Curious, cute, or edgy: cataloguing old negatives

Curious, cute, or edgy: cataloguing old negatives

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.

A girl dressed as a fairy
Alfred Henderson, Young girl in a fairy costume, 1900-1917, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079748)

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.

Vast view of a coastline with five women and a man posing in the foreground
Alfred Henderson, Group of women, 1900-1917, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079746)

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.

Side by side comparison of a photograph of a girl wearing a large hat and a muff covering her hands. On the left is the photograph's negative, on the right is the positive
Alfred Henderson, Miss Dixon, 1900-1917, gelatin glass negative (shown as a negative and a positive). Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079744)

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.

Lightning strikes above a town at night
Crombie and Permin, Panoramic view of lightning 3 of 3, 1880-1925, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079738)

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.

A man sits at his ornate desk in a room featuring a very large bookcase, posing with pencil on pad as if he is writing
Crombie and Permin, Dr Nesbit, 1880-1925, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079672)
A glasshouse full of chrysanthemums, with a No Smoking sign hanging from the roof
Crombie and Permin, Chrysanthemums, 1880-1925, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079697)

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.

A man poses on a hill with Mt Cook in the distance
Crombie and Permin, Mt. Cook, 1880-1925, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079715)

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.

Depicts a male figure lying, with limbs sprawled, on the grass before a table with a number of glasses, bottles and decanters atop. The male wears a pinstriped suit and has a bottle of champagne in one hand and small glass in the other, tipped towards his open mouth. To the left of the etching is a chair. The scene is set in a garden, with a fence, trees and small planters on the perimeter.
Alfred Henderson, Man with champagne, 1900-1917, gelatin glass negative. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.079886)

1 Comment

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    Thanks for this blog Olivia, I love these old photographs and what a fascinating project. I have learnt how to go cross-eyed to view the stereographic images. Once your brain has adjusted to the 3D image you can actually look around the picture at the details. Sore eyes but worth it!

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