Vintage New Zealand Photography

A collecting guide

by William Main

Henry Halse. A dagguerreotype by L.Insey Nov. 1852.
Henry Halse. A daguerreotype by L.Insley Nov. 1852.
Pineaha Warekohai by E.Pulman.
Pineaha Warekohai by E.Pulman.
J.Crombie carte de visite.
J.Crombie carte de visite.
J.Valentine view of Wellington, from an album, 1894.
J.Valentine view of Wellington, from an album, 1894.
Eketahuna, by J.Bragge, 1878.
Eketahuna, by J.Bragge, 1878.

As the first immigrant ships left England for Wellington in 1839, it would have been possible for someone to have included a camera and chemicals in their luggage with a view to recording their arrival in this country. Instead it was almost a decade before we have a documented instance of a photograph being made in New Zealand. This took place on the veranda of Government House in Wellington on the 17th September 1848, when Lt. Governor Eyre, who was interested in photography to the point of trying it himself, failed in his attempt to capture a portrait of Mrs Eliza Grey, the wife of the Governor General. The type of picture which Eyre attempted was a daguerreotype, named after the inventor Louis Daguerre. By the early 1850s, itinerant daguerreotypists had worked in Auckland, New Plymouth, Nelson, Lyttelton, Napier and Wellington. The most successful of these was John Nichol Crombie who allegedly made over a thousand daguerreotype portraits on silvered copper plates during a tour he made of New Zealand in the mid 1850's.

By 1856, the daguerreotype was losing favour to the ambrotype. The ambrotype was a cased image on glass, instead of a metal plate. The image was exposed on a piece of glass coated with a solution that was sensitive to light. It was then developed and placed on a piece of black velvet which reversed the thin underexposed image from a negative to a positive. These were unique and could not be duplicated. Both daguerreotype and ambrotype images made in New Zealand are very rare. This is because they were very fragile and could be easily damaged. As well they cost 10 shillings which was about half of a labourers weekly wage. From the start, the public demand for portraits outweighed all other applications like landscapes or topical events.

By the 1860s portraits on paper were all the vogue. These were glued onto a piece of thin board, about the size of a visiting card. For the next 25 years, these small photographs, which were called carte de visite, were popular until they were gradually replaced by the larger cabinet card. One special carte de visite feature was to send examples of Maori portraits overseas to friends and relations. Mrs Elizabeth Pulman of Auckland was one who marketed a fine series of studies which are now keenly sought by museums and collectors throughout the world. Another thing which fuelled interest in photography was the discovery of gold in Otago and the West Coast of the South Island. This influx of money in the local communities helped to swell the ranks of photographers, who followed gold discoveries around the world like soldiers of fortune.

The introduction of the negative-positive process using glass to carry the image and paper to produce a positive, made portrait photography very competitive, some offering half a dozen images for the equivalent of a daguerreotype or ambrotype sitting. Some enterprising photographers even went into editions of views or topical events, like Crombie's coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh's visit to Auckland in 1869. These were put into handsome photo albums which became cherished objects in many 'well to do' New Zealand households. Others also involved in building up a catalogue of photographic views in the 1860s were Alfred Burton [Dunedin], Daniel Louis Mundy [Christchurch], Rev. John Kinder,and a little later in the 1880s, George D. Valentine, and Josiah Martin [all from Auckland]. By this time, every city or town in New Zealand had at least one photographer who was capable of going into the field with a large camera and a portable darkroom. The necessity to have access to a darkroom was because the solution used to sensitize the glass-plate had to be placed in the camera while it was still damp, exposed, and developed, before the plate dried. To accomplish this a portable darkroom had to accompany the photographer wherever he went. This was usually in the form of a tent, but some like James Bragge of Wellington, invested in a special horse-drawn van with it's interior set-up as a darkroom.

The sort of photographs these photographers made in the field, were sometimes destined for a particular market. For instance James Bragge was keen to illustrate the land that was coming up for sale in the Wairarapa. While Alfred Burton, besides covering the Central Otago and Fiordland, went on an expedition up the Wanganui River to photograph Maori settlements in the King Country. Daniel Mundy was one of the

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