In past articles we have referred to an amazing collection of glass plate negatives found under a shed in Ashburton. We wrote about how these came into the museum in very damaged condition and the work required to clean, scan and document this extraordinary collection of portraits of Ashburtonians from 100 years ago. These images were on display at Ashburton Museum in the exhibition Snap! The Glass Plate Negative Collection.
Now that the collection finally is processed and the extent and variety of images is known, I thought it may be of interest to share my findings and thoughts with readers.
Where to begin
To be honest, when two banana boxes of clumps of glass plate negatives first arrived in my office, I was both hesitant and doubtful. Hesitant to even attempt to work on a collection in such a poor state, and really doubting that any image could be salvaged.
Having been under a shed for goodness how long, the glass plates were obviously very dirty, and dampness had effectively glued the plates together. When I inspected the collection, I was met, not with individual plates, but clumps of dirty glass. The image held in a fragile gelatine emulsion of the glass plate surface was barely detectable.
The first step in the process was to ‘declump’ the plates. This was a rather nerve wracking activity, as most people know how brittle old glass becomes. Also, as the image sits unprotected on the glass, any scratch is forever seen on the image.
Once the plate was released it was simply a matter of cleaning the non-emulsion side and scanning digitally, then cataloguing any detail that I noticed.
It didn’t take long to be rewarded with some splendid images. These images, over 780 in all, are just so interesting. They are mainly portraits or family groups. The collection spans from the 1870s up to the 1920s or early ‘30s. Because of the period it covers there are many portraits of World War One soldiers, although a few volunteers have also been snapped. There are a number of wedding images and lots of babies and children. Of special interest are a series of regimental band portraits as well as some early Salvation Army soldiers. I really enjoyed looking at the clothes as most people wore their best and there are some truly exceptional garments to be seen.
Possibly the most significant find was to discover the name of the photographic studio. As I began the process, I kept having a nagging fear that these people I was spending so much time on maybe weren’t locals. While it may seem obvious that a collection found in Ashburton would come from Ashburton, people once often purchased boxes of glass plates to make glass houses or other items – so they could have come from anywhere.
However I located a slip of paper in one box that mentioned the business Halma and Co. By comparing the studio furniture in the images to that in known Halma and Co mounted prints already in the museum collection, it seemed to prove that we did indeed have a local collection on our hands.
Later, a series of portraits of Chinese gentlemen were identified by descendants of that family; and a few images had names still visible written on the plate edges, that could be matched to Ashburton locals.
Halma and Co wasn’t a single person, and the studio was managed by different people throughout a lengthy timespan. What fascinated me was when I researched the company, was that it formed an important link in the story of photography in Ashburton. The photographic studio was in the Saunders building, where Countdown is now.
In 1879 the Saunders building was erected and one of the tenants was a photographer named Martin. From that date, there was always a photographer working in that building. Although Halma was later bought out, the studio continued to be used by a number of people. The last tenant was Charles Tindall, whose collection we also have – so it is if we have a lineage of photographers in the Museum.
Sharing the Collection
From being very loath to begin the project, I was a little sad when I finished it. It was really exciting getting a clump of glass and seeing what images I would discover
Possibly the most exciting moment came quite near the end of the project when I recognised a man with quite an unique hairstyle standing next to a women of whom only her skirt was visible on the plate. I checked our collection and identified the man as Jack Carney in a print of the image that also showed the woman in the portrait, Rita Carney.
As it’s too good a collection not to share, all 768 images are now displayed in our new exhibition. We also have a database underway, which will allow people to view the images and zoom in on details.
While all the images are interesting to look at, we are sure some people must recognise family members. This process, often called crowdsourcing, invites members of the public to help add information to an already fascinating collection.
If you had an ancestor living in here between about 1870 to the 1930s, it would well worth seeing if you can spot them among these many faces of Ashburton.
By Kathleen Stringer.
- One of the few groups we have. While it’s marked Newland, not Newlands, we assume it is the local school that opened in 1880 and amalgamated with Hampstead in 1931.
- An image taken from the glass plate negative showing Rita and Jack Carney, named thanks to Jack’s hair!
- A splendid image of an early Salvationist, maybe a missionary.
- You just don’t forget hair like that, this is the image that identified Jack Carney, with his sister Rita.