Picturesque Manapouri: Conservation and the Camera

July 27 – Did a capital’s day work; weather splendid; subjects ‘as thick as three in a bed.’ … I want to unburden myself a little, and this occasion will do as well as another. A photographer, at considerable expense, carries his camera into the mountains, endures considerable ‘roughing,’ devotes himself to the one pursuit of photographing the scenic glories around him – in fact lives, moves, and has his being in the making of negatives and yet more negatives. He spots a scene; tries it from this point; tries it from that; finally decides; pitches his camera; summons his staff; sets one with axe to fell a tree, and another with a billhook to clear away scrub, and so ‘composes’ the picture. Meanwhile he takes note of the condition of the light, the position of the sun, the character of the clouds, and the calmness or otherwise of the water. Eventually he produces a picture which obtains for him some little kudos.

Alfred H Burton, ‘Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri: A Photographer’s Diary’, 1889

Alfred Burton’s winter trip around the Southern lakes Te Anau and Manapouri was an unbridled quest for scenes of picturesque beauty, caught on the photographic plate, and destined for the tourist market. His accompanying journal casts the excursion in heroic terms, as a perilous adventure through inhospitable but awe-inspiring terrain.

His party was venturing into mysterious realms. This was the territory of the famous ‘lost tribe’ of Ngāti Māmoe. Three years previously, Professor Mainwaring Brown had vanished from the lakeside. Mainwaring Brown’s disappearance sparked a European fascination in the region closely attuned to the Māori myth explaining the creation of the lake from the tears of Koronae and Moturua, sisters who were separated and lost while wandering this land.[1]

Romance, adventure and mystery surrounded this European invention of Lake Manapouri. Surveyors played their part by corrupting or overlooking the region’s original names and boundaries. Historian James Cowan later condemned the actions of these ‘blundering Pākehā mapmakers’.[2] Their rechristening of the lake ‘Manapouri’ symbolised the arrival of new ways of looking at, occupying, and using this land. 

The camera was complicit in this invention of Lake Manapouri for the European imagination. Burton’s photographs offer a classic appeal to the tourist vision, providing picturesque scenes of great natural wonder and beauty. Burton’s Manapouri is an untamed landscape. But the occasional spectator figure, cleared track, or moored boat provide enough signs of culture to suggest that the tourist can enter this realm physically, as well as visually or imaginatively.

Burton’s ‘composing’ of his scenes with an axe and scrub clearers was common practice in colonial landscape photography. Art historian Tim Bonyhardy discusses how this axe wielding undermines a central myth of this genre—that ‘the celebration of nature involves respect for it’.[3]  Tramper C. Smeaton White would no doubt agree. Her account of an excursion around Lake Manapouri in 1923 notes with disgust the rubbish left behind by photographers after capturing their shots of a pristine nature.[4]

The felling of a few trees to make a picturesque photograph was a minor infringement compared to other violations enacted upon the land through this period. But Burton’s apparently loving images of nature can be located within an ideology of preservation through intervention that structured European land use through this period.

Parallels can be drawn to the release of red deer around Manapouri from 1901 to enhance the lake’s scenic qualities and appeal as a hunting destination.[5] Trout and salmon were also released into the lake. Manapouri became one of the country’s great scenic reserves, and eventually formed part of the Fiordland National Park.

This strongly felt need to ‘preserve’ the picturesque qualities of the region was part of broader cultural drives of the colonial period. Connections can be drawn to the preservation of Māori as a ‘dying race’, or Walter Buller’s rouge ornithology based on the sacrifice of native birds for a greater scientific good. The camera sits alongside the axe, the gun, the bible, and the specimen jar as colonial tools of preservation.

The photographers of the National Publicity Studios, and others attuned to the tourist market, pushed this vision of Manapouri as an idyllic scenic wonderland well into the second half of the twentieth century. It is the signs of culture rather than nature that change in these later photographs. Pictured tourists with beehive hairdos and patterned dresses now travel by jet boat instead of rowboat. New technologies allowed these photographs to burst into full colour, or to be sold as slides. But the same vision of a picturesque Lake Manapouri was being sold at a period before cheap photographic equipment allowed tourists to document their own experiences of the region.

By the mid-1960s, however, the context for these picturesque views had significantly changed. These photographs were directed both at a tourist market and an increasingly urbanised New Zealand society alienated from this treasured natural beauty. More dramatically, the construction of the Manapouri hydropower station cast a long shadow over the picturesque lake.

Duty bound to provide imagery that advanced government agendas, NPS photographers turned their cameras towards the power station. Photographs celebrating industrial development, heavy machinery and workers did not simply replace picturesque views. Often the wonders of nature and modern engineering come together. In an extreme extension of Burton’s concept of view-making, some of these photographs promoted the government line that natural beauty of Lake Manapouri could actually be enhanced through this industrial development.

Photography had long been a tool of region’s developers. The New Zealand Sounds Hydro-Electric Concessions Ltd assessed the lake’s hydroelectric potential as early as 1923. The company commissioned a series of panoramic photographs as part of its task of selling the hydropower revolution to a government, a nation, and potential investors. These glorious panoramas conform to all of the conventions of the picturesque— except for their captions that incongruously mark where power stations and tailrace tunnels would be located.[6]

But the camera was used to challenge as well as advance these industrial ideals. Photography played a key role in the consciousness-raising ‘Save Manapouri’ campaign of the late 1960s and early 1970s, formed to oppose plans to artificially raise the lake to maximise the power station’s productivity. 

The campaign primarily utilised two modes of photography. The first was a documentary mode that highlighted and spread the ‘Save Manapouri’ message, especially through the media. The photograph of soon-to-be-ousted Prime Minister Jack Marshall surrounded by placard-wielding protesters at Te Anau has become an iconic image of protest in this country.[7]  At other times, the conventions of the picturesque were called on to remind New Zealanders of what was at stake. A photograph of the lake at its most majestic was used in a poster asking ‘How to destroy 500,000 years work…Ignore it.’ The picturesque and ideals of preservation took on new, explicitly politicised meanings.

By the 1970s, Lake Manapouri had changed in both a physical and a symbolic sense. There is little acknowledgement of these shifts in Peter Beadle’s paintings and associated book that document an Alfred Burton-like trip around the lake in the early 1970s. Beadle sought out the picturesque in this turbulent period of industrial development and protest. The foreword of this book describes ‘the horns of dilemma that confront the artist who contemplates Lake Manapouri…if he essays a description in word and picture he does the lake an injustice—it can not be described’.[8] But this project and its attempt to ‘describe’ the majesties of the lake represent an idealistic throwback to an earlier romantic investment in Manapouri that was no longer really possible or desirable. 

The issue was not only that the cultural and political investments in Lake Manapouri had shifted. Concepts of art, representation, and landscape as a genre were pressured and redefined through this period. Artists sought new ways of engaging meaningfully with the land, interrogating or rejecting conventional modes and systems of representation. Emerging postmodern and post-colonial perspectives linked the earlier photographic investment in sites like Manapouri to the Pākehā take over and domination of the land. The ‘dilemma’ these emerging practices and perspectives offered the picturesque tradition ran much deeper than that confronting Beadle.

But the romantic, picturesque tradition has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. Images of the lake’s scenic beauty continue to be offered up to the tourist and consumer gaze. The Lord of the Rings films repackage the region’s picturesque beauty for a contemporary audience. The fight to ‘Save Manapouri’ may be over, but the battle over the representation of Lake Manapouri through recourse to the picturesque is still in full swing.

Published in Bold Centuries: Haruhiko Sameshima, (Auckland: Rim Books, 2009)


[1] Herries Beattie, I Visit Manapouri, Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1949, p.49

[2] James Cowan, Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori, Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1925, p.158

[3] Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press2000, p.193

[4] C Smeaton White, Account of a journey from West Arm to Deep Cove, Doubtful Sound, Manuscripts Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-3640

[5] John Hall-Jones, Fiordland Explored: an illustrated history, Wellington: Reed, 1976, p.90

[6] The archives of the New Zealand Sounds Hydro-Concessions Ltd are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. The photographs are part of the Photographic Archive, PA Coll-8585

[7] This photograph was published in The Otago Daily Times, July 1972

[8] Peter Beadle, Manapouri, Seen by Peter Beadle, Wellington: Reed, 1971, p.5

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