William Partington's 100-year-old photos of Whanganui iwi have a history as winding as the river its people are named for.
Now a new exhibition explores that work, six years after angry protests stopped an attempt to sell the pictures.
In 2001, the 750 glass plate negatives and previously unseen vintage prints were found in an old suitcase by a Partington descendant in the Bay of Islands.
The collection was put up for auction at Webb's auction house but protest action led by activist Ken Mair culminated in the sale being abandoned after a $200 bid for the pictures by the protest group.
Community and iwi groups banded together to buy the collection for more than $150,000, but rights to publish the photos were still sold off.
Co-curator Che Wilson said opposing the sale was simple. "We saw our tupuna [forebears ] on sale. One person saw a photo of their nanny and said, 'Why are they selling her?' All the normal reasons our people would get upset."
The exhibition, Te Pihi Mata ("The Sacred Eye"), at the Whanganui Regional Museum showcases Partington's work from 1892-1908.
That recent history has been written into the exhibition, but it's the links to the past that are the most visible. Pictures are installed in a meeting house and are connected to information about that person or a historical event important to Whanganui iwi.
So a picture at Kaiwhakauka Marae is backed up by the history of Whanganui's last big battle, which was at the scene. They fought against and beat Tai Tokerau iwi at the location 70 years before Partington, who worked for the Auckland Star, arrived.
"We wanted to open a window and invite people in to share our history," says Mr Wilson. "We're sharing our stories, which have never been publicly shared before.
But the pictures also shed light on aspects of tikanga [protocol] that have been lost.
"I'd always heard that Whanganui took a huge ope [group] up to the pohiri [welcome] for the Duke and Duchess of York [in Rotorua in 1901] but now we've got the photos to prove it. We led the pohiri - it says a lot about where our people were at then. You'd never let anyone else [from outside iwi] lead now."
Mr Wilson said the quality of the glass plate negatives was so good that detail that was hidden from the naked eye became visible once more work was done. Blurs became kuia who were sitting weaving.
While many are posed shots with a romantic bent, there's a simple difference between Partington's work and many of his contemporaries, Mr Wilson said.
"He made them pose but he got out and took photos of Maori life. He went quite a long way up the river - we know this because of what people were wearing. Most Maori were wearing European clothing then. [From the photos] you could tell he must have got into some remote places."
Mr Wilson's favourite picture is of a woman of whom only a single detail is known. "Her name's Au and that's all we know about her. She's just a babe. I've said to my partner, 'I've got a girlfriend at the exhibition'. She looks like a contemporary woman - her hair is cut short - and she is a beautiful woman."
* The exhibition runs until September 2009.