William Williams saw the world in little moments.
A woman in a hammock, her white dress trailing over its edge; a man in dress clothes standing by a canoe; barren streetscapes; a man sitting above water running over fluted stone.
It is well he did, for the young Welshman (born in Cardiff in 1858) has captured New Zealand as it was from 1882 to 1906.
It is fascinating, and arrayed in fine photographs held by the Alexander Turnbull Library and exhibited as Young Country, and on show at the Ashburton Art Gallery until November 5.
The photographs are complemented by contemporary poems by New Zealand writer Kerry Hine.
Williams’ albumen prints were made for the exhibition by Wayne Barrar.
Williams was born in Cardiff but spent much of his early life in England before he came to New Zealand at age 22.
Here, he began a life-long career in railways stores, but he travelled widely, taking photographs on glass-plate, preserving a striking account of life in early New Zealand.
The photographs, in many instances, are personal: slices of domestic life – a man beside a rough hut whittling a walking stick; men working on a railway line; a boy alone beneath a canopy of trees.
There are even photographs of the photographer, a plate camera at his side.
The black and white work is made all the more poignant by Hines’ poems, in which she draws on imaginary characters and voices, as in Legends:
No one knows their name
the poor people of the eel pots
people of the adzes, people
of the mountains.
No history but pre-history,
which the land has taken to itself – gone
we say, like moa –
before our time. Yet
rumours persist – like takahe –
Lord, wouldn’t that
A lost tribe
unlost, hoped for
in the hills