Faces in the crowd: Zooming in on our photography collection

If you look close enough you might find things you missed. Collections Data Technician Gareth Watkins uncovers the characters hidden in plain sight.

I’ve always been fascinated with photographs of crowds. You get a palpable sense of in-the-moment energy and anticipation as spectators watch an event unfold before them, for example at a rugby game. But sometimes “the event” is taking place within the crowd and individual spectators become the focus of the image. For example in this crowd scene from circa 1910 titled ‘At the Girls College sports’.

Group of women sitting watching sport, while men stand behind

At the Girls College sports, 1910-1913, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003374)

If you look a little closer you encounter this intense moment:

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Detail of: At the Girls College sports, 1910-1913, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003374)

It makes me think what the interaction was about and why was it happening at that particular moment.

The photograph was taken by Joseph Zachariah’s photographic studio (ZAK) in Wellington. It’s estimated that between 1907 and 1915 Zachariah’s studio produced something in the order of 20,000 real photographic postcards (RPPC).

Photographic postcards were very popular, generally with an image on the front and a blank reverse where you could write a brief message and send it as a postcard.

For these postcards, the studio undertook portrait photography as well as documentary photography around the city – capturing sporting events…

People sitting in a crowded grandstand

At the Wellington Wanganui Rep Match, 03 June 1909, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003377)

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At the Wellington Wanganui Rep Match, 03 June 1909, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003377)

…news events…

A large group of men surround a statue

At the ‘Statue’, Wellington, 1909, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003396)

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Detail of: At the ‘Statue’, Wellington, 1909, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003396)

…and street scenes:

Multiple groups of people stand about outside a building

Group in street, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003407)

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Detail of: Group in street, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003407)

In an issue of the Postcard Pillar (Issue 7, September 1993), photographic historian William Main notes that unlike other photographers who supplied street scenes for the mass commercial postcard trade, Zachariah’s intention was to create small editions of an image and sell it locally.

This may explain why he focussed on crowd scenes – getting in as many people into the frame and thereby increasing potential sales opportunities.

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Detail of: At the Old Boys – Petone Match, 1910, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003359)

I love this moment from the Old Boys Petone Match in 1910. Four women sit in the fourth row of the grandstand, all inhabiting the same moment in time but all with completely different expressions. The motion blur just adds to the energy and ambiguity of the scene.

Men and women sit in a crowded grandstand

At the Old Boys – Petone Match, 1910, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003359)

Pull back to view the whole image and we can explore the fashions of the time, the smoking habits, and gender makeup of the spectators.

All of these images come from a photographic collection which I’m currently working on as part of Te Papa’s Accelerated Digitisation Programme. The programme will see the digitisation of collection items (starting with the photographic collection) and the enhancement of catalogue records for greater online access.

As I add extra detail to the catalogue records for these photographs I’m struck by all of the hidden stories that these anonymous crowd scenes must contain: who were these people and what brought them to this moment.

And sometimes I come across an image that makes me think about the more contemporary online issue: the right to be forgotten.

Boys sit in a grandstand with one hiding his face behind a sheet of paper

Detail of: At the Otago – Wellington rugby match 1910, 1910, Wellington, by Zak (Joseph Zachariah). Purchased 2013. Te Papa (PS.003376)

References:

7 Responses

  1. Lucy

    Great blog Gareth, it’s great to see someone noticing the little details and questioning what else might be going on in these beautiful photographs. Keep the blogs coming! 🙂 Lucy

    Reply
  2. Olwen Mason

    The wording under the 4th photo is in the wrong place, I think. A fascinating glimpse at the past, thanks very much.

    Reply
    • Gareth Watkins

      Kia ora Olwen, well spotted! All fixed now. Thanks for the feedback

  3. Ellen Pullar

    Fascinating blog post and wonderful image choices Gareth!

    Reply
  4. Sarah Johnston

    Thanks for sharing Gareth – what a fascinating collection – Some great expressions! – The last photo – wagging school to go to the rugby perhaps? – hence the need for anonymity!

    Reply
  5. Ron Brownson

    Wonderful closeups. Just shows how much detailed information can be gained from a look at details.
    Ron

    Reply
  6. ann packer

    Thanks Gareth – fascinating closeups!

    Reply

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