New Zealand photography historian William (Bill) Main passed away in March at age 88. Here Curator Historical Photography Lissa Mitchell reflects on some aspects of his career, and Geoffrey Batchen and John B Turner share their thoughts on the loss of Bill.
‘Bitten by the bug’
Bill grew up in the Wellington suburb of Newtown with his adoptive parents William and Mary Main. The Main household had a regular influx of picture magazines like the Auckland Weekly News and NZ Free Lance and international issues of the Picture Post, Daily Mirror, Life and Lilliput, which primed the young Bill for an interest in photography.
His first serious introduction to the medium came in 1947 when, at the age of 13, he saw an exhibition by the Wellington Camera Club in the foyer of the Majestic Theatre on Willis Street. This was a big year for the club when they swept the awards in the Bledisloe Cup interclub competition due to the strong work exhibited by Spencer Digby, Geoff Perry, George Ward and Farmer McDonald – all photographers whose work Bill would go on to collect in later life.
Bill’s first camera was a bakelite Brownie given to him by his parents. Later, as a teenager, he spent the equivalent of four weeks of his delivery boy wages on a Kodak Six-20 folding camera at Kodak’s Lambton Quay store. The decision was not taken lightly and came after much deliberation and many hours ‘drool[ing] over cameras in their windows’. Later he acquired a second-hand Super Paxette 35mm camera.
However, Bill didn’t regard himself as a photographer either ‘professionally or vocationally’ but rather took photographs for enjoyment and to learn about the medium, its processes and equipment. He clearly enjoyed taking photographs though, and his view of the corner of High and Princes streets in Dunedin suggests a sophisticated eye and good technical skills.
There were many aspects to Bill’s career. He started as a student of art at Wellington Technical College and then went on to Canterbury School of Fine Arts where he studied painting under the influence of W. A. Sutton. He left art school qualified to teach art at secondary school level and gained a job at Wellington Technical College where he eventually managed the introduction of photography courses and the transition to Wellington Polytechnic.
In 1984 he opened Exposures Gallery on Ghuznee Street, Wellington, which was dedicated to selling and exhibiting historical and contemporary photography. In 1990, Bill succeeded Sharyn Black as the director of the New Zealand Centre for Photography, a post he held until 2000. While in this role he instigated the centre’s own collection of New Zealand photography and founded the New Zealand Journal of Photography – an important publication for those interested in photography.
In the year prior to joining the centre, Bill went on a trip to the UK and Europe that was busy with museum and gallery visits. With the assistance of his wife Jill, he presented at the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain conference and accepted an invitation to repeat his presentation in Frankfurt soon after.
However, it is as an author and collector that Bill’s lasting impact on the history of photography in Aotearoa New Zealand stands strong. Initially, he was a collector of many devices, including gramophones, as well as photography equipment.
But he grew frustrated with the focus collectors placed on gear; arguing that what photographic equipment was used for was being largely ignored. Prints and negatives were thrown out while photographic equipment was fetished. Bill argued that we should be interested in the whole picture – in who the photographers were, what they made and what that showed.
In his 2011 autobiography Main memoirs, Bill included the first portrait of himself as an infant (an example of the ‘hidden mother’ genre) in 1935 by the professional photographer, Agnes Hardie Shaw (1872-1938) in her Newtown studio.
This is the kind of photograph easily dismissed as a mere ‘baby photo’ and yet Bill recognised it as more than that. Besides having personal significance, Agnes Hardie Shaw’s portrait of Bill represented the commercial work of an extremely experienced photographer and member of the Wellington Camera Club.
The commercial portraiture amongst Bill’s collection held by Te Papa contains numerous examples of this unappreciated period of commercial photography, from the 1890s to the 1950s, and its myriad of technical and stylistic changes embedded in the humblest kind of artefact – the commercial photographic portrait.
Wellington Through a Victorian Lens
During the 1970s Bill wrote a regular column, ‘Collector’s Piece’, for Photo-Forum magazine where he shared details of historical material he was coming across and collecting. However, he had been working for some time on a book he described as ‘a true labour of love’, which was published in 1972 – Wellington Through a Victorian Lens. The cover featured one of the earliest known views of Te Aro made about 1857 by William Henry Davis.
The book was a visual feast, where images with captions were prioritised over extended text, with most images sourced from Bill’s own collection, the National Museum (later Te Papa) and the Alexander Turnbull Library. With photographic history in its infancy in this country, Bill noted the lack of information that was known about the context of many of the photographs at the time – who took them, what they showed and accurate dates.
The book was followed by others of note: a 1974 monograph on the Wellington photographer James Bragge (1833–1903) Bragge’s Wellington and the Wairarapa, Auckland Through a Victorian Lens (1977), and New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present (1993), co-authored with friend and colleague, John B Turner.
The later book, “Wish You Were Here”: The Story of New Zealand Postcards, was co-authored with Alan Jackson and published in 2004. All these books remain useful introductions to the history of photography in this country.
Other writing projects included the less visible activity of writing photographers’ biographies for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. These include James Bragge, Jessie Buckland, and Spencer Digby. An overlooked but widely enjoyed piece of work by Bill was his contribution as image researcher for the popular book New Zealand Yesterdays (1984), a collaboration with his former art school friend Hamish Keith who wrote the text. It was an accessible source of great photos for many years.
Although Bill mainly wrote for publications based in this country, the most esteemed exception to this are his contributions published between 1978 and 1985 in the international journal, History of Photography. These were pieces on the photographers, James Bragge, Alfred Burton (1834–1914), George Valentine (1852–1890), and on photographic reportage of the New Zealand Wars, portraits of Māori, and a piece on Charles Dickens and the magic lantern.
New Zealand Pictorialists
In 1991 Bill produced the touring exhibition and catalogue New Zealand Pictorialists. Though slim, it is an important publication featuring the work of 30 photographers working with photography as an art form between 1905 and 1965. To this day it remains one of the few projects to focus solely on pictorialism in New Zealand.
Pictorialism was out of fashion in the latter half of the twentieth century and Bill was a rare champion of this important era of photography. Bill’s collection of pictorialist photographs forms the basis for the holdings of this movement now in Te Papa.
Te Papa’s 1999 purchase of Bill’s collection included 5452 negatives, prints and transparencies, as well as equipment. It was so large and diverse that, in combination with the earlier acquisition from fellow photographic historian and collector Hardwicke Knight (1911–2008), it changed the shape of the Museum’s collection.
Besides the pictorialist prints, there are many highlights, too many to cover in detail here. It included the set of 39 unique autochromes on glass by Robert Walrond, the largest known collection of this rare early colour photography medium held in a public collection in New Zealand; the camera and accessories of Arthur Bothamley (1846–1938), which includes a portable darkroom set-up; and the collection of albums and prints by the Austrian photographer and naturalist Richard Sharell (1893–1986), who came to New Zealand with his wife Lily as refugees from Austria in 1939.
New Zealand Through the Camera
In 2013, as the newly appointed curator of historical photography at the museum, I was approached by Bill who asked if we would be interested in acquiring an album of large-format photographs.
The album was one of Bill’s favourites that he had hung onto when the larger part of his collection came to the museum. It is a rich album, especially because 15 of the 51 prints in it were taken in 1870 by Robert Henry Bartlett, the official photographer to accompany the Duke of Edinburgh on his visit to the Pink and White Terraces and the Rotorua region.
Aware of his earlier collection and the impact it had in significantly boosting the historical photography holdings at the museum, I was somewhat in awe and nervous about meeting Bill but found him enjoyable company and I appreciated experiencing his thoughtfulness and love of early photography in person.
Main’s collection also included examples of work by professional women photographers such as Thelma Kent (1899–1946), Mabel Tustin (1884–1967), Elizabeth Greenwood (1873–1961), Eileen Deste (1908–1986), and Marie Dean (active 1918–1950s). These were the first examples of work by these makers to enter the national collection.
Like collector Peter Palmquist in the USA, who during the later years of the 20th century saved from destruction the work of earlier women photographers, the prints Main collected have been a seed collection for my own research on the contribution of women to photography in New Zealand prior to 1960. His activity highlights the role collectors can play in ‘paying it forward’ for future historians of photography.
Bill’s enthusiasm for historical photography and photography’s history did not wane, and he made significant contributions to the New Zealand Postcard Society and published a book in 2009 on the Wellington photographer, Joseph Zachariah (known as ‘Zak’), among other things.
Family life and his relationship with Jill were important to Bill. He spent time as the ‘househusband’ (pursuing his photography interests during school hours) while Jill’s steady paid employment supported the family and enabled Bill’s less financially stable career. They were a team, and photographic history in this country is so much better for their dedication and care.
Professor Geoffrey Batchen, History of Art, University of Oxford writes of Bill:
Bill was a serious amateur photo-historian, in the true sense of the word ‘amateur’: he was a lover of photography and the stories that could be told about it.
He had his own collecting passions (New Zealand postcards, for example) but he also accumulated other collections that no one else chose to look after. He was a carer of photographs. His enthusiasm was infectious.
We would meet in his study from time to time, looking at recent acquisitions (he owned some nice daguerreotypes) and talking shop. I, in turn, collected all his books, a trove of useful information and precious reproductions. Some of those reproductions are the only record we have of some early NZ daguerreotypes, items that Bill saw and photographed many years ago but whose owners disappeared, never to be found again.
Bill represents an important moment in the history of New Zealand photography, a moment before professional curators and museums took an interest in photography, when the medium was nurtured by the hard work and vision of serious amateurs like him. He will be missed.
John B Turner, photographer and photo-historian writes of Bill:
Bill Main and I met around mid-1966 and our interest in the histories of photography provided a quick bond.
He was already a collector of Victorian and Edwardian everything with select vintage cameras and paraphernalia and a lover of opera as well as optical devices with which to view stereographic and other images. My interest was in photographs and their meaning, so I was delighted that some of my focus rubbed off on him.
He had studied along with Hamish Keith and other notables at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts and was in the process of setting up a photography speciality at the then-Wellington Polytechnic (Now Massey University) when I became the photographer at the Dominion Museum (later the National Museum and eventually Te Papa). We were both founding members of the Onslow Historical Society and feverously exchanged our books and magazines on all aspects of photography.
Bill’s photographs were included in a 1968 group exhibition called ‘Looking and Seeing’ along with the likes of Theo Schoon, John Johns, and Max Coolahan, which toured the country under the auspices of the Education Department of the National Art Gallery due to the enthusiasm of their education officer John Ritson.
We both became, as photo-historian Bill Jay characterised us, ‘… among the rare breed of scholars who have examined thousands of photographs, and, painstakingly, have begun the monumental task of assembling them into an edifice of beauty and value: the history of New Zealand photography in this case. Through their efforts we begin to see individual photographs not merely as quaint records of bygone years but as part of the pattern of cultural change, the unfolding of human aspirations, the changing nature of the nation’s dreams. That is the real history.’ [Bill Jay, from his back-cover endorsement of New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the present / Nga Whakaahua o Aotearoa Mai i 1840 ki Naianei (William Main and John B Turner, Photo-Forum, 1993.)
As a dedicated and prolific researcher, I consider Bill’s contribution as picture editor to New Zealand Yesterdays, the Readers Digest book edited by his friend Hamish Keith, to be one of his outstanding achievements.
Much of Bill’s impressive legacy is in his own books. But his important work of saving a wide range of photographs from the Pictorial and neo-Pictorial movements, and as many of the modest but informative camera club journals and newsletters as he could for the NZ Centre for Photography was a major achievement.
Bill was a dedicated and often fierce advocate for photographers and photographs he admired, and continued to collect the cameras and photographic equipment with which he could bring alive the nature of the medium and early processes to new generations.
Seeing a Main presentation via lantern slides or hearing him talk about the wonders of stereoscopic photography, or the wet-plate process certainly took one back in time. Sometimes I thought that he would have loved to have been born half a century earlier, but if so, I suspect that his absorbing interests would still have been the art and culture of earlier periods that he had not experienced, such was his curiosity.
- Bill’s book: Main Memoirs – an attempt to set out my association with that Cinderella of the visual arts – photography, Wellington: Exposures, 2011.
- For more on the history and development of the photography collection at Te Papa see: Athol McCredie, ‘Collecting photographs: The development of Te Papa’s historical photography collection’, Tuhinga, #20, 2009, pp.41-66.