The internet’s primary function as a repository for cat pictures is well established, but what about our pre-digital cat photos? Doesn’t the world deserve to see them as well? Imaging Technician Ish Doney describes the housing of the Digby/Woolf photographs collection and uses the opportunity to share some favourites.
More than one way to photograph a cat
Digitising Te Papa’s collection of Spencer Digby and Ronald D. Woolf photographs is an opportunity to connect with Wellington’s recent history, providing Wellingtonians with glimpses of themselves and their loved ones as they appeared 40 to 90 years ago.
The mainstays of this collection are studio portraits, weddings, and community events. What we didn’t bank on, but have been pleased to discover, is a large number of cat photos. Coming from the capital that gave a cat (His Floofiness, Mittens, to be precise) a key to the city in 2020, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
When we talk about the Digby/Woolf photograph collection, we say that there are around 250,000 negatives. However, the truth is we won’t truly know the exact number or what they depict, until we’ve had a chance to register and digitise them all.
This is in part because the collection is arranged into job bags. These are glassine bags that the studio used to keep track of different assignments, whether these be portraits of members of Ngāti Pōneke, action shots from Rongotai College’s 1963 drama production, or an exhaustive record of the contenders at a 1971 Wellington cat show.
A job bag might house just one negative, or it might be home to twenty smaller glassine bags, each with twelve or so negatives inside, so getting a sense of numbers is tricky. Part of this variation is to do with the time period and the type of film. Earlier in the collection, jobs were mostly shot on sheet film, which is more expensive and required less portable equipment, resulting in fewer images.
While one or two portrait shots might be enough for a customer (especially given the expense), sufficiently capturing an event requires many more images, and it’s at this stage that the job bags can get rather full.
Cats have nine lives (and thirty-six job bags)
By the late 1950s, Spencer Digby Studios had started to use 120 roll film, making the processes cheaper and more convenient. This change in technology lead to a change in subject matter. The studio portraits continue, but we start to get shots of weddings and community events like wrestling tournaments and Bar Mitzvahs. It’s also here that we start to encounter the cats!
These 120 film negatives of the Wellington cat show were stored in job bags within job bags…
…until the Digby/Woolf team rehoused them into acid-free envelopes.
Best in show
Nestled among the many fabulous Wellington weddings we have uncovered rather a number of job bags with enticing titles like ‘Wellington Cat Show’, ‘Persian Cat Club’, or simply ‘Siamese Cat’. Inside we have found cats exhibiting varying levels of excitement about the photographic process, alongside their proud, sometimes fur-clad, owners.
Because cat photos are best shared, I have selected a few of my favourites for your viewing pleasure.
The cats are by no means a core part of this project. It’s fascinating seeing how hairstyles and fashions have changed, and deeply humbling that someone might find images of their tīpuna because of the work we’re doing.
Which cat show cat are you today?
At the same time, sad cat and grumpy cat (not that one, this one) and smug cat and queen cat are part of a long tradition of people being obsessed with cats. And more than that, I like their cute little furry faces.