Book review: Images from Albertland: Harold Marsh 1876-1948 by Paul Campbell

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Historical documentary photography from the Kaipara Harbour region is a niche subject area in which to publish, but in the case of Images from Albertland, it proves itself worthy as the tipping point for anyone with a bent for local history.

Named after the (then) recently deceased Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), Albertland comprised the 70,000 coastal acres surrounding the Kaipara Harbour. Its people, the Albertlanders, were British immigrants who sailed to New Zealand between 1862-1880, with the vision of establishing a classless, non-conformist society.

Farmer and photographer William Harold Marsh lived in Albertland throughout his life, and the book chronicles his community’s story through a lens. All of the images are in black and white, taken from the archive at the Albertland Heritage Centre, Wellsford. A range of glass plate and film photos are included, and it’s astonishing to have such a clear record from this time. The book includes portraits, landscapes, domestic and street photography, and while most images are candid, there are also posed shots such as local weddings, or the image of the four Meiklejohn brothers donning battle uniforms and mounted on horses while at a training camp in 1905.

The photography is fascinating from an historical perspective, providing an insight into the arduous pioneering life of this tight-knit community of immigrants. A sense of isolation is apparent right through the collection, even in photographs populated with people. For example, a family building castles at the beach depicts the subjects surrounded by nothing other than gusty tree branches and an ocean; later in the ‘Harbour Highways’ chapter is ‘Legendary Kaipara fisherman, Ted Pooks and his sons clearing nets’ with only the wide reflections of a yacht and dinghy to keep them company.

Most affecting are Marsh’s personal photographs, for instance the self-portrait of ‘Pop Marsh’ showing him writing alone awhile suffering from the post-WWI Spanish flu epidemic, also the images of him and his children preparing to photograph an eclipse of the sun, or his children scoffing watermelon on the veranda. Marsh is capable of honing in on the detail of everyday life, using faces and subtle backdrop cues to weave an emotional tapestry.

The book’s text is well-written, informative, and packed with first-person accounts, but is not laid out in the most accessible of formats, something particularly critical in coffee-table-style books requiring a strong visual appeal. That said, it’s the photographs which should capture readers’ attention, and they do – they’re ones to savour before going off to find out more about this remarkable episode in New Zealand history.

Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair

Images from Albertland: Harold Marsh 1876-1948
By Paul Campbell
Published by Echo Publishing
ISBN: 9780473185480