OurAuckland spoke to Photographic Collections Librarian Keith Giles, who recently helped curate the The Big OE, an exhibition at Auckland Libraries featuring New Zealanders’ experiences overseas, as recorded in letters, diaries, scrap books and photos collected on their travels.
We talked to Keith about choosing photos for the exhibition, his work looking after the roughly 700,000 photographic items in Auckland Libraries’ Sir George Grey Special Collections, and his research into what may be New Zealand’s earliest surviving photograph.
“Many of the photos in The Big OE were taken by the late Ron Clark, whose wife, Muriel, donated slides to Auckland Libraries. Because of the quality of the images, we knew before we started that we would be using slides taken by Ron Clark. There are around 7000 slides in the Ron Clark Collection, around 3000 of which were taken in New Zealand, so there were 4000 from Ron and Muriel’s travels alone that we had to sift through. Thankfully, Muriel had created a fairly comprehensive catalogue so we were able to pinpoint fairly easily which images were likely to be useful.”
Auckland 175 celebrations
“We supplied a large number of the images used in the recent AKL175 event. The images were chosen by the curators of the exhibition, but we advised them to look specifically at the images from our Winkelmann Collection. Henry Winkelmann was a particularly fine photographer (operating circa 1900 to 1928) and we hold the original glass plate negatives, hence the excellent quality of the enlarged images.”
Working on the photographic collections
“My work involves ensuring that the items are correctly cared for, and making them discoverable by members of the public – so cataloguing, and prioritising collections for digitisation are an important part of my work. We often have queries from members of the public looking for portraits of ancestors, or photographs of places around Auckland, for example, and we operate an image supply service.
We are happy to receive donations of photographs, and I’m occasionally called on to rescue collections from being sent to the dump.
I’m lucky that I get to research photographers and photographs. We have set up a database of photographers operating in New Zealand from 1848 as one means of helping people date their photographs.”
Using the collections
Most people access our collections by viewing our Heritage Images database. North Shore and Rodney have a similar database – Local History Online, and there’s Footprints, too, which is a south Auckland photograph database. But only about 10 per cent of our collections are online, so people also come in to the Special Collections Reading Room to look at file copies of prints or original prints and negatives.
All sorts of people use our collections – students, researchers, publishers, family historians, cafés and restaurants, local businesses, council departments and archaeologists, to name just some.
New Zealand’s earliest photograph?
One of the most prized possessions in our collections is a daguerreotype portrait of Ralph Keesing. (A daguerreotype is a one-off image produced on a silvered metal plate – a very early photographic process). My research has led me to believe that the portrait could have been taken in Auckland between May and August of 1848 by the photographer Isaac Polack. If I’m right, this could be the earliest surviving New Zealand photograph.