Sojourner in a Foreign Land
The Photographs of Richard Sharell (1893-1986)
From 28 March to 22 April 1989 28 ‘Original Prints 1929-40’ by Richard Sharell (formerly Schacherl) were exhibited at Bill Main’s Exposures Gallery in Wellington - an historically invaluable ‘exposure’ in that this was the only exhibition, and that posthumous, in a New Zealand art or photography gallery of the work of a highly accomplished photographer.
RICHARD SHARELL Jet-black seed of Titoki, embedded in fleshy cup c.1970 Colour photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Main characterised Sharell as a ‘pioneering’ photographer, in particular of nature, in this country, who brought with him from Europe approaches to photography that were otherwise little-known or of little impact among most New Zealand photographers when he arrived in Wellington in January 1940.(1) His photographs, Main wrote, ‘will serve to remind us how insular we were in the period between the two World Wars, when the “Modern Movement” in photography held sway [in Europe and America]’: ‘’Professional portrait photographers and photojournalists’ here, in contrast, ‘were hogtied to tradition’,(2) seemingly resistant then to new ideas and practices. Luminaries of the Central European ‘New Photography’, such as Albert Renger-Patsch, Karl Blossfeldt, and Alfred Ehrhardt, whose work informed Sharell’s, meant nothing in New Zealand.
Sharell’s photography is still undeservedly little-known or recognised for its qualities and innovativeness, even though large selections of his work were published in the books he wrote in his better-known public guise as a naturalist: The Tuatara, Lizards and Frogs of New Zealand (Collins: London 1966; republished 1975), with 60 photographs, and New Zealand Insects and their Story (Collins, 1971, revised edition 1982), with 200 images. These books were praised for their photographs and for their well-informed texts, both scientifically rigorous and accessible to laymen. The art and photography and the scientific realms remained resolutely separate, it would seem, in New Zealand. That was not so for Sharell, however. For him the aesthetic dimension was inseparable from his scientifi c interests. Quoting the poet and painter, William Blake, ‘I see through my eyes, not with them,’ Sharell wrote, ‘My endeavours were not only to give a fair representation to the creatures, but to show images which manifest the rhythm of form and pattern, the colour and the texture’.(3)
RICHARD SHARELL The golden eye of the Tuatara c.1960 Colour photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Following the lineage of the great and influential German naturalist and contemporary of Blake, Wilhelm von Humboldt, for whom art and science had a necessary complementary relationship, Sharell sought to visualise a sense of wonder and the ‘marvelous’ in the natural world, to go beyond the drily factual or blandly documentary in his imagings of creatures such as tuatara, geckos, praying mantis, monarch butterflies, wetas, stick insects, and dragon flies. To this end he deployed unusual angles, closeups, attention to detail, and lighting and composition carefully calculated to maximise the visual dynamic. The title of a portfolio of photographs he began on arrival in New Zealand is telling, With Eyes and Heart.(4) In his best photographs creatures and things in the world are seen as if anew, as not seen before. Indeed in a literal sense his were the first photographs, in 1957, of the hatching eggs of that pre-historic reptile unique to New Zealand, the tuatara.
Sharell’s photographs, though, were not limited to natural history work. Both in Austria and New Zealand he made photographs of people, both portraits of individuals and unidentified or generic figures, landscapes and atmospheric phenomena, close-ups of the surfaces of beaches and fields focusing on ‘abstract’ rhythm and pattern, trees and other plants, birds, and artifacts like Maori carvings. He had exhibited his work in Austria, most notably at the Third International Fotoaustellung in Vienna in 1934. Three of his photographs seen there were re-shown in the 1989 Wellington exhibition, while just three of the photographs in this latter exhibition related to the subjects of his books.
On the occasion of a series of natural history talks by Sharell for the National Broadcasting Service in 1945, the New Zealand Listener described Richard Schacherl (the anglicisation to Sharell was yet to come) as ‘one of Hitler’s gifts to New Zealand’,(5) a characterisation that Sharell himself probably would not have been comfortable with. It does signal, though, the circumstances in which he landed up here, as a refugee from Nazism, because of both his Jewish descent and his Socialist affiliations. After the Anschluss, the German takeover of Austria, Sharell was incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp from November 1938 to January 1939; one of the fortunate few thousand, among them the eminent child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, released and able to escape Europe before the War broke out. With the help of English Quakers, Sharell and his wife, Lily, reached Great Britain in June, before being accepted as refugees by the New Zealand Government, which was not generally particularly open to the displaced and desperate then. The support and influence of Walter Nash, a Labour Cabinet Minister, would have been crucial for them.
RICHARD SHARELL Peasant Woman, Styria Austria 1930s Black-and-white photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Born in Graz in Austria in 1893, the son of Dr Michael Schacherl, who had been an Member of Parliament in Austria, Sharell was a teacher for about twenty-eight years; of biology, drawing, art education and handicrafts at a Graz High School, as the Director and Lecturer at the Evening schools (or People’s University) there for eleven years, and for a period at the Institute for Marine Biology in Rovigno in Istria. The Sharell’s first years in Wellington were not easy. He worked in a furniture factory, and Lily, a Doctor of Laws, experienced in public health and social welfare work in Austria and at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, as a cook in a Dental clinic cafe.(6) From late 1943 Sharell worked for the Correspondence School as a teacher of art and crafts, as well as contributing articles and drawings to Education Department publications, such as the School Journals (his “Austrian Tales’ in 1960, for instance) and D. Begg’s Nature Study: A Handbook for Teachers (1962). This was illustrated with about 250 of his line drawings.
Photography was his favoured representational medium though, and he was active right from his arrival in New Zealand in 1940 - but not without difficulties and obstructions. Initially Sharell had been exempted from the Alien Emergency Regulations, enabling him to travel up to 40 miles from his Wellington residence without a Police permit, so that he could continue with his work as a ‘photographic artist’.(7) However in March 1942 he was advised that this exemption and permission had been terminated,(8) while a little earlier Mr. D.L. Dallard, the Under Secretary for Justice, had recommended to the Minister of Justice that Sharell’s permit to keep his camera should be withdrawn: ‘This is not a time when an enemy alien [as refugees, Jewish or not, from Germany, Austria and Hungary were classified] should be encouraged to wander round the coast with a camera’.(9) Even though such restrictions were eased or ended by 1944, the prohibitions and suspicions that the Sharells encountered were likely to have contributed to his self-characterisation late in life, despite his successes in work and some acknowledgement here, ‘I still feel to be a sojourner in a foreign land’.(10)
RICHARD SHARELL Agave 1931 Black-and-white photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Yet the photographic projects he carried out during his 45 years in New Zealand can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt, whether consciously or not, to reemplace himself, to make a home for his family here, after his and Lily’s violent displacement and loss of home and belongings in Europe. Their possessions in storage in Rotterdam were destroyed in the saturation bombing of that city by Germany. He had brought, though, some of his Austrian photographs with him to New Zealand.
Sharell’s Austrian works from the late 1920s to the late 1930s were diverse in their subject matter. They included portraits of family and friends, forest and mountain-scapes, peasants, men, women and children in rural Styria, harbour scenes, plants and sand dunes. Stylistically they varied too, as if Sharell were exploring the possibilities of different and competing representational modes and strategies. There are early twentieth-century-pictorialist-in-style landscapes with small foreground figures gazing out over atmospherically hazy vistas that compositionally recall nineteenth century romantic paintings by German painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich. In contrast, photographs like Agave (1931, included in the 1989 Exposures Gallery show), feature such distinguishing characteristics of interwar Central European ‘New Photography’ and North American formalist work of people like Edward Weston and Tina Modotti as close-ups, unusual viewpoints, with the objects under scrutiny in the front plane and occupying all or most of the picture space. In such photographs, as in another of sand dunes, pattern and rhythm are fore-grounded to the point of abstraction. Both stylistic approaches, which he continued in New Zealand, were sustained by a calculated aestheticising. The subjects, that is, were represented in terms of ‘fine art’. At the same time Sharell’s photographs are invested with intensities of feeling and empathy for his subjects, whether animate or inanimate. This is most overt in his portraits, while otherwise frequently cued by titles or captions.
Sharell’s early New Zealand work, brought together in his With Eyes and Heart portfolio, is also distinguished by these qualities - for instance, photographs of insects, rural landscapes and coastline scenes, paua shells and mussels, sections of plants such as ferns, bubbling mud pools (anticipating the later work of another refugee, Theo Schoon), geysers, Maori carvings at Whakarewarewa and Ohinemutu, the occasional human figure, such as the portrait, Old Bushman George, or those of two women (in Belmont Hill, also included in the 1989 exhibition) looking out over the landscape beyond. This is an exemplary Friedrichian image, in which place seen and represented ‘embodies’ or suggests a human inscape, an inner sense of being.
Images as instruments of metaphor and allegory, not infrequently suggesting existential and emotional ambivalences, characterise Sharell’s early-mid 1940s work. On one hand the acuity of vision and the kinds of focus, the framing of subjects, the emphases on rhythms of form and patterns of light and dark, and the deployment of close-ups are indices of that sense of wonder and delight in, and intimacy with, the different natural and antipodean world he found himself in. On the other, there are recurrent intimations of loss and death in, and damage to, this world. Some of the shadow-play is expressionistically ominous (another marker of the interwar Central European), as in Harmless creatures and fearful shadows, a photograph of stick insects set in a void-like space. Paralysed spiders, 25 of them, from a mason bee’s nest are laid out as if corpses in a mortuary, victims of mass-murder. And there is photograph of landscape of burnt tree stumps, their shapes thin and figure-like, the scene echoing a World War One battlescape, titled Once upon a time there was native bush.
RICHARD SHARELL Belmont Hill Black-and-white photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Another 1940 photograph, included in the 1989 show, of sticky strips of fly-paper hanging against weatherboard, captures a quintessentially New Zealand practice and phenomenon of the period. Immediately in formal terms it may come across primarily as an exercise in patterns of light and shadow, of the textures and structure of both sharply-seen and ephemeral forms in shallow space - exemplary ’New Photography’ again. Yet its title, Shadows of death, cues the allegorical - perhaps dualistically so, giving voice to his own European experiences and the then present war, as well as to a sense of a New Zealand, indeed a safe haven after Europe, but also an ‘arcadia’ or ‘promised land’ in which all was not necessarily well.
Overall, though, and this becomes more pronounced in his post-War photographs, in particular those of flora and fauna, the sense of the wondrous and redemptive force of natural life and phenomena is primary and predominant. He found another home, one could say, with his family, in New Zealand’s natural world. Consider Sharell’s photographs of tuatara, some of which were published in his 1966 book, going about their business - the tuatara, pre-historic, New Zealand-distinctive, thus a marker of place. In some of these, those of hatching eggs, for example, or the close-up of the eye of the reptile, tuatara were seen as never seen before. It is both made known and made strange.
Likewise his botanical close-ups, with their emphases on pattern, form, structure and detail, such as that of the startlingly-coloured and science-fiction looking seed head of the titoki, which very few people identify from the photograph. It simultaneously defamiliarises, makes strange (to an almost surrealistic degree) and vividly reveals the compelling beauty and awesomeness of, and in, the natural.
RICHARD SHARELL Waves in the Sand 1936 Black-and-white photograph (Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
This and his like work were configurations new to this country’s visual culture, made by someone from elsewhere, classified initially as an ‘alien’. The traffic, though, was not one-way; only from Europe to New Zealand. In applying a refined and sophisticated Central European photographic eye to distinctively New Zealand phenomena Sharell in effect reconstructed himself. Things New Zealand impacted strongly on him and his work. His close and intimate involvement and affinity with the natural environment here could be seen too as a manifestation of a desire to belong, to become part of a culturally very different place. Notably, the names of his daughter, born in 1945, couple the European and the indigenous - Eva Manuka. A home was sought in that doubling, of which his photographs also can be seen as metaphors.
Yet Richard Sharell had a continuing sense of loss and estrangement during his more than 40 years in New Zealand. While considering he and Lily fortunate ‘survivors’(11) of Central Europe’s calamitous first half the twentieth century, he would write, ‘my heart still belongs to Europe’.(12) His photographic legacy, though, remains here, as a result of the benefactions of his daughter, who lives in Canada, of large collections of his photographs (prints, transparencies and negatives) to Te Papa Tongarewa/ The Museum of New Zealand and the Alexander Turnbull Library.
1. William Main, Richard Sharell 1893-1986: Catalogue of Original Prints 1929-40, Exposures Gallery, Wellington 1989 (unpaginated). 2. ibid. 3. Richard Sharell, Preface, The Tuatara, Lizards and Frogs of New Zealand, Collins, London 1966, p. 6. 4. ‘With Eyes and Heart’, unpublished photographic manuscript, Photography Collection, AL 181, Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand. 5. ‘A Gift from Hitler’, New Zealand Listener, 17 August 1945. 6. For Sharell’s biographical details see Richard Sharell, New Zealand Insects and their Story, Collins: Auckland, revised edition 1982, and National Archives, Wellington, Aliens Records, AAAR 493/49. 7. C.H. Weston, Aliens Authority report, 25 February 1941, to the Minister of Justice, National Archives, Wellington, Aliens Records, AAAR 493/49. 8. ibid., C.H. Weston to the Minister of Justice, 19 March 1942. 9. ibid., B.L. Dallard to the Minister of Justice, 27 December 1941, 10. Richard Sharell, letter to Amelia Batistich, 12 January 1983, Alexander Turnbull Library, MS Papers 4927. 11. Richard Sharell to Amelia Batistich, 12 December 1983. 12. Richard Sharell to Amelia Batistich, 12 February 1978.