Erik Olssen – Working Lives

Working Lives

Working Lives c. 1900,
a photographic essay by Erik Olssen
Dunedin: OUP (2013).
RRP: $50.
Pb, B&W photos throughout
and colour paintings, 176pp.
ISBN: 9871877578519

Reviewed by Matthew Hughes.


Thanks to the computing and internet revolutions, digital cameras and smart phones, our world is awash with imagery, and never has our ability to capture and disseminate photographs been greater. However, recent concerns have been voiced that this massive visual documentation of the human project could eventually be lost due to digital deterioration, evaporation of the ‘Cloud’ and the inability of future technologies to read current software, leading to a ‘digital dark age’ for future historians. Just as the preservation of visual documentation in the past was a result of both diligent effort and luck, leading to biased snapshots of societies long gone, so future societies may inevitably receive a distorted view of our current world due to what ultimately survives the ages. If this is the case, then the role of historians in interpreting the fragments will be as vital in this imagined future as they are now.

I suspect that the flood of selfies and visual self-aggrandisement on modern social media revolves largely around family life, socialising and travel, and if any fragments survive for our imagined future historians, then they will provide some valuable insights into our proclivities and what is meaningful to us. But as I finished Erik Olssen’s important and fascinating book Working Lives c.1900 – A photographic essay, I wondered how much of Facebook and Instagram is populated by images of the offices, shops, factories and worksites of our own working lives. If these social media platforms serve more to document our leisure and fantasy than they do the labour many endure if not enjoy, then they will be a poor resource for our future historians in understanding what we did with half of our waking lives.

In Working Lives c.1900, Dunedin historian Erik Olssen has compiled photographs from that time (plus a few up to a few decades either side of the turn of the 20thcentury) to, as he writes, “investigate the nature of work in New Zealand’s first industrial suburbs”, and to illustrate “two processes fundamental to creating a new society: the transformation of a wild landscape into farmland and then industrial heartland; and the transplantation of the knowledge and skill acquired in the Old World that were essential to building a new world.” The focus of this collection is Dunedin, which due to the Otago gold rush and the nature of the city’s immigrant communities and public works had by the 1870s become New Zealand’s commercial, financial and industrial capital. It was natural that this south Pacific outpost of Europe’s Industrial Revolution should have been captured photographically, and through this special record we can understand similar, but more poorly recorded, urban evolution occurring elsewhere in New Zealand at the time.

As in any age the photographic subjects reflected the interests of the photographer or the brief of their client, and the resulting fragmentary and biased nature of the record is explicitly recognised by Olssen: “Grand houses and squalid slums, notable people, the transformation of the wilderness, the rise of new cities and the growth of industry: all had their photographers. So did many of the new society’s leisure activities.” However “housework and the home interested nobody…the heroic work of draining and waterproofing southern Dunedin is almost unrecorded…nor did the clouds of filthy dust from the unpaved streets in summer, or even the squalid mud after two or three days of drizzle, interest any photographer.”

The fragments we do have, however, are fascinating. Organised into chapters entitled ‘From ‘the Swamp’ to ‘the Flat’’, ‘Factories, Shops and Offices’, ‘Crafts, Jobs and Professions’, ‘A Less Unequal Society?’ and ‘The Labour Movement and the Labour Party’, we are transported back to a world in many ways still steeped in 19th century technologies and attitudes, but also clearly on the cusp of being propelled into 20th century modernity, with all its turbulent political currents and social emancipations. We see industrial areas and suburbs from afar, strangely devoid of people and vehicles as if they snuck from view for the moments it took to capture the photo. In other images we look into the eyes of people from across more than a century, posing inside and outside of their places of work, some arranged in stiff formality so characteristic of portraiture at the time, others grinning and laconic, their humour and ease preserved for the ages. We see a group in cloaks and bowler hats in the gleeful throws of a snow fight in 1901. A manufacturing magnate and his elegant wife dole out presents to their workers’ children at the firm’s 1898 Christmas picnic, highlighting a “paternal benevolence and familial ethos” almost alien to our modern neoliberal world. Outside a railway workshop in 1915 a large crowd of men is entertained by a pair settling some dispute with their fists. In a hosiery factory in 1910 young women in their long dresses and aprons attend steam-driven circular knitting machines. Also in 1910 we see a crowd of factory women, allowed the day off work and dressed in their finery, being addressed by two out-of-shot Baptist evangelists visiting from the United States; the women appear variously wrapt, indifferent, or distracted by the photographer. As we look at all these faces from across more than a century, we know something they do not: in several years’ time many of their lives will be torn apart by, or lost in, World War One. Knowledge of this looming tragedy lends a special poignancy to these images.

While ostensibly a photographic essay, the supporting text in Working Lives c.1900 is a concise distillation of Olssen’s previous works such as Building the New World: Work, politics and society in Caversham, 1880s-1920s, and An Accidental Utopia? Social mobility and the foundations of an egalitarian society, 1880-1940. As such the book is a great introduction to the foundations of New Zealand’s early industrial expansion, social evolution, and birth of the Labour movement. It is also an ode to the dignity of work and the meaning it brought to peoples’ lives. Working Lives c.1900 does what all good works of history should do – help us understand ourselves and our own world by connecting us tangibly, emotionally with the past. Will our modern digital age provide as much insight and poignancy for the generations to come? We can only hope.

Matthew HughesMatthew Hughes is an Earth and Environmental Scientist, currently working as Canterbury Earthquake Geospatial Research Fellow in the Department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering at the University of Canterbury. He has a multidisciplinary scientific background encompassing geology, ecology, soil science and climate change, and his current work on natural hazards and disasters focusses on resilient and sustainable cities and communities and, in particular, the impacts of the Christchurch earthquakes on the city’s landscapes and infrastructure. In his spare time Matthew is a voracious reader of history, geopolitics, and indulges in the occasional work of fiction. Matthew is also a volunteer firefighter in his local community of Sumner, Christchurch.

T85Cover small

First published
takahē 85
December 2015