertised as being available for the public to view in the Tait Studios.
Another shorter lived studio also opened in Revell Street in 1866. The London Portrait Rooms was operated by James Perkins until he went bankrupt in 1868 and the studio was taken over by Rudolph Haigh.
Two years after the year when the novel was set, in March 1868, La Mert’s former business partner in Christchurch, Daniel Mundy travelled to the West Coast and took the photograph (below) looking along Revell Street (could that be a Dutch or Yugoslavian flag flying off the top of the building in the centre?).
The Luminaries is a creative work and I’m not arguing for including every historical accuracy but the novel is about the complexities of representation – of how what we see and hear isn’t always the truth – and so it is with photography.
Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Documentary Photography