Re-photographing glass plate negatives for a new angle on early 20th century New Zealand

aotearoa, archives, blog, history, national library of new zealand, new zealand, nz, photography

The above glass plates are in fact from Manchester Central Library rather than NLNZ

There was a time when I would read about some cool new project on the National Library of New Zealand’s website and get stupidly excited, frothing at the mouth on my blog at how cool it is, and how much they as an institution seem to get right with stuff like this.

That time is still now. I still do that. Here is another one.


With the blog post Re-visioning Joseph Divis and Waiuta from Caroline McQuarrie, we have a really interesting take on breathing new life into early photographic depictions of life in Aotearoa New Zealand.

There is an inherent difficulty in representing analogue photography in the digital space, particularly when the object itself is not merely a flat, paper-based print but is rather an object in and of itself.

Photographing a 2D object top-down with good, even, lighting is one solution for simpler media. But even then decisions have to be made about how to light the object, and what angle to shoot at.

If the object itself is more elaborate, like a Daguerreotype housed in a folding frame, or a glass transparency, then it all gets a lot more complicated.

How to light it? How to even support it, allowing for light to pass through the object so the subject can be seen? Which way to shoot it? Reversed, so that the image itself (impregnated onto one side of the glass) is the most detailed part, the image later being digitally reversed?

But then what if you take this process – photographing an object which is itself photographic – and abstract it one level further? Rather than merely trying to digitise the flat image the object represents, why not expand on that and use photographic techniques to present the image in an entirely new way?

And that is what McQuarrie has done here: new takes on old images, which highlight – thanks to the inherent quality and detail of the original photographs themselves – tiny elements or areas present in the scene itself. It’s brilliant. It’s a sort of uncanny ’tilt shift’ effect which brings into focus just one section of the larger image.

McQuarrie’s wider project into the area’s history is equally interesting, and as usual with the NLNZ blog, I am just so glad they have brought it to my attention.

(Do not misunderstand me: I feel that the priority when digitising objects like this in the first instance is a good representation of the image contained within – that is arguably the most important ‘message’ to capture. But I imagine that this is the same goal of world-class institutions like the National Library of New Zealand as well! These sorts of projects are the next tier up – a meta-project which breathes new life into an existing collection.)

Footnote: This all reminds me that I believe I once had a short-lived series on Tumblr posting old photos that had been scanned at high resolution – from the likes of the National Library of New Zealand or the Library of Congress (via Shorpy) – and highlighting tiny details contained within those photos that were visible thanks to the high res nature of both the digital scans and the underlying quality of the image itself.

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