‘Adkin’s photographs provide an honest, in-depth insight into rural life in New Zealand during the first half of the 20th century.’
Danielle Campbell, a Museum and Heritage Studies student at Victoria University, discusses her three favourite Leslie Adkin photographs that she came across during her summer internship at Te Papa.
Split between Te Papa and the Alexander Turnbull Library, the combined Leslie Adkin photography collection contains over 7,000 negatives and more than 50 photo albums.
George Leslie Adkin was a 20th century photographer, tramper, farmer, and amateur scholar who made a significant contribution to the fields of geology and archaeology in New Zealand.
Admittedly, I’d never actually heard of him before applying for Te Papa’s ‘Reconnecting Leslie Adkin data’ internship. I’ve since spent the last three months immersed in his life, working with Adkin’s large collection of negatives, photo albums, and meticulously kept diaries.
The bulk of my project has involved matching negatives held in Te Papa’s collection with prints in photo albums that belong to the Alexander Turnbull Library. After examining several thousand images during this process, I’ve managed to narrow down my three favourite photographs.
A winter getaway
This image is printed in an album of photographs taken during a winter skiing holiday at Tongariro National Park in 1925, which is my favourite series of Adkin prints. The album contains stunning photos of the slopes of Ruapehu, the snowy cone of Ngauruhoe, panoramas of the Waimarino Plain, and even a humorous image of Leslie Adkin lying naked in the snow taking a ‘snow bath’.
Not far from the pictured Whakapapanui river was a ‘Haunted Whare’, which Adkin mentions in another caption. According to Māori legend, the desolate area in which the small hut was built was haunted by the ghost of a young Māori woman who had met a violent end there. Over the years there were various sightings from inside the hut of a woman’s face appearing at the window …
Pavilions and playlands
This image is one of several taken by Adkin of the 1939–40 Centennial Exhibition, which celebrated 100 years of European progress in New Zealand since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. Located near Wellington’s airport, the exhibition’s buildings and pavilions were built in Art Deco style, with the centrepiece being the Centennial Tower.
However, most of the exhibition’s 2.6 million visitors were much more interested in exploring the large amusement park. ‘Playland’ contained a roller coaster, dodgem track, ghost train, and a crazy house. There was also a shark pool full of live sharks, a human freak show in the ‘Odditorium’, and a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ displaying reconstructions of local murders, which caused considerable controversy and was censored by police.
Overdressed for the occasion
This photo depicts Adkin (second from the right) and several friends during their first attempt at crossing the Tararuas from Levin. What struck me most about this photo was the group’s highly impractical hiking attire!
During the 1920s, the sport of tramping had not yet become a widely accepted activity in New Zealand and early 20th century trampers were often made fun of for their style of clothing.
Therefore, it was not uncommon for men to tramp in a suit jacket and pants, along with a tie and matching hat. Even less practical were the voluminous skirts that women wore while tramping until trousers and then shorts became more socially acceptable to wear.
Leslie Adkin used photography to document his scholarly interests but also to record his farming activities, family life, and recreational pursuits.
Incidentally, my three favourite images are all of leisure activities and therefore only present a very small snapshot of Adkin’s life. However, as a whole, his photographs provide an honest, in-depth insight into rural life in New Zealand during the first half of the 20th century.