In Brief

How a 19th-Century Photographic Technique Erased a Māori Tradition

Michael Bradley revisits the wet plate photography technique that had removed Indigenous tattoo traditions from photographic records.

Michael Bradley’s photograph of Gary Shane Te Ruki as part of his Puaki series, wet plate and digital photographs (courtesy of the artist)

A new project has resurfaced the near-obsolete technique of wet plate photography, while also bringing to light the ways in which this documentarian medium erased Indigenous culture in New Zealand.

After spending four years mastering wet plate photography (also called the collodion process), Michael Bradley has employed the medium for a portrait project titled Puaki, which means “to come forth, show itself, open out, emerge, reveal, to give testimony” in the Māori language, according to the artist’s website.

Michael Bradley’s photograph of Naomi Tracey Robinson as part of his Puaki series, wet plate and digital photographs (courtesy of the artist)

When European colonizers arrived in the 19th century, they documented the area’s Indigenous inhabitants, but the collodion process served to erase prominent markings known as tā moko, a centuries-old form of tattooing performed by the Māori people. In the wet plate photographs, Tā moko would barely show up.

“The mix of chemicals used did not pick up the ink used in traditional tā moko, rendering these important cultural tattoos all but invisible,” writes Bradley on his project’s website. “The scarring or markings left from the uhi, the traditional chisel used to give the tattoo, was the only clue to its existence.”

While searching the Auckland Museum’s archives, Bradley discovered that green and blue shades disappeared, especially on darker-skinned sitters, rendering these attempted depictions of tā moko nearly invisible. He saw that some colonial-era photographers had even tried to recreate tā moko in pen or crayon over the photograph after it was taken.

Michael Bradley’s photograph of Whare Isaac-Sharland as part of his Puaki series, wet plate and digital photographs (courtesy of the artist)

Tā moko, however, has been making a modern resurgence. After settler-colonialism dominated New Zealand, many Indigenous cultural practices were suppressed but have been reintroduced in recent decades as Indigenous New Zealanders make waves toward personal and cultural decolonization. (In 2017, an exhibition of paintings by Gottfried Lindauer at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki similarly showcased the vast cultural significance of Māori aesthetics.)

Bradley documents this resurgence of the Māori tradition by using wet-plate photography and modern digital technology. Before beginning the project, he consulted Māori elders and individuals to ensure cultural sensitivity, knowing he was approaching the subject from a Pākehā (white New Zealander) perspective.

He photographed each participant using a state-of-the-art camera, and then an 85-year-old wooden camera, showing the stark contrast between mediums and making clear photography’s capability to be inaccurate despite its objective reputation, and the ways it possibly contributed to the erasure of a cultural practice.

Michael Bradley’s photographs of Pouroto Nicholas Hamilton Ngaropo as part of his Puaki series, wet plate and digital photographs (courtesy of the artist)

The sitters then shared their deeply personal connection to their tā moko, answering questions like “Why is it so important to reclaim the tā moko?” and, “Why is culture so important to you?” The project statement explains: “The resulting body of work includes photographs and video interviews with 23 Māori participants, creating both stunning works of art and an important historical record.”

In her testimonial, Naomi Tracey Robinson explained that her strong cultural identity embodies the “strong line of women” from which she is descended, adding that it has given her an opportunity to “lead by example” for young Māori individuals to be proud of their heritage. “It shows to the world just how beautiful our culture is,” she proudly explains. You can watch these interviews on Vimeo.

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