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A touch of colour

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A touch of colour

Have you ever tried colour by numbers? Well, just imagine applying colour to a large photograph with cotton wool!

Auckland Museum in the domain. Note the 1960s addition to the building at the rear.

Whites Aviation (1960s) Auckland. Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-X24-20.

The rise of colour

From the 1940s, Leo White's company, Whites Aviation, produced high quality black and white photographs to which colour was added by hand. The process follows in the footsteps of early tinting and embellishment of portraits.

Whilst the 19th century saw rosy cheeks, blue clothing and gold jewellery, the 20th century work of Whites Aviation took hand colouring to a new level. Entire photographs were transformed, from green flora to blue skies and numerous touches of colour across cityscapes, seascapes and landscapes.

The addition of colour transformed black and white photos.

Whites Aviation (1950s) Onehunga from Mangere Mountain. Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-X24-21.

At the time Whites Aviation was making hand-coloured photographs, colour photography was primarily available through projected light. From 1907 when the Lumiere brothers' Autochrome became available to the emergence of Kodachrome chromogenic colour in 1936 (a colour technology which would last until 2010), colour was viewed against a light source.

In the 1940s colour prints on acetate such as Minicolor became available. But it was not until the invention of resin coated papers and instamatic cameras in the 1960s that colour began to seriously enter the domains previously dominated by black and white - those of mass production and amateur use.

One of a kind

An intriguing aspect of White's hand-coloured works is that of uniqueness. Although printed, the act of colouring by hand rendered each one distinct. Often mounted on hard board, these works could be framed and presented in public or in the home. Some were enlarged to an enormous scale with considerable detail, possible due to the large glass plate negatives they were photographed on.

Whites aerial photography in particular provided high detail images of Auckland's changing landscape such as the example of Maungataketake (Ellet's Mount) located just west of the site that would become Auckland Airport. Today it has been mostly quarried away. This 1 x 1.5 metre image provides a valuable record of the site as it was.

Whites Aviation photography archive documents New Zealand's changing landscape.

Whites Aviation (ca. 1950) Ellet’s Mount, Mangere. Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-PRO-WA-46305.

The colour palette used by the company tended towards brighter features such as orange red house roofs and bright fields of yellow flowers. Distance could be made more apparent through the uses of blues and purples and of course the sky, sea and grass were always a prominent feature with varying hues.

The colour palette used by Whites Aviation colourists included bright reds and yellows.

Whites Aviation (1950s) Spring – Mount Hobson (Volcanic Series). Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-1960-1-5.

A vibrant representation

Though it was eventually eclipsed by colour photography, the hand-coloured photographs produced by Whites Aviation remain a vibrant representation of a different time that helped provide colour images for the populace for several decades.

Further resources

  • To learn more about this fascinating period of Whites Aviation colour by hand and the stories of Leo White, Clyde Stewart and the 'colouring girls' see Peter Alsop's new book, Hand-Coloured New Zealand: The photographs of Whites Aviation. Pre-orders are discounted (coupon code WHITES).
  • Watch a short documentary, The Colourist, about one of the artists who hand-coloured Whites Aviation photographs.

Cite this article

Higgins, Shaun. A touch of colour. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 8 August 2016. Updated: 9 August 2016.

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