Eric Lee Johnson

Opo: The Hokianga Dolphin (#48)

1955
gelatin silver print
243mm x 194mm

inscribed 6368 5. and 13 x 11 in graphite verso

Provenance

Private collection, Waikato.

Literature

Eric Lee-Johnson and Elizabeth Lee-Johnson, Opo: The Hokianga Dolphin (Auckland: David Ling Publishing, 1994), 32.

Collections

Another from the edition in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Essay

During the summer of 1955/56 the Hokianga Harbour town of Opononi was inundated with visitors eager to see an unexpected visitor: a bottlenose dolphin who sought out human inter...

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Estimate $400 - $600
Achieved $780.81

Eric Lee-Johnson

Opo: The Hokianga Dolphin (#48)

1955

gelatin silver print

inscribed 6368 5. and 13 x 11 in graphite verso

243mm x 194mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $400 - $600

Achieved $780.81

Footnotes

1.   ‘OPO,’ from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Reproduced at Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/opo (accessed 22 Feb 2017)

2.   Lee-Johnson, E. & E. (1994). Opo: The Hokianga dolphin. Auckland: David Ling Publishing

3.   ibid, p.44.

4.   Turner, J.B. (1999). Eric Lee-Johnson: Artist with a camera. Auckland: PhotoForum, p.72.

5.   Lee-Johnson, E. (1994). No road to follow: Autobiography of a New Zealand artist. Auckland: Godwit Press, p.34.

6.   Turner, p.7.

7.   Lee-Johnson, E. p.158.

Opo the Hokianga Dolphin

by Deidra Sulivan

During the summer of 1955/56 the Hokianga Harbour town of Opononi was inundated with visitors eager to see an unexpected visitor: a bottlenose dolphin who sought out human interaction and performed tricks for enchanted observers. Named Opo by locals, the dolphin had first approached local fishing boats early in 1955, and later that year came closer to the shore, encountering smaller vessels and swimmers.By Christmas she was a daily attraction, allowing small children short rides on her back, playing with a beach ball and flipping beer bottles in the air, to the delight of those watching.Opo became a national, then an international celebrity. Given the publicity, locals became concerned for Opo’s safety. Their fears were realised in early March 1956, when Opo was found dead in a shallow rock pool, the cause of her death unknown.3

Most photographs of Opo were unattributed, or attributed to a photographer named “Spencer Hill.”4 However, with the Auckland Art Gallery’s 1994 exhibition Opo: The Hokianga Dolphin, it became apparent New Zealand artist Eric Lee-Johnson had taken most of the unattributed photographs as well as those by “Spencer Hill,” Lee’s pseudonym. Lee-Johnson had attended the Elam School of Fine Art from 1924, and afterwards worked in advertising, before spending eight years in London where he worked in radio and journalism. Upon returning to New Zealand, Lee-Johnson prioritised his painting practice, imbuing it with a regionalism that he felt was essential, if New Zealand painting was to develop its own identity.

However, photography was woven throughout both Lee-Johnson’s commercial and personal practice, continuing a passion he’d discovered aged eleven upon borrowing his mother’s box brownie. By the late 1930s, he was freelancing for a range of publications while continuing to take photographs as a “creative outlet.”5 And yet, Lee-Johnson was reticent about signing his name to his photo-documentary work: he felt, as John B. Turner suggests, an “ambivalence” toward this significant part of his creative practice.6

This is no surprise: the battle to have photography accepted as an art form was far from over, almost 100 years after English photographers Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had led the charge. Lee-Johnson noted wryly in his autobiography: “In [the] New Zealand of the mid-fifties, photography was not an art, and I had no wish to be downgraded as a painter who dabbled in this somewhat despised field.”7 Unrestrained by the need to develop a consistent photographic “style,” his photography demonstrates the eclecticism of an artist exploring photography’s many possibilities. Lee-Johnson’s documentary practice often manifested the modernist aesthetic he was exposed to in London. In 1956, the same year he photographed Opo, he also photographed Sputnik 1 crossing the night sky. During this time, he also made his long exposure Star Trails series, and experimented with combination printing and infra-red photography, yet much of his photographic practice would remain unknown until after his death.

Eric Lee-Johnson’s Opo series documents a particular moment in New Zealand’s social history, one that we can look back on with a certain nostalgia, but it’s also another kind of document: a record of photography’s struggle to be accepted as a creative rather than technical practice, and Lee-Johnson’s response to that struggle. Had he pursued this aspect of his practice further, his insightful documentary photographs of mid-century New Zealand might play a more significant role in New Zealand’s visual history, so comfortably do they sit alongside the work of Ans Westra or Les Cleveland. One wonders how Lee-Johnson would have responded to early twenty-first century art, and photography’s established position within it.