William H. Macey – making a fine art of studio portrait photography

Three children on a fur, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

I’ve said in a previous blog post that Blenheim photographer William Macey’s cabinet cards elevated the format to an art form. So I thought I had better demonstrate my point by putting together a blog of some of his best studio portraits from those in Te Papa’s photography collection.

What I admire about these portraits from his later years is the attention to detail and effort put into every aspect of the production – the studio sets, props and backdrops. Clearly this continued in the attitude of the people who came to the studio to be photographed finely dressed and decorated with broaches, corsages and neck ties. It seems Macey’s studio also provided clothing for customers to wear for their portrait – note what appears to be the same outfit on both the boy (above, right) and the boy (below). The quality of the final photographs is also evident today by the lack of fading of many of his cabinet photographs, which suggests high standards extended to his printing process as well.

Maurice Smith, aged 3 years, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

I love this photograph (above) of the very accommodating three year old Maurice Smith – what a wonderful little boy submitting to all the fuss and pomp of his parents and the photographer for this elaborate photograph of a small child that uses narrative to set the scene. The backdrop places Maurice as if interrupted on a journey pushing a barrow along a coastal road with a little wooden horse as his companion. In the distance the sea crashes onto a beach, a lighthouse sits on the point and clouds build in the sky. Will he get home before the storm?

Despite his provincial location, Macey strove to make photographs that were equal to, or better, than those produced elsewhere. Macey’s busy studio was described as consisting “of a two-storied wooden building, which includes a handsome and commodious vestibule, containing a fine display of specimen portraits and pictures, two waiting rooms, a dark room, a store room and a well-appointed studio, with good lighting apparatus. A large amount of work is also carried on at Mr. Macey’s private residence, where additional room has been provided to cope with the increase of business.”[1]

Girl in a white dress, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

Macey’s attention to quality also extended to the mounts for his cabinet photographs. Look at the silver printing of the studio’s name and address along the bottom of this photograph (above) and with the red infill (below).

Infant sitting on a cushion, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

Macey got around the issue of how to support an infant in an upright position by using an elaborate large cushion which also has a back support. This device enabled an infant’s portrait to be made without the usual awkward methods photographers used for support and eliminated various adult body parts holding up the infant from the final photograph.

Infant sitting on a cushion, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

When photographing adults Macey, and presumably his clients, favoured plain backgrounds with no props. As if to drive home the point about quality, the boarder of the photograph below has a red seal with Macey’s monogram on the bottom left.

Man wearing a corsage, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

One of my favourites of these photographs is this portrait (below) of a woman that manages to be both simple but engagingly haunting.

Woman, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

Macey was born in London and came to New Zealand at the age of seven. He had a long career as a photographer beginning as a trainee in William Collie’s Blenheim studio in the early 1870s. In 1878 Macey opened his own studio in Market Place, Blenheim, which operated until 1915. From 1902 the Macey studio also had branches in Havelock and Picton. Macey had a high profile in the town serving on clubs and boards and as a Justice of the Peace. In 1903 he was elected Mayor of Blenheim and served for two terms. Macey died in Blenheim in 1931, aged 81 years.

Several of Macey’s cabinet photographs in Te Papa’s collection still have their original tissue covers, or fly leaves, in place. The tissue covers were standard parts of the cabinet photograph – a measure to help protect the photograph from damage but it is very rare to find them in good condition now.

Infant sitting on a cushion, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

 

Woman, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

 

Maurice Smith, aged 3 years, circa 1890-1915, Blenheim. William H. Macey. Purchased 2014. Te Papa

 

[1] The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] 

 

Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Documentary Photography

 

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