A selection of photographs of girls taken in New Zealand during the nineteenth century from Te Papa’s photography collection in honour of International Girl Day. Most of the photographs featured are carte-de-visite cards and are not much bigger than they appear in this blog. All the girls in these photographs were born over 120 years ago.
The girls in the next photograph are the only ones whose names we know – the Misses Swanson taken in Auckland in the 1860s or 1870s. For the rest we only know the photographers and the towns they worked in: Cambridge, Milton, Napier, Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, Thames and Christchurch.
While none of these photographs are snapshots (they took time to set up and make), most of them seem to capture a spirit of simple involvement in the art of photography by the girls. Their postures are casual and they generally stare straight back at the camera. Any fussy clothing and props seem to fulfil the needs of adults outside the image.
In many ways these girls were lucky to be in front of the camera. These photographs were made at a time when photographic negatives and papers were made by hand and many studios employed girls to work in their back rooms. Girls were favoured for the job of coating papers with the chemicals that enabled the development of images because their work was considered more light handed than men so their coatings were more successful. One description of a 19th century British studio describes their back rooms in factory-like terms with whole families employed in the production of photographic materials for the studio to use. The stories and personalities of those who worked in the back rooms of studios forms an invisible part of the history of photography.
The photograph below, a group portrait, appears to be of an all girl primary school group. However with no information, other than that it was taken by a Wellington photographer, it is hard to know for certain what kind of group it was, although the man in the photograph appears to be a teacher. Little has changed about how people are arranged and posed for class photographs since the 1880s.
The photographs of the European girls were taken by professional photographers for people who wanted them for personal reasons (the motives behind the photographs of the Maori girls are less clear). They were taken before a time when everybody could have their own camera and make pictures. Who the girls were would have been so obvious to the owners of the photographs that they never wrote names and dates on them. These photographs were made as a way of remembering the childhoods of these girls. Ironically, the outcome of this familiarity of the subjects has meant who they were is now lost.
The last photograph is the most lost. The lack of information about where it was taken, who it was taken by or who it is of – combined with the fading of the print makes the girl more of a mystery and her presence start to seem ghostly. How we identify the people in our digital photos so that the names and dates will remain attached to the files into the future is our challenge.
There are many more photographs of girls in Te Papa’s photography collection.
Girls in the Museum events take place on Saturday 12th October from 1-4.30pm at Te Papa.