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Photoised: Portraits of the Cook Islands

Friday July 11, 2014 Written by Published in Weekend
Cook Islands cowboys, circa 1914, Cook Islands. 14071006 Cook Islands cowboys, circa 1914, Cook Islands. 14071006 PHOTO GEORGE CRUMMER, TE PAPA

In 1980, The National Film Unit in New Zealand gifted Te Papa Museum (known then as the National Museum) a collection of black and white glass plate negatives by George Robson Crummer, an amateur photographer resident in Rarotonga from 1890.

Alongside his shipping venture Crummer also established a local commercial photography business, ‘Crummer's Biograph, Moving Pictures, Scientific Instructive Amusing’.

Te Papa has over 240 items associated with Crummer including an album of photographs and 227 black and white glass plate negatives taken between 1896 and c1914. Other than his rather amusing captions and a few dates, we have very little information about the Crummer negatives. In the absence of details surrounding this collection I have started to look inside the frame for clues that might help us understand the histories captured within them.

Trade in the Cook Islands

Crummer was originally drawn to the Cook Islands to establish a shipping business between Auckland and the Cook Islands. It is by no coincidence then that some of his photographic subject matter was trade specific. He captured all aspects of trade; views of the harbour, people arriving at trading houses on horseback and longboats and outriggers bringing in Oxo cubes, sacks of flour and other imported foodstuffs.

Crummer also documented trading establishments including the thatched-roof trading house of ‘Donald and Edenborough’, owned by Auckland business partners Alexander Bell Donald and Charles Edenborough. In a report on the Hervey Islands in the New Zealand Herald, October 2, 1888,  “Donald and Edenborough” is described as one of the chief trading houses in the Cook Islands. They had several branches in Rarotonga with agencies in Palmerston atoll and the Austral Islands of Rurutu and Rimutara. The Rarotonga branch depicted in Crummer’s photograph was the hub of local industry, housing steam powered cotton gins and coffee husking machines which may shed light on another of Crummer’s photographs, ‘Rarotongan Coffee Palace 1914’.

Motoring anyone?

Beyond his interest in trade it appears he was also quite taken by the introduction of new technologies such as the motorcar. Rather than being purely documentary, his motorcar portraits (including one taken as an advertisement for his photography company) seem to engage with the novelty of the motorcar as a photographic setting.

Crummer staged a number of group portraits, including a posse of ‘Cook Islands cowboys’ seated in and around motorcars draped with bouquets and floral garlands. Some of the accompanying captions such as ‘lure of the motorcar’ and ‘joys of the motorcar’ appear to capture some of the excitement that surrounded the advent of this technology in the Pacific.

Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles

Sifting through Crummer’s collection, there was one peculiar object that caught my attention - the bicycle. Crummer photographed keen cyclists old and young mounted on their bicycles, however, it was the appearance of bicycles in staged portraits that stirred my curiosity.

Crummer took numerous portraits of men and women and even entire families posing alongside their beloved bicycles. Did Crummer simply have a penchant for bicycles or was there more to this strange photographic prop?

The dates of Crummer’s negatives provide some clues to the popularity of this wheeled prop. Many of his portraits are dated in the decades following the global bicycle boom of the 1890s, an era described by historians as the “golden age” of cycling. The uptake of the bicycle as a means of transport and leisure also initiated the formation of cycle clubs around the world.  In New Zealand, the bicycle boom saw the formation of cycling clubs in cities and towns across the country. By 1897, there were a total of 64 clubs in New Zealand. The cycle club phenomena also spread to the Pacific as reported in an issue of Te Torea, a Cook Islands bilingual newspaper dated October 10, 1896.

“On Saturday afternoon our friend Mr George Crummer had quite a busy time. On the lawn fronting Mr Scard’s residence all the members of the Rarotonga Cycling Club had assembled for the purpose of being photoised.”

The article goes on to describe Crummer grouping and photographing members in various positions before the club proceeded to pedal around in a procession. The sight of the circling cyclists inspired the reporter to proclaim “the wheel craze has reached our little island”. Local trading house Factorie Societe Commercial de L’Oceanie also capitalised on this craze offering cash discounts and lowered prices for “good strong bicycles with solid rubber tyres”. A week later the Te Torea reported seeing more Crummer photographs of cyclists in Rarotonga captured against “forest foliage”.

From these accounts, and the many bicycle portraits in our collection, it seems that Crummer was not only captivated by the local cycle scene but driven to document it. Crummer’s bicycle photography is a history told visually and a reminder that there is a lot to be discovered if we continue to look inside the frame.

By Nina Tonga, Curator Pacific Cultures, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa


Cormack James E. ‘Rarotonga was like that in the Nineties!’ Pacific Islands Monthly (1949)
Kennet Brothers. Ride -The story of cycling in New Zealand. (2004)
You can read the original blog and others by the Pacific Cultures Team via the following link: http://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2014/07/01/photoised-bicycle-portraits-in-the-cook-islands/

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