The Digby/Woolf Project is wrapping up…

The Digby/Woolf Project is wrapping up…

For almost two years, Te Papa has been digitising the Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf collection of photographic negatives. Now that this stage of the project is winding down, here are some statistics and highlights from the current team members.

Ish Doney, Senior Imaging Technician

There’s a story behind every item and taonga in Te Papa’s collections. Working with the Spencer Digby / Ronald D. Woolf Collection, these stories tend the take the shape of important moments in the lives of Wellingtonians, from babies to bar mitzvahs to graduations to weddings.

My favourite part about working with this collection has been stumbling across photographs where the context is unclear. Some, we’ve worked out, like the man in the pan (Aotearoa’s first celebrity chef, Graham Kerr) and the woman dressed as a mountain (a Plunket Ball costume competition winner). Can you guess the story behind any of the other images?

Cassandra Bahr, Humanities Technician

A black and white photo of a group of 10 people in Dutch costume standing and sitting and posing for the camera. There is writing on the photograph naming the different people. The photo is pinned to a board.
Family; inscribed ‘Mrs D. Mastemaker’, 15 August 1958, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.085496)

Before everyone carried around a phone with a camera, making copies of your photos required an expensive trip to the photographer. They would take a picture of your print, resulting in a photo-of-a-photo not unlike our digitisation process here at Te Papa.

Some of the original photos in these images were taken overseas, leaving me wondering about their journey to Aotearoa. Others show glimpses of an earlier New Zealand, and I love seeing the ranges of fashions and hairstyles throughout the photos.

Ashleigh James-McKenna, Imaging Technician

A black and white photo of a couple wearing formal clothes and flowers at their buttonholes or neck. The photo is pinned to a board.
Tam Si Nui and James Ahkit, 21 Apr 1966, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios, Graeme Ayson. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.081494)

An incredibly rewarding part of this project is connecting images with the sitters or the families of the sitters. This image is a copy neg, taken for a Wellington family who have lived here for a long time.

I recognised it immediately because I had been staring at a beautiful hand-coloured version of it for the last decade or so, hung on the wall in my best friend’s living room. It was such an exciting find for me personally, but just one of the many incredible moments where we get to reconnect images with their whānau.

Cecilia Esparza, Humanities Technician

Before colonisation and globalisation, each country had unique and distinctive garments. As a foreigner myself, I can’t help but notice when people arrived at the photographic studio wearing their national costumes or traditional garments. It makes me wonder how their immigrant experience would have differed from a modern newcomer to New Zealand.

Of course, people have always migrated and shared their cultures, but… what would it be like coexisting in a modern world if we didn’t just wear jeans and t-shirts?

Caroline Garratt, Conservator Photography

One of my favourite things about photographic negative collections is retouching. Altering the master negative directly has been around since the earliest days of photography. The first negative emulsions were not equally sensitive to all colours, so blemishes and freckles would become dark and obvious.

Using pencil, dyes, and varnish, these features could be removed or toned back. As emulsions improved, retouching became more like a #beautyfilter with wrinkles disappearing and figures becoming more svelte. Judging from the collection long eyelashes were a big thing in the 30s!

Alexander Gordon, Humanities Technician

A contact sheet with 12 thumbnail images of people posing on concrete steps or in front of marble pillars.
Women with dog; inscribed ‘I Woolf, personal’, July 1971, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (F.018240)

Although Spencer Digby and Ronald Woolf were both born in England, their studio was a Wellington institution, and many of the photos in the collection are distinctively located in Wellington. The hills, buildings, and wind-blown people are often very familiar, making me feel connected to the images and the people in them.

Over the course of the project, we’ve managed to identify 55 different Wellington churches from wedding photos! I especially enjoy that when the Woolf family wanted to make their photos a bit classier, they would use the imposing façades of the Dominion Museum or Massey Memorial to add a classical touch like the contact sheet above.

By the numbers

  • 18,533 new records in EMu!
  • 9,178 job bags
  • 54,185 images
  • 994 weddings
  • 546 cakes
  • Over 82 different churches (53 identified)
  • 316 fur coats
  • 232 debutantes
  • At least 1,667 men in suits
  • Over 142 cats (mostly from 8 cat shows)
  • 116 dogs (including one dog show)
  • 176 nurses
  • 230 moustaches
  • 33 sneaky cameras and photographers
  • 24 politicians, including 9 prime ministers
  • 117 musicians or bands
  • 369 copy negatives
  • And one trip to the zoo!

    A black and white photo of a man in a white short-sleeved shirt and long pants at a zoo and holding a chimpanzee by the hands as it does a flip in the air. There is grass in the background with other animals in cages looking on.
    Wolf, bears, and chimpanzees; inscribed ‘Wellington Zoo’, February 1967 – March 1967, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. (F.016202)

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