A PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MECCA

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An important as­pect of the Sar­jeant’s strange his­tory is that it was one of the first mu­se­ums any­where in the world to start col­lect­ing pho­tog­ra­phy as art. This be­gan in 1919 un­der the guid­ance of Frank Den­ton, and has at­tracted pho­tog­ra­phers to Whanganui for years. Many of them come into town via the Tylee Cot­tage Res­i­dency – one of New Zealand’s long­est-run­ning res­i­dency pro­grammes – which is ad­min­is­tered by the Sar­jeant (artists-in-res­i­dence give the gallery a work at the end of their time there, which is a great way to keep the collection fresh). Though Tylee isn’t ex­clu­sively for pho­tog­ra­phers, a huge number of New Zealand’s best have passed through its doors: Lau­rence Aber­hart, Ann Noble, Ans Wes­tra, Ben Cauchi, An­drew Ross, Ann Shel­ton and Richard Or­jis among them. Since 2002, Paul McNa­mara has also been run­ning New Zealand’s most re­spected pri­vate pho­tog­ra­phy gallery out of Whanganui. Though he doesn’t have a phys­i­cal space any­more, he still main­tains on­line ex­hi­bi­tions, runs a busy pro­gramme of pop-up shows in tem­po­rary venues around the country, and acts as an agent for sev­eral pho­tog­ra­phers. McNa­mara calls him­self a “gal­lerist” be­cause, in his words, he’s “not quite a dealer, not quite a cu­ra­tor”. He is, though, a highly re­garded voice in New Zealand pho­tog­ra­phy, and one of its key ad­vo­cates. It seems a lit­tle counter-in­tu­itive to have such a spe­cific gallery business in a small place: you’d think it would make sense to be broader in scope. But McNa­mara says he’s never been bur­dened by ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­lo­ca­tion. He works with in­sti­tu­tions all over New Zealand, and sells work to col­lec­tors here and in Australia. He’s also reg­u­larly con­sulted on is­sues to do with pho­tog­ra­phers’ ar­chives, ques­tions about post­hu­mous print­ing, and the ethics of col­lect­ing pho­tog­ra­phy. His business model, he says, has al­ways been about the in­tegrity of the medium, and mak­ing sure it’s re­spected in New Zealand as an art form. He’s also not shy about ex­press­ing his views on Whanganui. For ex­am­ple, he’s not en­tirely con­vinced that the re­vamped Sar­jeant will have the same pulling power as the Len Lye Centre: not be­cause he doubts the qual­ity of its collection which, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to pho­tog­ra­phy, is pretty unim­peach­able, but rather be­cause the town still lacks a lot of the in­fra­struc­ture that goes with high-end cul­tural tourism.

It’s short of de­cent ho­tels and restau­rants be­yond the usual pro­vin­cial-eth­nic of­fer­ings. And then there’s the sig­nif­i­cant mat­ter that Air New Zealand re­cently pulled out of Whanganui, mak­ing the idea of a cul­tural week­end break trick­ier if you aren’t within an easy driv­ing dis­tance. Roberta Thorn­ley, a pho­tog­ra­pher who has re­cently re­lo­cated to Whanganui from her na­tive Auck­land, is also cau­tious not to over-ro­man­ti­cise pro­vin­cial life. But, she says, it has also pro­vided her with some great op­por­tu­ni­ties thus far. Thorn­ley orig­i­nally came to Whanganui in 2015 to take up the Tylee Cot­tage Res­i­dency after sev­eral months in Rwanda – a trip that trans­formed her prac­tice and got her think­ing be­yond the highly staged in­te­rior por­traits she’d made her name with in Auck­land. It was pre­cisely Whanganui’s pho­to­graphic legacy – from Den­ton through Aber­hart and Noble – that made her want to come in the first place. She saw the ben­e­fits of be­ing in a smaller, cheaper place with a sup­port­ive art scene, and de­cided to stay. At the time of writ­ing, Thorn­ley had a solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sar­jeant’s tem­po­rary space: new pho­tographs called A Se­ri­ous Girl, which is the ti­tle of a work at­trib­uted to Edith Col­lier in the Sar­jeant’s collection. Thorn­ley’s “se­ri­ous girl” is Mil­lie, a local teenage gym­nast. In a se­ries of in­ti­mate por­traits, Thorn­ley re­veals the com­mit­ment and phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline in­volved in high-level com­pet­i­tive sports. The se­ries also sum­mons Col­lier’s ghost in subtle ways, espe­cially the kind of wist­ful in­sur­mount­abil­ity that can of­ten ac­com­pany the drive for world suc­cess. It’s a topic close to Thorn­ley’s heart: she was a New Zealand de­vel­op­ment hockey player be­fore a hip in­jury, while she was at univer­sity, forced her to quit. She also con­cedes, laugh­ing, that this was when she fi­nally got her act to­gether and started tak­ing art school se­ri­ously. And it worked: Tim Melville started show­ing her work straight after she fin­ished at Elam. That was 10 years ago. Thorn­ley, who ex­hibits around the country, says that one of the at­trac­tions to Whanganui is the “still­ness to pho­tos of the place” – in the work of Aber­hart and An­drew Ross in par­tic­u­lar – which is some­thing she also feels when mak­ing her work there. Her por­traits of Mil­lie em­body this per­fectly.

10 11. 12. and Pho­tog­ra­pher Roberta Thorn­ley moved to Whanganui from Auck­land after a res­i­dency at Tylee Cot­tage. The li­brary at McNa­mara’s Whanganui home. A work by Lau­rence Aber­hart in the McNa­mara collection. 13.

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