The photographer Thomas Andrew once had a thriving studio in on the corner of Karangahape Road and Pitt St. in Auckland, New Zealand. In the early 1890s it burnt down to the ground. In retrospect this was the best thing that could have happened because that same year, Thomas Andrew sailed to Samoa and set up his studio there. He then took kickass portraits all over the Pacific Islands for the next 50 years.
Thomas Andrew (1855-1939) lived & worked in Samoa from 1891 to 1939 – a tumultuous time when Britain, the United States, and Germany were all fighting for control over the two tiny Pacific islands. Their political manoeuvrings coincided with, and sometimes inflamed, local power struggles. None of this stopped Andrew, whose excellent studio & on location portraits of Samoans, Fijians, and other Pacific Islanders give us today a unique & rare window into Pacific life around the turn of the 20th century.
Andrew is best known for his studio portraits, but he ventured well beyond the controlled environment. He captured political events, recorded daily life, and shot idyllic scenes for the tourist market. It’s his portraits however, that sing to us today. In them we can feel how much Andrew loved & respected these beautiful people & their culture.
The very fact that Andrew was able to be a photographer in Samoa is evidence of his total engagement with Sāmoan society and that he was able to forge bonds strong enough to be able to rely on indigenous people for his livelihood. Tattooed Samoan (above) now forms just a small part of what is now a culturally significant record of enormous rarity & importance.
He was prolific. He endless studio portraits, most being of women and members of the Sāmoan leadership and social elite. Irrespective of all this ethnographic and historical value, theses images are simply beautiful. Each one represents a fraction of a second well over a century ago. Andrew makes time disappear. These people, their faces, the immediacy of their presence & their warmth is just so fresh. He didn’t just take these picture. He made them. He knew these people, they were comfortable with him & it shows. He respected them, these are dignified portraits. He’s a portrait artist. Most of his subject choices reflect his core business of producing postcards for the tourist and armchair traveller or illustrations for international magazines and publications. His portfolio includes landscapes, dwellings and public buildings, community events and ceremonies, and indigenous practices such as games and fishing. He took many studio portraits, most being of women and members of the Sāmoan leadership and social elite. He also captured significant events during the German and New Zealand colonial administrations in Sāmoa.
Tattooed Samoan is an ultra rare studio portrait of a man posed to provide the best view of his tatau (tattoo). At this time, young men were marked with the tatau to signify their commitment to serving the matai (chiefs) of their family and village. Receiving the extensive tatau was a ritual of pain and endurance, a serious undertaking performed by specialist practitioners.
This photograph is thought to be one of only three images of tattooed people attributed to Andrew and the only one in a studio setting. Although it is a beautiful image, by obscuring the man’s face and choosing to focus on the tatau on his thighs and buttock, Andrew creates an ethnographic tension. This is often detectable in his work. Also the juxtapostion of indigenous culture against the invasive influence of the modern world is something he touches on. The tribesman with an incongrous rifle, the Samoan girl in European dress. Is this work simply documantation? An ethnographic recording of some kind of specimens, an artistic work or an image to be sold as an exotic curiosity? Tattooed Samoan is perhaps all these things, and valuable for this reason. It reminds us of the possibilities and limitations of the photographic record and the context and circumstances of image creation. It also raises questions about the relationship between photographer and subject, observer and observed, and indigenous and non-indigenous.
When we look at these portraits, especially with the portraits done on location, we should also remind ourselves how ridiculously difficult photography would have been then. Huge heavy wooden cameras, fragile glass slides, boats, horse carriages on rough roads. Then back to the studio in to hours of darkness & noxious chemicals to see if it was worth all the effort.
It was Thomas, it was.
Talolo (above) was the son of a matai in Vaimoso, Upolu, and worked as Robert Louis Stevenson’s cook. He wears the ceremonial dress of a manaia or young chief including a whale teeth necklace (ula’lei), sash and a headdress (tuiga). He’s holding a nifo’oti (or cane knife).
This (above) is Tafua Fa’aususua, a prominent leader in 19th century Samoa. The chief is seated, and wearing nothing but the siapo, a decorated tapa cloth and an ornate necklace of sea shells called an ula. He’s holds a fue – a flywhisk – it’s just one of the many accessories that symbolises his status as an orator chief the tulafale ali’i.
Sources: Wiki, essay by Sean Mallon in New Zealand Art (Te Papa Press, 2018), Museum of New Zealand archive, Meleisea M 1992 Change and Adaptations in Western Samoa.Christchurch: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury.page 36, Meleisea M 1987 The Making of Modern Samoa: traditional authority and colonial administration in the modern history of Western Samoa.Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.pp 72-74.