Eric Lee Johnson's Star Trails

A DigitalNZ Story by Courtney Johnston

New Zealand artist Eric Lee-Johnson (1908-1993) is best known for his neo-Romantic works of the 1940s and 1950s; paintings of the New Zealand landscape and natural objects imbued with a kind of sad nostalgia and a touch of surrealism, very much attuned to the British movement that appeared around the time of the Second World War. However, Lee-Johnson also had a long career as a photographer, although this was little known until the late 1980s. His archive is now held by Te Papa, and includes thousands of works. I find Lee-Johnson’s photography so much more compelling than his paintings and drawings. This collection draws together examples from his Star Trails series; some of these photographs were exhibited in the 2012 'Dark Sky' exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. Training his camera on the night skies above his home in Waimamaku in Northland - relatively untainted by artificial light - Lee-Johnson used long exposures that caught the movement of the night sky as long streaks of starlight across the black expanse. He often used trees or houses to anchor the bottom of the photo, which increases the sense of movement across the sky. He also doctored some of the photos, making a single print from up to three negatives, overlaying the star-streaks, or incorporating the swirls made by rotating torches before the lens for heightened dramatic effect.

new zealand photographers

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Untitled (star trails)

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Star Trails, Northland

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Star Trails, Waimamaku Valley, Hokianga

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Star Trails, Waimamaku Valley, Hokianga

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Untitled. From the series: Night trails

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Eric Lee-Johnson as seen at night, Northland

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku Valley

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku Valley

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Night sky, Northland

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Untitled. From the series: Night trails

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Untitled. From the series: Night trails

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Untitled. From the series: Night trails

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Icarus

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Reconnaissance of Terra, Waimamakau, Northland

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Sputnik satellite, Waimamaku

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Looking South

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa