Vintage New Zealand

Authentic Photos from Our Past

Candid group, Te One School

Candid group, Te One School, Chatham Island, about 1910.

This is AUGUST in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar – see it at

What’s refreshing in this “study” from a remote community is the unusual spontaneity, for the era. Because exposures were longer (small fractions of a second, typically) and focus usually shallow, group photos taken by glass plate cameras tended to be formal. People adopted poses they could keep, from the moment the cameraman said “Hold it!”, until the clicking of the shutter and his more relaxed demeanour. If they moved, their image would be blurry, and this would mar the whole photo – a waste of money as well as effort.

Here though, the photographer has winged it, and made a small sacrifice in sharpness in order to obtain this charming picture of horse-play, so rare in the record of the times. The man with the camera is believed to be young Harold Silcock (1883-1951), who taught at another  school on the island from 1910-1912. Silcock later moved to the Nelson region, and died at Richmond. His negatives of Chatham Island and South Canterbury scenes were then sold at auction, but about 40 years later. I bought them.

Wedding group, Golden Bay

Wedding group, Golden Bay, about 1914. [D. Manson, photo]
This unusual line-up was probably taken in Takaka; the attribution to L. Darcy Manson (1885-1947) is only by association. It’s the December image in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 Calendar, a novel collection of unpublished outdoor images. See my post of 22nd August for a special offer on this first-ever production, which expires soon (Friday, 7th September).

Hats were big in 1914, and gloves were still part of formal wear for men (and were always so for women, until the late 1960s). Here we have an unknown couple (no spring chickens), groom’s man (best man), bride’s maid and flower girl in an impromptu studio set-up. Verandahs were often used for group photographs, sometimes with a sheet tacked up as a backdrop, but we don’t often see a carpet brought into the act.

The image has been scanned from the original full plate. The tonal range from bridal whites to dark suits is a long one and not completely captured here. The photographer has possibly allowed the generous margin around the group so that postcards could also be supplied, direct from the glass plate. By 1914  manufacturers produced pre-printed postcard blanks, so that anyone with a darkroom could make their own Post Office-approved cards. As these were smaller than full plate size, the images were inevitably cropped when reproduced as postcards.

Young girl with poodle

Young girl with poodle, location unknown, c. 1920

This is the June image from my new Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar; see previous posts for a special offer on this publication. The calendar draws on my own small collection of historical photographs. Very few of the photo prints and glass plates that have come my way have any documentation, so for most we must rely on internal evidence – also known as what’s-in-the-photo, and usually a case of one picture being worth a thousand words.

A simple, back garden image, this has already had favourable comment. It has only lately dawned on me that this young girl may well be related to the youngsters on the calendar cover, as there is a familial likeness with the cover girl, especially. The picture is a hard one to date accurately, and the clues I have used are her hair style (from 1915? Ribbon is earlier) and the patterns printed near her neckline (1925?).  The Bentwood chair is a nice touch considering the rough exterior of the house behind, but is no help in establishing a date, as its design goes back to the 1860s.

The diagonal streak on the left side most likely indicates chemical contamination as the plate was moved from developer bath to fixer solution, in processing. It is not uncommon to see ancient fingerprints and tong marks on early photos, caused by poor handling in developing, but whether such defects relate to the negative or only the print isn’t easily answered without a good look at the original negative. In this case, it’s on the plate.

Vintage New Zealand: Authentic photos from our past 2019 Calendar

Vintage New Zealand 2019 Calendar is a lovely compilation, full of historical and human interest. The old but unpublished images all come from my own collection, and I supply curatorial notes on them at the front.  In A4 format, this calendar has 13 original photos from 1890-1937, selected for their charm and artistic merit.

Vintage NZ 2019 Calendar Front Cover
Vintage New Zealand 2019 Calendar Back Cover
Vintage New Zealand 2019 Calendar Back Cover

Get your copy today!

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Nine for the billy

Nine for the billy, Nelson, about 1915-20.

Old photos have always fascinated me, and following on from my Old Nelson: A postcard history 1900-1940 (Nikau Press, 2017) I will publish here from time to time an authentic old photo. Some come from my own private collection, others from those of Rob Packer (my collaborator on Old Nelson) and Logan Coote.  These are fresh, hand-selected images and (Old Nelson excepted) few have been published this century.

For selection, the image has to be an actual, real photo, scanned either from the original print or postcard, or (even better) directly from the glass plate negative, where it first began. This excludes the sort of posts sometimes seen on historical blogs of degraded copy images or reproductions from old weekly publications. The photo must also have strong human interest, irrespective of location. Outdoor photos are preferred, and those with historical “proofs”.  They will have something worth commenting on, despite their usual lack of  documentation. My own background in museum darkroom  and field camera work means I can also comment on the task each image presented to the photographer.

The above image came with an album of Cable Bay photos. Printed directly from a quarter plate, it is only pocket size but the negative was perfectly exposed and printed, with lovely detail. The lady on the right wears gloves and a fur; others wear ties, while the gender ratio is 2: 1 (excluding the photographer!).  Everyone holds a good, solid pose,  as instructed by the photographer. The careful posing and good depth of field suggest tripod work and perhaps a second or two of exposure. A strong image, sharp and well toned, is not that common in amateur photography from this era.

Photo courtesy Logan Coote Collection