Through the eyes of a miner – the photography of Joseph Divis
by Simon Nathan (Friends of Waiuta, $40)
Reviewed by Mark Derby
The occupations of miner and photographer are seldom combined. The conjunction must have been very rare indeed in the era before hand-held cameras, high-speed film and flashlights. In those days miners spent their days underground in near darkness, coated in grime and sweat, relying on their physical strength and endurance. Unlike photographers, who required light, precision, patience and subjects willing to remain motionless.
The stocky and resourceful Joseph Divis, born near Prague in 1885 and based for much of his life at Waiuta, inland from Greymouth, was a respected practitioner of both activities, often at the same time. That meant carrying his cumbersome equipment down the mineshafts to record his mates crammed in under timber pit props, with their tin lunch boxes and candles. He even managed to include himself in a superb 1931-32 group portrait with his crew in Waiuta’s Blackwater mine.
Divis died in 1967, leaving more than 400 fragile but stunningly high-resolution glass plate negatives and a smaller number of film negatives and prints. Most of these are now held in the Turnbull Library, Wellington. Simon Nathan, a scientist with a gift for making his subject matter accessible and rewarding to the rest of us, has been prospecting in this unique cultural goldmine for years, convinced that Divis deserves an honoured place among New Zealand’s documentary photographers, and that his opus records, from a close-up and fully informed perspective, activities and places otherwise largely unknown or forgotten.