Olivia Martin, a Master of Museum and Heritage practice program student at Wellington’s Victoria University, spent three months working on a placement at Te Papa. Here she describes her work on a group of photographs.
While at Te Papa I worked on three projects in art and photography with quite different areas of focus. These included historical etchings from the foundation bequest to Te Papa’s art collection, the Monrad Collection; the art of Captain James Cook’s exploratory voyages to the South Pacific; and some early 20th century New Zealand photography that lacked information.
Making identifications with the photographs eluded me in many cases but this often only made the images all the more interesting and intriguing. Hence this blog is a testament to my appreciation of the art of photography.
In 1993, Te Papa’s forerunner, the National Museum, acquired 5,452 items from notable photographic historian William (Bill) Main. As well as a historian, Main was an author, photography dealer, and avid collector of photography.
This acquisition was varied, containing not only a diverse range of photographic styles, locations, processes, and makers, but also photographic equipment. It greatly changed the shape of the museum’s photography collection.
Two types: glass plate negatives and stereoscopes
I registered around 300 glass plate negatives from this acquisition.
A glass negative is created by fixing a light-sensitive emulsion to a glass plate with a binder. After exposure in a camera it is then developed and then printed onto photographic paper as a positive image. There were no prints with these negatives, so once I had catalogued them on Te Papa’s database the image was digitally copied and converted to a positive in the imaging studio.
From here, the photographs are available on Collections Online for all to enjoy.
When examining a glass plate negative, the image depicted seems secondary to the photographic process and the physicality of the plate itself. The image is inverted, so white on the negative is black in the original scene and vice-versa. Portraits have an almost demonic quality and the detail and depth of landscapes is not immediately visible to the eye.
The negatives in this acquisition varied in subject matter. They included portraiture and scenes from Mt. Cook and Dunedin to the kauri gum fields of Northland, as well as a few left-of-field images that were hard to classify.
Amongst these images were stereographs. These are composed of two side-by-side stereo images shown together on the same plate. When viewed through a stereo device the viewer sees a three-dimensional image with depth and solidity – fun for the whole family.
Positives from negatives
When first thinking about writing this blog post I did so from only seeing the negatives, before they were scanned and digitally converted to positives and viewable as intended.
My thoughts centred around the collection of photographs as a whole; how the subjects of these photographs may never have imagined they would eventually end up in a museum collection. I considered what seemingly trivial, pedestrian, or unremarkable objects from today may become the subject of extensive research and fascination in years to come.
I then thought about burning all professional photos of myself as an awkward 13-year-old in order to avoid this.
But when I returned to my desk and scrolled through the recently digitised glass plate negatives on the computer I saw the images in positive form. It was like seeing a new set of photographs entirely. These images were cool. The portraits were no longer a ‘female figure dressed formally’ but an actual person with a facial expression and a personality that could be inferred by their body language and clothing.
I scrapped my initial idea for this blog in favour of a highlights reel of my favourite items from this collection of photographs. These images stand out because, to me, they are intriguing or curious or cute or edgy; before edgy was even a thing.