The last photograph

The extensive photography collection of the late gallerist Peter McLeavey is on display at Adam Art Gallery/Te Pātaka Toi, giving visitors a rare look into the iconic Wellington figure’s life and private obsessions.

Peter McLeavey sitting on a bed, with a statue of Christ behind
Yvonne Todd, Peter, 2014. Chromogenic photograph. Collection of Peter McLeavey. Courtesy of Yvonne Todd.

Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph is co-curated by Professor Geoffrey Batchen from the Art History programme and alumna Deidra Sullivan, who says this is a singular opportunity for New Zealanders to see an eclectic range of photographic masterworks in one place.

“It’s very unusual to see an exhibition like this here in Wellington,” says Geoffrey. “Peter collected international photography with a real sense of purpose. When he liked a photographer, he collected three or four photographs by them.

“The photographs he had are often the best possible prints available—he bought from the best dealers in the world, and he bought the best.”

After McLeavey’s death in 2015, his widow, Hilary, inherited the collection, but even she has never seen it in its entirety.

“Peter was quite a private person, and he had a very personal relationship with the pieces he collected—he kept them close to himself,” says Deidra.

The exhibition presents more than 90 photographs from the collection for the first time, including masterpieces from Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Francis Frith, and Charles Clifford.

Geoffrey says the collection reveals a lot about the collector, such as his deep connection to Catholicism.

“He often said that he saw his collecting as autobiographical—he collected things that reminded him of his childhood and his Catholic upbringing.”

The show’s enigmatic title refers to a quote from McLeavey about his ongoing quest for ‘the last photograph’, an idea that Deidra says can be read both metaphorically and literally.

First, it refers to his insatiable appetite for collecting photographs: “He used to describe the ‘hunger’ he had to acquire these images,” she says.

“But he also commissioned some portraits from New Zealand photographer Yvonne Todd in 2014, when he was quite ill. And so, in a sense, he commissioned his own ‘last photograph’.”

The exhibition is on until 20 December 2018.