“Such a Good Likeness that she Cannot be Confused with Anyone Else”

by Minette Hillyer (Victoria University of Wellington)

Abstract: This presentation focuses on a portrait of a Māori actress in The Motion Picture Story Magazine of May, 1913, the first player in its Gallery nominated ‘native’. The portrait of Maata Horomona has had other lives, culturally and personally, but its publication was striking at a time when indigenous people were generally treated by the film industry as substitutive – alternative ‘Indians’ – and artless. Maata’s films are lost, although her tribe were seasoned international performers. However, her portrait names her a star by the photographic company she keeps. It signifies uniqueness, as well as presumed kinship: between images, between film and photographic portrait, and between women. It suggests a stardom based in the photograph as an object circulating in cinema’s modern, discursive networks. As Kracauer was to write of the photo of the ‘diva’ in Photography, “It is such a good likeness that she cannot be confused with anyone else...”

Minette Hillyer teaches in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research considers cultural performance and pedagogy in popular and social-scientific moving image texts and sites in New Zealand and the USA, from the 1910s to the mid-1950s.