115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“A Proper Maori Portrait”: Imagining New Zealand in the Photographs of Elizabeth Pulman

Lara Karpenko, Carroll University

This paper examines the work of one of New Zealand’s earliest female photographers, Elizabeth Pulman (1836–1900).  Focusing on her portraits of the Maori people, I suggest that Pulman’s work unsettles what Nancy Armstrong has categorized as the “salon” and “scientific” approaches to nineteenth-century portraiture and instead subtly embraces a hybridized version of New Zealand identity. 


In this paper I explore the nineteenth-century construction of Oceania through an examination of the work of Elizabeth Pulman (1836–1900). Commonly judged to be New Zealand’s first professional female photographer, Pulman produced a series of arresting images that reimagined not only the conventions of Victorian portraiture but that also subtly embraced a hybridized version of New Zealand identity. Arriving in New Zealand in 1861, Pulman and her husband George opened their photographic studio in Auckland, New Zealand in 1867.  When George died in 1871, Elizabeth carried on the work of the studio until shortly before her death at the turn of the century. Whereas George took photographs in a variety of genres and became particularly well-known for his landscape and cartographic photographs, Elizabeth almost exclusively focused on portraiture. Focusing specifically on her portraits of the Maori people, I suggest that Pulman’s work unsettles what Nancy Armstrong famously categorized as the “salon” and “scientific” approaches to nineteenth-century portraiture and provides a unique vision of the emerging New Zealand nation.

In the first movement of my paper, I examine early New Zealand photographs of the Maori people more broadly.  Photographic technology in New Zealand was largely a British import and its rapid growth in popularity coincided with the massive waves of British immigration that occurred during the 1850’s and 1860’s; this influx of immigrants also prompted the New Zealand Wars of 1845-1872, a series of brutal wars between the native Maori population and the ever-growing and increasingly avaricious British settlers. Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, early British photographs invented and circulated cartoonishly cruel stereotypes of the Maori people that imaginatively severed them from the British settler class.

In the second movement of my paper, I turn more specifically to the work of Elizabeth Pulman.  Despite the fact that she arrived in Auckland at the height of the New Zealand Wars, her work differs markedly from that of her contemporaries. Instead of perpetuating notions of the Maori as “other”, Pulman’s photographs portray the Maori within the well-established confines of British portraiture: mothers and children, “blooming” young women, athletic men, etc. Though her work certainly perpetuated British norms of gender and though it perhaps sacrificed Maori identity to British expectations of aesthetics and propriety, these photographs also point towards a more robust and more inclusive sense of New Zealand nationhood. At once Maori and British, Pulman’s subjects seem to inhabit the sort of hybridized identity that many of her contemporaries tried to eradicate.

While Pulman’s work is frequently mentioned by critics such as John Hannavy, Harwick Knight, or William Main and John B. Turner, she rarely inspires more than a paragraph or perhaps a page of commentary. By making Pulman’s photographic output the explicit subject of my focus, I shed light on a figure that has been unjustly forgotten and whose unique work, despite some of its obvious shortcomings, at times provides a forward-thinking vision of New Zealand subjecthood.