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.
In this beautifully produced landscape-format book, Divis’s crisp black-and-white images trace the rise and fall of a remote mining community of which nothing now remains but a scattering of cottages and some rusting relics of its former industry. Yet in the 1930s Waiuta could claim a population of more than 600, and their skilled and dedicated local photographer faithfully recorded their weddings, snowball fights, union meetings and school plays, as well as every aspect of the working life of the underground miner.
Joseph Divis also travelled widely, to other New Zealand mining communities such as Blackball and Waihi, and overseas, to his birthplace in Czechoslovakia by way of the US and Japan. He appears in many of the photographs he took of these places, always smartly dressed and upright of posture, clearly conscious of his important dual role. His photographs are always carefully and conventionally composed, not formally inventive yet uniquely valuable for the depth and breadth of their subject matter.
My favourites are the striking scenes of mining equipment, men and methods – the roasting furnace at Snowy River, wreathed in (possibly toxic) fumes; the raw, frontier settlement of Waiuta in the 30s, carved out of native bush in the shadow of the alps; the water sluices and Neanderthal dredges of alluvial mines. They comprise a detailed, unadorned and insightful record of an almost vanished way of life which Joseph Divis chose never to leave. He remained living in his unpainted, immaculately kept wooden cottage in the marvelously named Shinbone Alley, Waiuta until the end of his days.
In his lifetime Divis saw a number of his photographs published in magazines such as the Weekly News, and he printed others himself as scenic postcards. However he probably never imagined seeing his life’s work respectfully and professionally compiled between hard covers, as Simon Nathan has done with this splendid tribute to a gifted and dedicated working man.