Leslie Adkin 1888-1964
George Leslie Adkin was possessed by a sense of order and a spirit of inquiry. No sooner had his mind asked what, or why, than he was impelled to layout his observations and answers in the most meticulous fashion. He could do without human companionship for days at a time: but his notebook was indispensable. To him, a quarter, or half-plate glass negative camera became another form of notebook: an admirable tool to capture the places and people around Woodside, his Levin farm; to document his exploration of the Tararua Mountains (a passion of his for over forty years, which led to major geographical and geological discoveries); and to follow his increasing ethnological and archaeological interests in the Horowhenua and Wellington districts.
He must have been a remarkable man: a farmer-explorer-scientist who wrote thirty-eight scientific papers and four books and who left at least four thousand negatives.
The Adkin family
at Otaki Beach 1927
(Collection of the
National Museum, Wellington)
His descendants recall him as something of a tyrant. He would not get out of the car when he reached his destination until the mileage and time taken were accurately recorded. At such moments it was best for the passengers not to show impatience. His photographs reflect this care and single-mindedness. Often, he wanted to record people going about their normal activities: but film, in the period 1910-1930, was not sufficiently capable of stopping body movement. He would then carefully arrange and pose simulated action that he could photograph. It was no use complaining that you did not want to co-operate. Leslie Adkin was a man of immense determination.
He readily took to the camera, despite its cumbersome size and technical limitations, and used it to record the things around him. His interest in landforms and geology made it very useful to his science (it went with him on all his lone climbing and tramping trips in the mountains): but he also used it socially. Family, friends and, even strangers, with whom he readily talked, were photographed with care and installed in the large photo-albums and carefully kept diaries. After Leslie Adkins' death in 1964 at the age of seventy-six, his wife, Maud, presented four thousand glass negatives to the Dominion (now the National) Museum in Wellington.
Adkin's qualities as a photographer of perception and grace have been known to only a few photographers since his death. Shows in Auckland and Wellington make his photographic talent public, for the first time.
The superb prints made by Jean Stanton and Athol McCredie from the original negatives might have astonished Adkin himself (he would certainly have approved of the care and skill in them); and they allow us a privileged glimpse into a social setting that is now history. The fashions! The togs, the hats, the clothing, those shoes! The cars, the scroll-worked verandahs, the children's toys in a pre-plastic age. The things that have changed shriek at us. (Compare the picture of the diver with one of Jacques Cousteau's scuba frogmen.)
Like the photographs of the late Wellington Cody, Adkin's speak of a sense of family occasion that in modern times has been weakened by the very ease of travel that Adkin's people would no doubt have wished for.
Leslie Adkin's work does not stop at these documentary limits, admirable though they are. He has a further lyrical quality of great force. He belonged to no photographic school, had no artistic aspirations: but some of his pictures - often posed ones - show great beauty. His photograph of family and friends in the sand hills of Otaki Beach is strongly reminiscent of Frances Hodgkins' By The Brook. His picture of a woman in a bathing-suit lying on the iceplant-covered sand recalls a photograph of the Hungarian Andre Kertez; and the whole group of photographs in their preoccupation with his domestic circle remind one of the work of J.H. Lartigue, a French contemporary, of whom it is certain he never heard.
It is a rare pleasure to be able to see such work as this from the archives of our own past. We should see so much more:,-but the photographic sections of our great libraries and museums are crampingly understaffed and lack many basic resources. Indeed in this case, the attitude of the National Museum towards its photographic bounty is hard to understand. Permission for the show was given reluctantly. Though one of the printers works in the Museum, no time was allowed for printing during working hours. A limit was put on sales of one print per negative so that other collectors in the country, private or public, are denied the one chance they have ever had to get prints of this quality. Furthermore, the negatives are deteriorating because there has been no provision by the Museum for importing acid-free envelopes for their storage. One wonders if the Museum would not do well to divest itself of its photographic archives and concentrate on the brachiopods and skeletons with which it feels more conversant.
The exhibitions of Leslie Adkin's photographs were produced by Athol McCredie and Jean Stanton: with assistance from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the National Museum.