A PHOTOGRAPHY MECCA
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.