Last year, a four-year project to digitise nearly 1,500 Theo Schoon photographs of bubbling mud and thermal landscapes came to an end. Thanks to the hard work of Image Coordinator Lucy Jackson and Archivist Jennifer Twist all of these images can now be viewed on Collections Online. Jennifer and Lucy share some details of this monumental project and how they found a fondness for mud.
Theo Schoon and his love for mud
Jennifer: I’ve always loved the solitude and natural beauty of Theo Schoon’s geothermal photographs. I suppose it’s the isolation of the areas he visited and the moments in time he captured.
Theo Schoon moved to Rotorua in 1950 and while working in forestry gangs around Rotorua he spent his free time photographing the geothermal formations, at Taupō, Wai-O-Tapu, and Whakarewarewa. Schoon would pitch his tent in inaccessible areas and for five years he explored and photographed the thermal activity of these areas. Schoon moved to Auckland in 1956, but later in 1965 he returned to Rotorua to continue photographing mud pools and geothermal activity.
To get a better image Schoon would often give Mother Nature ‘a hand’ by manipulating the outcome of the desired thermal activity.
In a letter to Francesca Mayer he wrote, “I always take several gallons of detergent along…when you pour some of it in a mud pool, anything can happen, from sudden explosions of liquid mud rising like strange dragons or trees into the air, or sending up a solid geyser of mud. Some small craters I fill with hundreds of buckets of water, and after a few hours the mixture of water and fine mud creates a display as fascinating as fireworks.”
Contamination of this kind is now illegal as it has adverse effects on local hydrology and severely disrupts the natural ecosystem in the mud pools.
Beginning the huge task
Jennifer: For some time I’d been aware that due to the age of Theo Schoon’s photographs they were susceptible to colour fade.
It was therefore integral that work began digitising and preserving these objects.
It took me three years to catalogue a total of 1,462 new records. I would then deliver them in batches to Lucy, who would scan and upload the digital images to our collections database.
Lucy: When I started this project I was a little disengaged. I knew nothing about the artist who created them, nothing about the archive, and was confused as to why we were scanning 1,500 images of what I thought, at first, were just rock or mud pools. But my mindset soon changed.
Finding an affinity with mud pools
Lucy: As time went on I started to feel a sense of serenity and affinity with these rock and mud pools, every one of them was different, even if it was minimal.
I was impressed by the dedication Schoon had to photograph something that most people didn’t admire, or if they did, it was as a tourist, or spectator, rather than being committed to exploring the differences in aesthetic depending on light, climate, or change in time.
Scanning the slides enabled me to see not only the documentation of a natural phenomenon, but the patterns, colours, shapes, and form that can be seen in them and extrapolated from them. In these, I began to see an influence of art of the time – a preoccupation with the non-figurative and the modern through nature.
Lucy: My first highlight was when I scanned the first image that wasn’t of a mud pool.
I had scanned the batch of slides and opened them up on my computer. Much to my surprise, one of the images was of a branch sticking out of some mud. It doesn’t sound like much, but after scanning so many photographs of a similar nature I was intrigued as to why Schoon had changed his routine.
Another highlight was when I opened an image which had not only a rock pool, but a foot in a jandal caught in the corner – presumably Schoon’s!
These small surprises kept the project going, I didn’t know when I would come across something different – whether that was a person, a foot, a branch, a leaf. These seemed like little spontaneities between the larger documentation of rock and mud pools that were so crucial to Schoon’s practice.
I could almost imagine being Schoon, photographing a rock pool, waiting for its formation to change and then out of the corner of his eye seeing a branch or leaf that just had to be captured alongside everything else.
Digital vs original
Jennifer: Theo Schoon considered each of his photographic images as individual art works.
While it may be true that there has been a colour shift due to film dye fading in Schoon’s original photographs I believe the digital reproductions do justice to Schoon’s work.
Now, over 60 years since the photographs were taken, I think perhaps Schoon would have appreciated our efforts to preserve, digitise, and make these images available online for others to appreciate the beauty of these works.
You can see a selection of Theo Schoon’s geothermal photographs in the new exhibition Détour by Michael Parekowhai.
1. CA000505/001/000120 Letters by Theo Schoon to Francesca Mayer mainly discussing gourd cultivation; 1967-1983; Schoon, Theo, Te Papa Archive CA000505/001/000120