Michael Bradley

Photographer, artist and film maker

Puaki - to come forth, show itself, open out, emerge, reveal, to give testimony.

 

In Māori culture, it is believed everyone has a tā moko under the skin, just waiting to be revealed.

 

The problem is, when photographs of tā moko were originally taken in the 1850s, the tattoos barely showed up at all. The wet-plate photographic method used by European settlers served to erase this cultural marker - and as the years went by, this proved true in real life, too. The ancient art of tā moko was increasingly suppressed as Māori were assimilated into the colonial world.

 

In his new project, photographer Michael Bradley has re-claimed the near-obsolete wet-plate photographic technique as an original and striking way of showing the resurgence of the art form of tā moko.

 

By using wet plate photography to document the rebirth of tā moko, Bradley starkly depicts how culture can be erased by colonisers - and how against all odds, it can come back.

 

The resulting body of work includes photographs and video interviews with 23 Māori participants, creating both stunning works of art and an important historical record. Sitters include high-profile Māori politician Rangi McLean, and prestigious elders such as Ngapuhi’s Kingi Taurua, Waikato University’s Associate Professor Te Kahautu Maxwell, health advocate and advisor Te Kaanga Skipper and cultural expert Pouroto Ngaropo.

 

Bradley, a full time professional photographer with more than 20 years working in New Zealand and internationally, has spent the past four years mastering the complex art of wet-plate photography. He studied under New Zealand's "godfather of wet-plate", Brian Scadden, in his Wellington studio.

 

The technique, invented in 1850, is a slow and laborious process. It involves the pouring of collodion onto a glass plate, before it is bathed in silver nitrate, loaded into a wooden camera, the photograph taken and developed in another potent mix of chemicals.

 

This photographic technique was in use during the time New Zealand was first colonised, from the 1850s until around the 1870s.

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In his research, Bradley became fascinated by the way the wet-plate process served to essentially erase tā moko from the faces of Māori photographed around this time. The mix of chemicals used did not pick up the ink used in traditional tā moko, rendering these important cultural tattoos all but invisible. The scarring or markings left from the uhi, the traditional chisel used to give the tattoo, was the only clue to its existence.

 

Sifting through the Auckland Museum's archives, Bradley found some photographers had tried to render the tā moko in pen or crayon over the photograph after it was taken. In others, makeup was applied onto the sitter to highlight the tā moko before the photograph. But in most, it had all but disappeared.

 

In the meantime, Bradley began to notice more Māori around him wearing tā moko. He decided to find out more about the history of the tattooing practice, and soon discovered that, as Māori culture and language saw a resurgence from the 1990s, tā moko had also undergone a renaissance.

 

He thought wet-plate photography would be the perfect medium through which to show how tā moko had almost been wiped out, before pushing its way back to feature strongly within Māori culture.

 

In an artistic sense, this could be shown through making the tā moko "disappear" through the wet-plate process, and then "re-appear" through the medium of digital photography. Ironically, in an age where photo-shopped images are all around us, the digital photograph would reveal the truth.

 

Aware he was approaching the subject from a Pākehā perspective, Bradley was careful to consult thoroughly with Māori elders, local iwi, and each individual participant before embarking on the project and taking their photograph.

 

The more he spoke to people, the more he felt a strong desire to tell a uniquely New Zealand story in a way that has not been done previously.

Through contacts and sheer hard graft, Bradley found and spoke to 23 Māori men and women who agreed to have their tā moko and the story behind it documented on camera.

 

He began by photographing each person using a modern digital camera, and then having them sit for a portrait taken using the wet-plate colloidal process, on an 85-year-old wooden camera.

 

As a photojournalist, truth was of the utmost importance to Bradley. Each of the subjects chose how they would like to present themselves in their portrait, including what to wear and their pose.

 

The results are a set of spectacular, uplifting portraits, where the participants hold their heads and their culture up high.

 

Bradley was fascinated by the fact that the analogue photographic process, widely thought of as "authentic" and "traditional" - words suggesting reliability and truth - showed a twisted version of reality.

 

Bradley also felt it was important for every participant to be able to tell the story behind their tā moko in their own words. He interviewed each subject on video, capturing their journey towards getting their tā moko and what wearing it means to them.  

 

By asking questions such as: “Why is it so important to reclaim the tā moko?” And: “Why is culture so important to you?” Bradley was able to tease out the often emotional tales behind an art form that was clearly very personal to the participants, their identity, and what it means to be Māori.

 

This exhibition forms an important social documentary of the people who choose to wear tā moko today, and the proud place of tā moko in modern society. 

© 2018 Michael Bradley Photography Limited