The stories found ‘behind’ the photograph

The stories found ‘behind’ the photograph

There are many obvious differences between digital photography and traditional photography. One that probably doesn’t spring to mind is a photograph’s reverse side, which is non-existent in digital. Lissa Mitchell, Curator Historical Photography, looks at the ‘other side’ of photography.

Back of a photograph featuring birds and the text The New Zealand Photographic Company 64 Cuba St Wellington
Back of: Boy, circa 1889, Wellington, by The New Zealand Photographic Company. Gift of an anonymous donor, 1972. Te Papa (O.005276)

How often do you think of a photograph as a physical object these days? When we look at photographs all our attention is usually on the image and what it shows. Yet in the 19th century it was common practise for photographs such as CDVs (‘carte-de-visites’) to have information written on the back about the photographers’ credentials and where their studios were located.

Back of a photograph that has written by hand the name of the photographer
Back of: Soldier, 1860s-1870s, New Zealand, by John Low. Purchased 2014. Te Papa (O.041211)

A more cash strapped photographer – such as John Low (image above), or one whose circumstances had recently changed, just wrote their details on the back by hand.

Back of: Man, 1880s, Napier, by Samuel Carnell. Te Papa (O.005275)

Printed cards for mounting photographs on had to be ordered from Europe and the firm of Marion Imp. in Paris were a popular choice of printers for photographers working in all parts of the British Empire (see image above and note printers mark on the bottom edge).

Highly detailed back of a photograph featuring royal endorsement
Back of: Portrait of a young woman, circa 1870, New Zealand, by Daniel Mundy. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.021437.

Much of the detail photographers had printed on the cards stresses their connections to royalty, colonial governors, and other people of high social rank along with stating what awards they had received at exhibitions.

Back of photograph that says C Nicholas, artist and photographer
Back of: Young woman, circa 1875, Milton, by Colan Nicholas. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.021441)

Many photographers identify themselves as artists as well as photographers, which was often a way of attempting to distinguish themselves from others as a higher quality photographer.

Back of a photograph, coloured pink, featured an elaborate design and award details
Back of: Seated woman, Rudolph Haigh, circa 1870, Hokitika. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds, Te Papa (O.021381)

Some photographers such as Charles Monkton went to the trouble of having mounts printed that featured New Zealand specific illustrations (see below).

Back of a photograph
Back of: Man, Onslow, 1866-1867, Auckland, by Charles Monkton. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.021435)

But many photographs also remained blank for whatever reason, which now makes it hard to relate them to any person or place.

Back of a photograph featuring an Australian insignia
Back of: The First Engine Employed on a Public Railway, circa 1875, West Coast, by Herbert Vorley. Gift of Mrs E W Gibbs, 1933. Te Papa (O.005358)

The backs of photographs tell complex stories of the international movement of photographers and photographs – chasing fame and fortune by migrating throughout the British empire via the locations of gold rushes and exhibitions. Photographer Herbert Vorley was based on the West Coast of the South Island during the early 1870s (above), his card incorporates an Australian coat arms – a reference to Vorley’s time spent in Australia prior to coming to New Zealand.

If you click on the images you will go through to Te Papa’s Collections Online website where you will see most of the photographs on the fronts of these cards.

Follow Lissa on Twitter @rainyslip


  1. Actually Athol, Newcastle is a former name for Newcastle is a former name for Ngaruawahia, which makes more sense than Wanaka as John Low was based in and around Hamilton for much of the 1870s.

    1. I stand corrected. Ngaruawahia is a more likely location given that the subject a NZ Wars era soldier as well.

  2. Not digitising reverse of photographs with annotations/inscription is just bad digitisation practice! We digitise reverse sides at the institute I work at. I hope Te Papa does the same.

    1. Author

      Hello, yes – digitising the back of photographs, and the mount beyond the print, is standard practise here at Te Papa. There is so much information to be gleamed from them this way and that provides those accessing the material via the museum’s Collections Online with a more useful service (though it still needs to be checked for accuracy) and is a good reminder that photographs are more than just images but objects as well.

  3. No Tyrees? One of their much-used designs on the backs of their portraits was quite amazing. Plus a very interesting story.

  4. In case anyone is wondering (as I was), the Low card listing his location as Newcastle, NZ, is not a mistake. There was a Newcastle in New Zealand at the time. But it is now named Albert Town, which is situated 5 km east of Wanaka, on the south side of the Clutha River.

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