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A scenic odyssey captured in prints: Nelson Provincial Museum

A recent acquisition of colour photographs by the late Bernard Vavasour captures a beautiful visual record of our region, to be enjoyed by the public for decades to come.

Despite the emergence of digital photography at the end of the 1990s, retired farmer and nut enthusiast Bernard Vavasour decided instead to buy a Pentax 645N, which at the time was an expensive, premium-quality film camera.

Typically, he would set off on a Friday evening and not be seen again for several days. During these expeditions, he photographed some of the Top of the South’s most scenic views.

More than 800 of the late photographer’s images are now available for viewing on the Nelson Provincial Museum’s website, Collections Online, thanks to Senior Curator of Photography Darryl Gallagher and the team who digitised and catalogued them.

During his working life, Vavasour developed a 40-acre commercial walnut tree plantation in the Awatere Valley and worked alongside Oregon University, experimenting with growing Ennis hazelnuts in the area.

“Energetic by nature, Bernard was a doer and not one to be idle, so when he retired from farming he committed to teaching himself photography as a serious hobby,” said Gallagher. “Bernard’s dedication to his craft is evident in the widespread, sometimes hard to reach, locations depicted in his photographs – especially considering he was lugging 11.5 kgs worth of photographic equipment along with him.”

OWEN RIVER VALLEY, 2001. BERNARD VAVASOUR. NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM COLLECTION: NPM2020.7.5

From 1999 to 2008, Vavasour used the high-end medium format camera to photograph a wide range of areas in Tasman, Nelson and Marlborough.

Vavasour’s Marlborough photographs can now be found in Marlborough Museum’s collection, while Nelson Provincial Museum inherited the Nelson and Tasman portion.

“Many views reflect Bernard’s agricultural background. They are bucolic in nature and so beautifully idyllic as to inspire whimsies of a pursuing a more rural lifestyle,” said Gallagher.

“A series of photos he took of derelict buildings are particularly mesmerising and make it hard to imagine what they would have been like in their prime. These are influenced by Bernard’s love of the natural world, with some showing the once proud structures overwhelmed by trees and foliage, demonstrating how without human intervention nature will reclaim its space.”

MOUTERE HILLS, 2001. BERNARD VAVASOUR. NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM COLLECTION: NPM2020.7.76

Gallagher said the Tasman content is particularly extensive and includes photographs of the remote west coast region of Golden Bay, the Moutere Hills and the Owen River Valley as well as areas closer to Whakatū Nelson.

“There are the breathtaking panoramas of places like Lake Otuhie and Sandhills Creek, areas most of us would otherwise never set eyes on, humbling the viewer with their scale while impressing an appreciation of just how beautiful the region in which we live really is.

“The result is a collection that filled a niche and provides a unique visual record of the landscape of the outlying areas of the region a time when the ascending digital medium had begun to surpass film photography.”

When he first discovered the collection in 2016, Gallagher said he immediately recognised that the colour photographic prints would be an appealing acquisition.

LAKE OTUHIE, 2002. BERNARD VAVASOUR. NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM COLLECTION: NPM2020.7.109

“Aesthetic considerations aside, they were ordered in albums, titled with their location, and dated with Bernard’s own reference system, saving a poor curator a lot of extra research time.”

Gallagher said working on cataloguing these photographs had also inspired him to get out and visit some of the more easily accessible places depicted.

Over 800 of Bernard Vavasour’s photographs can be viewed on Nelson Provincial Museum’s Collections Online: https://collection.nelsonmuseum.co.nz/explore.

Bernard Vavasour died on June 5, 2019, but his photographs of the region will be available for people to enjoy for decades to come.

“I have a camera that travels with me as my mate.
As I wander the hills, mountains, valleys and lakes.
Without that camera of mine to make me pause,
Many a scene would flick by without much thought.”
— ‘MY CAMERA’, FROM BERNARD VAVASOUR’S BOOK OF POETRY TITLED ‘THOUGHTS’, PUBLISHED 2015

DERELICT HOUSE, DOVEDALE, 2005. BERNARD VAVASOUR. NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM COLLECTION: NPM2020.948

Source: Nelson Provincial Museum

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