Digitising studio photography: The Spencer Digby – Ronald D Woolf Lotteries project is underway

Digitising studio photography: The Spencer Digby – Ronald D Woolf Lotteries project is underway

Last year, Te Papa received a grant from Lotteries NZ towards the digitisation of the Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection of around 250,000 photographic negatives shot between the 1930s and 1980s. The project is now well underway, with the first ‘drop’ of around 800 images just released on Collections Online. Athol McCredie, Curator Photography and Melissa Irving, Senior Imaging Technician tell us about the project.

The CollectionWho were Spencer Digby and Ronald D Woolf?

Spencer Digby first opened the portrait studio in Wellington in 1931. Within a few years, he moved it to the newly constructed Prudential Building that still stands on Lambton Quay. Back then this was a very prestigious address.

Digby had trained in London as a high society photographer and brought stylish lighting and opulent settings to his studio, attracting our own notables. Prime ministers, governors-general, and public personalities such as broadcasters, writers, musicians, and actors all made appointments to pose before Digby’s lens.

A black and white photo of a couple standing in a large room. The man is in Army dress suit and the woman is dressed in fine clothes and wearing a tiara.
Their Excellencies Lord and Lady Galway at Government House, Wellington, 1939, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (C.025561)

Quite ordinary people were also photographed. During WWII huge numbers of New Zealand and American service men and women sought to have their likeness in uniform recorded. And mainstays of the studio throughout its existence were weddings, graduations, debutantes, babies, and family groups.

Sergeant Dietrich, 22 November 1943, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.057660)

Ronald Woolf and his wife Inge purchased the studio in 1960 and continued to operate it as the Spencer Digby studio. Under the Woolfs, subject matter broadened to on-location candid photography. Customers now wanted more natural and informal images and new photographic technology made this possible. Wedding receptions, school balls, corporate functions, and pet shows all saw the Woolfs move out of the studio and into the community.

A black and white photo of a newly married couple coming out of a church with surrounding people throwing confetti
Mr K Murray – Miss Pettengell wedding, Brooklyn Methodist Church, Wellington, 25 January 1958, Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (F.006907/38)

Ronald Woolf gifted the studio negatives to Te Papa’s forerunner, the National Museum, in 1975 and further additions were made by his family in 2002. Ronald Woolf died in 1987 and the business is now known as Photography by Woolf, with Ronald’s son Simon the principal photographer.

Today, the Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection gives us a window onto past lives through individual and group portraiture; from movers and shakers through to community groups. In nearly every case we see people consciously putting their best foot forward, revealing as much about the changing styles and manners of self-presentation over time as about the people themselves.

The Project Team – Who are we? 

Currently, the project team consists of one Senior Imaging Technician and three Imaging Technicians.

We are responsible for the safe transit, registration, rehousing and high-resolution digital imaging of the photographic negatives before returning them to permanent storage. It takes a little while for objects to be guided through the workflow so releasing the first images online is an exciting milestone for us. You’ll see a steady flow of digitised negatives released every month from now for the duration of the project. 

A colour photo of two women wearing facemasks looking at the same computer screen that is sitting on a desk.
Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Lotteries Project team hard at work. Caitlin Watters and Ish Doney discuss cataloguing. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa
A colour photo of two women in workshop. One is holding a large tube pointing to a box and the other is smiling at her.
Melissa Irving and Ashleigh James-McKenna try out the new extractor fan unit. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Recently Digitised

Take a look at these gems uncovered by the team, or explore the collection on our website.  

This month’s release of images is from early on in the Ron Woolf era and ranges from sports teams to weddings, from dancers to debutantes, through musicians, to a magician!

Tap on an image to see the slideshow

By the numbers

  • Grant – $777,000
  • Timeframe – 2 years
  • Staff – 4.5 project core, plus support from all around Te Papa
  • Images to digitise – 250,000 (estimated)
  • Job bags – 16,726 (photographers grouped negatives together in “job bags” of the same portrait sitting, or event)

Explore the Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection on Collections Online and we’ll be adding more as they are digitised.

 

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