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 Collection – Who 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.