Vintage NZ: Classic family group

Classic family group, Golden Bay, about 1912.

This classic group is SEPTEMBER in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar. Posed on the front lawn of a Golden Bay, Nelson homestead, the image is interesting for the various points of costume: the soft white hat on Father’s knee, the wings on the daughter’s cap and the black mourning lapels and cuffs worn by Mother. Only she is wearing them, suggesting a distant bereavement in her extended family. The visiting gent on the porch – is he just off his horse? Surely he is supposed to be off-camera. Details as to who, where and when are unfortunately lacking, but by association this full plate photo was most likely taken in or near Takaka, by professional photographer L. Darcy Manson (1885-1947). 


Vintage NZ: Alice & Florence in the garden

Alice and Florence in the garden, Nelson. Circa 1910

A candid pose amongst sunflowers by two youngsters. Their names come  from a list of the most popular American girls’ names for the period 1900-1909 (Mildred, Ethel or Bertha were passed over). We know nothing of their real identities because the back of the postcard says only: “This is not a good one; will send a better one later on. Love to all.”

The card at least clarifies that the image has not degraded over time, but that it was poorly developed or printed in the first place, by the photographer. Modern software has rescued it to some degree, but the image typifies the fact that so many good photos were compromised in their development, by later accident or by the effects of time (Time may be a great healer but She’s a lousy beautician).

Despite the risk of choosing sentimental images, children are favoured subjects for the photo editor, especially those rare, candid shots not taken in a studio. As a greeting card publisher in the 1980s I put out four vintage images of children, from the Nelson Provincial Museum’s extensive collection. Only one was taken away from a studio, reinforcing my point above – and after a long rummage, it was all I could find that met our standards.

This picture does not feature in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar because it has only just surfaced, after being mis-filed for 25 years in my personal papers. My bad.

Vintage NZ: Motoring women, about 1908

Motoring women, about 1908.

This is APRIL in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 Calendar, available for purchase on this website. It’s a half plate from my own collection, but details are unknown. The date is an estimate from the style of the little runabout and the fashion in hats (which will surely be airborne as soon as they get moving?).

This is a fair weather sailer only, as there is no provision for bad weather. Of course there are no seatbelts – the only safety feature in sight is the horn on the steering wheel. Almost as fancy as the ladies’ fashions is the fretwork on the porch beyond.

Vintage NZ: Sunday beach picnic

Family group, Sunday beach picnic, probably South Canterbury; about 1915

JANUARY from my new calendar illustrates some surprising beachwear, but perhaps a cold wind chilled this church picnic [?], somewhere in South Canterbury. Two girls share a swing on the left, an older couple on the right are in full rig for an afternoon on the sand, while the young girls with Papa show little interest in the picture-taking. The photographer is closer to her subjects than usual, meaning Mama was probably behind the camera.

As the original glass plates typically come without helpful annotations, we are left to guess the date and setting, and the subjects are necessarily anonymous. After a long look at the (surprisingly formal) fashions, I believe this is more likely to be 1917-18. The bowler hat went out of fashion in the 1920s. However with so little turning on the exact date, I have left my original guestimate unchanged.  

Copies of my Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar are still available for purchase.

Vintage NZ: 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.


Vintage NZ: 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.

Vintage NZ: 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 NZ: Our old ivied home

Our old ivied home, South Canterbury, about 1910.

This charming scene is most likely somewhere in the Ashburton area. It’s a nicely set-up quarter plate shot, showing a well established homestead (from around 1870?) and its horse and trap, water tank and dog kennels (with drying skins spread over them). Perhaps that’s the photographer’s sister and niece to the fore – they are only hatless because they’re not in public. An older man in the background watches proceedings, so maybe  it’s a day of rest.

Although this photo is undocumented, circumstantial evidence suggests it is by Harold S. Silcock (1883-1951), who grew up in the Ashburton district and taught at Native schools in the Chathams and at Little River (Canterbury), before relocating to the Nelson region. The image is from a glass plate in my own collection; it appears full-page in my Vintage New Zealand 2019 calendar, soon to be announced.

Vintage New Zealand: Ten for the billy

Ten for the billy, Nelson, about 1915-20. Photo: Logan Coote Collection

Love the hats!! Something radically new for this blog is my other photographic interest: authentic old New Zealand photos. These have always fascinated me, and following on from my recent publication Old Nelson: A postcard history 1900-1940 (Nikau Press, 2017) I will post here from time to time vintage photos, with commentary. Some will come from my own collection, others from Rob Packer (my Old Nelson collaborator) and Logan Coote.  These are fresh images and (Old Nelson excepted) few have been published this century.

For selection, the image must be an actual photo, scanned either from the original print (or postcard), or better yet, from the glass plate negative. The photo should also have strong human interest, irrespective of location, and display historical “proofs”.  Despite most lacking any documentation, each photo will have something worth commenting on. My own background in a museum darkroom  and field camera work means I can sometimes comment on the task each image presented to the photographer.

This photo came with an album of Cable Bay photos. Printed directly from a quarter plate, it is only pocket size but the negative was well exposed and beautifully 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 studied pose,  as instructed by the photographer, who has followed the manufacturer’s recommended lens settings (for the leaf shutter and aperture). The posing and depth of field suggest tripod work and perhaps a second or two of exposure. Such a strong image, sharp and well toned, is not that common in amateur photography of this era.