Expect the unexpected

When managing a collection of photographs six million strong, you soon learn to expect the unexpected.

In the time that I have worked with the collections at Ashburton Museum, I have come across a number of unique and interesting images which hold some novelty or significance beyond historical.

Some such images I have found are damaged, intentionally composed in a strange way, or were intended to be funny but more likely offend our modern sensibilities and come off as creepy or strange.

Whether it’s accidental or on purpose, weirdness can be appreciated all the same!

Here are a few of my top favourites:

The person who made a postcard of the vehicles used during the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1920, who somehow thought it was a good idea to add in His Royal Highness’ ghostly floating head, for reasons I’m sure the rest of us commoners wouldn’t understand.

The photo captioned “Muldoons Picnic Party Domain Camp 1905” gives off a sinister vibe. There is something off about these guys – are they pretending to be a heist crew? Or just a bunch of creeps? Both?

The second man is holding a bag labelled “doctor” and the third man’s luggage says “gold” and “sly grog”. As for the flag the fourth is holding – I have no clue.

Odd for quite different reasons is a damaged photograph of Mrs. Turton and her sons John and Edwin that is nothing short of strange.

Although many photos we deal with fall into relatively few categories when it comes to material and photographic processes, every damaged photo that falls into our care seems to have degraded in their own unique ways. In this one, Mrs. Turton has become quite other-worldly, while the buttons on her dress are glowing brightly.

Another photograph shows that while the newspapers may not have reported it, it is rumoured that on the day of the Borough School opening in 1920, a giant insect appeared and attacked the crowd!

I think the last photo speaks for itself. This was taken at one of the Tekau factory socials, during a time when clowns weren’t considered as terrifying as they are today.

Yet, there is something very human about the awkward nature of this unidentified clown. The ciggy in hand, the expression that says “I really want to go home and take this clown makeup off,” and the worrying suggestion that the clown may be the only sensible person in the shot. This photo is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

By Connor Lysaght

This article originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 20th of January 2020, and has been modified for publication on this blog.

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