Constuction Underway | Sarjeant Gallery Whanganui
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Sarjeant Happenings: Celebrated photographic collection online

Sarjeant Happenings: Celebrated photographic collection online

Ben Lubschez, Sunshine and Shadow. Collected for the Sarjeant Gallery by Frank Denton, 1925.

New Zealand’s largest, finest, and most comprehensive public collection of Pictorialist photographs, held by the Sarjeant Gallery, has now been fully digitised. The internationally significant collection of Frank James Denton (1869 – 1963) can be browsed by the public through the Sarjeant’s online portal “Explore the Collection” here.

Frank Denton worked as a successful commercial photographer in Whanganui, 1899 – 1927 and played an active part in the town’s evolving artistic and cultural community.

As well as being a successful commercial photographer, Denton was an accomplished, pictorialist photographer in his own right, says Collections Curator, Jennifer Taylor-Moore.

Pictorialist images were produced using a variety of experimental, time consuming and handmade processes which demanded a high level of technical expertise from the photographers.

Some characteristics of pictorialist photography include: nostalgic subjects, deliberately unfocused images, use of handmade papers, introduction of colours in the papers, use of chemical treatments (such as liquid toners) to chemically alter print colours, common use of re-touching of images, the photographer mixing their own light sensitive solutions.

At the time of the opening of the Sarjeant Gallery in 1919 Mayor Charles Mackay commissioned Denton to curate an international exhibition of art photography. He donated 83 of the 171 exhibited photographs to the Gallery’s collection, making the Sarjeant the first Gallery in New Zealand to seriously collect photography. These 83 photographs form the F. J. Denton Collection.

“Many of the prints within the collection are contact prints, made from a photographic negative placed in contact with sensitised paper and exposed to light, often in the sun – called daylight printing. The prints took time to make and the correct exposure was judged by experience and a skilled eye. Each step required time and skill.”

Among the many highlights of the collection she cites Sunshine and Shadow by American photographer Ben Lubschez.

“This image of shafts of sunlight spilling between classical columns, probably at a train station, creates a grid of light and shadow on the ground and highlights the shine and detail of the cars below. It is just incredible and a masterclass in the use of light.”

Sarjeant photographer Michael McKeagg took around six weeks to complete the digital documentation of the 83 works. The process that requires four images to be made of each work brought the total number of image files for the Denton Collection to 338.

“Many of the images are affixed to mat boards which have slightly warped over their 100+ year lifespan which makes it difficult to achieve a perfectly sharp record of the whole image but when using our current equipment I was pleased with the results.”

But the ‘silvering’ on some of the vintage prints he chose to leave in the photographic records as this is how they will be seen when on display.

McKeagg said the project increased his artistic and technical understandings of the works.

“Artistically, I gained an understanding of the many tropes explored during this period of pictorialism which are uncommon and difficult to produce today. Technically, the paper stocks and printing methods used during this period are essentially extinct today, or extremely expensive to produce so it was fascinating to see them in such clarity before they go behind glass. As I was born into a digital era, I have a huge appreciation for the time spent making these works and level of skill required. The rapid increase in accessibility to photography and distribution of images today has meant there is a decrease in specialised photography which is what makes this collection so significant and interesting.”

This article originally appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle and NZ Herald online on 18 August 2020. Please see here.