A unique and priceless document of Thames from 1973-76.
John James Fields (1938-2013) was born on January 18 1938 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. He first came to New Zealand as a petty officer serving in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Rowan. This country made an impression on the young sailor who would return in 1966 with his Australian bride and settle in Auckland.
John Fields underwent specialist training including at the Leica Photography School in Boston in 1963. Further study at Harvard University in expeditionary filming and enthnographic stills technique and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in colour photography/stills completed his formal training. By this stage he had already become one of the The Boston Globe’s most successful photographers winning three awards for most popular photographs at that leading newspaper.
He went on to become photographer at Massachusetts General Hospital 1964-66 including in electron microscopy. He was invited by Dr. Stan Bullivant to accompany him to Auckland with a cutting-edge electron microscope and be the photographer. In 1966 he began work at the Cell Biology Department at the University of Auckland where he commissioned the darkroom.
In 1967 John first became fascinated with Thames. He started photographing in July 1973 and in 1975 he was awarded the first QEII Arts Council grant to conduct a photographic survey of Thames. From 1973-75 he spent all his spare time photographing the town, its people and heritage. “I want to capture through photography the atmosphere of the town and its people.”
John Fields wanted to “make New Zealanders conscious of the history of their towns and inspire them to keep records of every building to be demolished, to make a master set of old negatives, photographs, maps and land deeds as a comprehensive and permanent record of the towns.” It had become apparent that a one-year survey as funded by the QEII Arts Council would not do justice to the subject. John Fields undertook an extended survey at his own expense that would eventually take him until April 1976 before he was satisfied with the results.
He talked about how he was attracted to the wooden built environment that Thames shares with this hometowns of Rockport and Gloucester on the eastern seaboard of the US in the state of Massachusetts. As a photographer he was visually attuned; additionally as a foreigner he saw Thames not just as another New Zealand town, but as something unique and special.
Clearly the town cast a spell on him because he would return most weekends over a period of three years. At first John confessed to feeling a rank outsider. The town folk and those he met at the Brian Boru Hotel, where he often boarded, were initially suspicious of him. Who was this inquisitive individual and why was he taking photographs of everything? When they realized that he was quite harmless he was embraced, perhaps not as a local but, as a regular visitor, who took an interest in everything they did and whose aim was to document the entire town.
The photographer was frequently armed with several cameras: his 5 x 7 inch large format Kodak view camera with large tripod and black cape and two 35mm SLRs. The 5 x 7 (with 4 x 5inch reducing board) was used for back and white film aswas one of the 35mm cameras. The third was to record Thames loaded with colour slide film.
To that end from 11-18 January 1976 John Fields exhibited along with some other work a small number of the Thames photographs at the North Thames School,Tararu, which later become an arts centre. It is fitting that in 2017, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the goldfields, 50 of the photographs together with almost all of the images made at the time will been seen by the public for the first time. Today these photographs are a unique and priceless document of Thames in 1973-75.
Firstly we must acknowledge the years of work by John Fields in bequeathing to us such a rich legacy of extraordinary images. They range across a broad range of styles to show the Thames and townspeople. All show his sophisticated vision and his unerring technique. Fields’ work is notable for its exceptional clarity and precise tonal balance – all of which he achieved before Photoshop and digital enhancement were thought of.
Curators at Te Papa recognize John Fields as one of the foremost photographers of his generation. Recent acquisitions by our national museum include several of the Thames photographs from this project. We are indebted to John Fields for his dedication and we are very sorry that he is not with us to share in the recognition of his achievement on a project that was very dear to his heart.
Thanks must go to all the support we have received from friends and family to bring the exhibition to fruition. Thank you to Patricia his wife, and his friend and colleague Ken Ball. We especially wish to thank Malcolm and Marcia Sowman who befriended John when he started his project in the 70s and for their unwavering support for this display. Thank you to Peter and Claudia Pond-Eyley for lending their Ford Prefect so John could drive in comfort to Thames when he could not get the NZ Road Services bus.
Thank you to the Committee of the Bella Pumphouse for their support and to John Isdale at Thames Museum of Mines, where an identical TV on which the same 30minute display of 500 images may be viewed.
This volume presents John Fields’ own edit of the 170 black and white of the more than 500 black and white and colour images he made.
Allan Chawner, Conjoint Professor, University of Newcastle, NSW.