Most families will have a cased photograph or two in a closet shoebox. These are instantly recognisable as 19th century photography, but how many were actually made in New Zealand?
Early photography featured two technologies
Though photography started in earnest in the 1830s and 40s it was not fully established in the commercial sense until the 1850s. There were two major technologies available, the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre and the talbotype (or calotype) by Fox Talbot. France bought Daguerre’s technology and released it to the world whilst Talbot pursued a limiting patent leading to widespread adoption of the daguerreotype. Ironically Talbot’s printing technology which used salted paper was the more flexible of the two and reproducible unlike the one-off silver plated copper daguerreotype.
The daguerreotype in detail
A finished daguerreotype was mounted in a wooden case with a piece of glass over the front. As the image is on polished metal rather than glass they are easy to distinguish from later technology. The cases themselves were sourced from overseas and are seldom unique to a single photographer. Cased photographs were often displayed open on a mantle-piece. In the late 1850s cheaper cased alternatives emerged with the ambrotype (a positive collodion glass plate) and tintype (a positive collodion iron plate) along with reproducible glass plate negatives for printing.
New Zealand's first portrait photographer
Mr J. Polack advertised daguerreotype portraits in Queen Street, Auckland in the New Zealander, 13 May 1848 claiming to be the present and only opportunity. He stated that they could be, "taken in all weather", (though most likely in his studio) and provided them in a handsome Morocco case. The price for a single daguerreotype portrait was 25 to 30 shillings, about $150 to $200 today.
Only a handful of New Zealand made daguerreotypes are known to survive and Auckland War Memorial Museum is fortunate to have several of these rare items in the collection.
One of the oldest surviving examples of a New Zealand daguerreotype is the portrait of Henare Taratoa thought to have been taken in 1850 by Lieutenant Governor Edward J. Eyre on the occasion of the combined wedding at St John's College in Auckland. Eyre's earlier 1848 failed attempt to create a daguerreotype of Mrs Eliza Grey (Governor George Grey’s wife) is one of the earliest recorded instances of photography in New Zealand.
The missionary Archdeacon Henry Williams and his wife Mrs Henry Williams (nee Marianne Coldham) feature in a large pair of daguerreotypes in the collection. Though no photographer is given, the time period and case use are concurrent with those used by John Nicol Crombie and Hartley Webster. It is likely that these were made circa 1854 around the time Williams was reinstated into the Church Missionary Society.
Capturing striking detail
A large daguerreotype of the couple Alexander and Jane Alison (nee Cameron) seated together is dated 1852. This photograph is extremely sharp and features added gold detail on the jewelery. The couple are listed in the New Zealand marriage register under 1845/15. Examination of the plate revealed a faint pair of initials on the verso, "J.C." possibly referring to photographer J. C. Alexander whose work from Wellington in 1856 is known. His striking portrait style conveyed a sense of expression and detail consistent with the Alison daguerreotype.
The number of known New Zealand made daguerreotypes scattered across both public and private collections remains small. Research into the sitters, photographers and provenance of other daguerreotypes may identify further examples and there is always the hope that other early New Zealand photographs survive remaining to be discovered.
Cite this article
NZ made: Early New Zealand cased photographs. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 8 July 2016.