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May 2011 Issue
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Feeling for Daylight

Feeling for daylight, by Rhian Gallagher

The Photographs of Jack Adamson

By Rhian Gallagher

South Canterbury Museum, $45

Jack Adamson was a labourer, glacier guide, Hermitage manager, mountaineer, husband and father who lived at Mount Cook through the Golden Age of climbing. But Adamson is best remembered for his photographs.

In 1882, 16-year-old Jack met would-be Mt Cook climber William Green and his two Swiss guides at Timaru Train Station, an encounter that sowed a seed in the young man that mountaineering was possibility.

Adamson was unusual, because photography in the late 19th century was an expensive business normally beyond the means of someone who was not a professional or wealthy amateur. Shortly after arriving at the Hermitage to work in 1889, Adamson began taking glass plate pictures and soon mastered the art. Indeed, what endures about his images is an ability to capture spontaneity in his subjects, rather than the formal and stiff portraits more often produced when slow shutter speeds and a tripod were necessary to get results.

There’s a wonderful self-portrait of Adamson and his brother, both grinning, which epitomises his skill. Even technically flawed images, like one of Mt Cook seen through the edge of Governor’s Bush, have an ageless charm. In other pictures, like one of men crossing a branch bridge over a flooded stream, Adamson shows extraordinary skill. Just lugging the photographic gear to such places was mission enough. And then there are Adamson’s best-known pictures: his portraits of the major climbers of the 1890s including George Mannering, Edward FitzGerald, Matthias Zurbriggen, Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham.

Magnificently produced, the hardback Feeling for Daylight is exceptional value. Rhian Gallagher’s masterful text gives an excellent sense of both Adamson’s life and work, and also the context of his times. An interesting section details the race to climb Mt Cook, while insightful writing explores photography’s value during that period of history: ‘…topographical photography was part of an observance for pioneer mountaineers almost as important as the climb itself […] photographs documented the journey; they gave information about the terrain, which could then be used in planning future routes.’

An exquisite book, Feeling for Daylight is a real collector’s piece.