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.

Crepuscular

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I was reminded, again, of the word crepuscular when looking into a bird we saw yesterday by the Thames.

It’s just one of a number of words like that – and petrichor and liminal and a long list of others that my Kindle helpfully retains, having long-touched them to read their definition while reading.

The small wading bird we found right by the edge of the Thames yesterday appears to be a woodcock. It was strikingly pretty, and very well camouflaged against the pebbles and other detritus that had attracted us and the other mudlarkers in the first place.

I read that woodcocks have an epic migration from Finland or even Russia and by the time they end up here – and in vast numbers they do – they get disoriented by bright shiny things like glass buildings and large rivers and bodies of water reflecting the sunlight back to their beady eyes.

For these birds are crepuscular, you see, meaning they are normally active in the twilight hours. This bird appeared either injured or disoriented. It tried to fly off but just darted around and planted itself back where it came from. Those little eyes were blinking in the bright sunshine – and it really was dazzlingly bright yesterday morning. We couldn’t do much to help, and the advice was to give it some time and space and let it get its breath back eventually. So we went on our way exploring the Thames foreshore at low tide.

(It occurs to me that words like crepuscular and liminal are themselves somewhat liminal – mostly outside of daily use but always lingering there in the peripheral vision, ready to be used when the moment calls for it.)


 

While the weather remains cold and crisp and mostly dry, I am enjoying the new shift to the winter clocks one week in.  The evenings in winter should be dark. It feels right to spend that time under artificial light, whether electric or organic (what is fire anyway?).

This should be a time of slowing down. In the six weeks or so between now and the shortest day I can almost hear the tape delay in my head as the tone slows and slow and slows, inching ever closer to stopping completely dead. Any other movements become magnified and we cherish them.

I noticed this again yesterday, as the flicker of a candle flame made my own shadow dance briefly on the dim wall beside me. In a house, and time, of constant, fixed utilities with an unflinching gaze, it felt briefly exciting to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. There it is again – something distracting me by catching my peripheral vision.

I know this is also why I so love our paper mobile of swifts, which dangle and wheel around, their movement urged on by the tiniest draft or – better yet – a candle beneath their wings. They ride on the thermals.

Amongst ghosts

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Yesterday I found myself amongst ghosts – I had, by two different avenues, found myself browsing Ancestry’s records looking up the details of two separate people, with two different motives.

One such avenue was to help me understand the life and movements of an architect of a house we happened to see at the end of at the weekend.

The other was to uncover who lived in a particular house in the 1930s.

The first allowed me to trace a man and his career – and his two marriages – from the 1890s to his rather early death in the 1950s. He moved around a fair bit in that time, being born in South London, designing houses for, and living in, the home counties, then heading back to the northern regions of London towards the end. At one point he lived in a house he had designed.

The second showed me two sisters living in a house in the late 1930s, the house having been built in the early 1930s. They were local girls with respectable jobs – one was an auctioneers cashier. Earlier documents showed me she had been a cashier since her teens – she must have earned a good deal of trust to continue in that line of work. It was a small surprise to learn that this particular house was home to two sisters in their 30s and 40s at this time. It seemed like it would more likely be the home of a ‘traditional’ family.

I don’t know when Ancestry (and others) added the 1939 register but it is an absolute goldmine of more ‘recent’ information – a giant leap forwards from the 1911 Census.

The 1939 Register provides a snapshot of the civilian population of England and Wales just after the outbreak of the Second World War.

As the 1931 census for England and Wales was destroyed by fire during the Second World War and no census was taken in 1941, the Register provides the most complete survey of the population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951, making it an invaluable resource for family, social and local historians.

To that end, the register is littered with redacted records: those less than a hundred years old are not shown as they may still be alive. There are exceptions, but this is largely a book of the deceased. But still, the recentness of the records on show is refreshing and helps follow people well into the middle of the twentieth century.


I recently came across the work of Don Joyce, an artist working across all forms of audio, music and radio, thanks to a Radio Survivor podcast. Joyce’s work isn’t easy to summarise, but various searches have led me to follow one particular strand of his work for the Over The Edge radio show he produced: a long-running show in which he combined samples of broadcast radio with music and, I guess, musique concrète, creating long, meandering explorations of the medium.

There was one description in the above podcast of Don’s work that had one accidental listener saying they found him once when their radio sounded as though it was tuned to two different stations, with the signal hopping between two different sources. From that description alone, I knew I would enjoy his work.

I’ve started my Don Joyce education with How Radio Was Done, a series he put together within the Over The Edge show – consisting of more than a hundred three-hour episodes! – in which he weaves together clips from mostly very old radio broadcasts which tell the story of the emergence of radio.

If I had to think of a rough analogue to this format – a mad mix of clips from various sources – I’d be tempted to point to the work of Adam Curtis, but Joyce’s work is almost completely without his own voice or any narration, with the story (at least in what little I’ve listened to so far) told wholly via archival clips and bits of music.

At times Joyce’s production of How Radio Was Done is somewhat vanilla: chronological clips from various sources put together in a way that tells the story of how radio became a part of people’s lives. At other times, he jumps wildly between clips and time periods, distorting the recordings and juxtaposing the announcement of the new medium in the 1920s with pop music and statements made much later – occasionally poking fun, and at times raising salient points.

I am very, very early into my exploration of Don Joyce’s work. The Radio Survivor podcast episode featured the words of the director of a film about his work, entitled How Radio Isn’t Done, and which I am desperate to watch, though I know it will be much more satisfying once I have had time to sufficiently bathe myself in the man’s work.

My understanding so far is that Don Joyce produced his late-night three-hour radio shows live, manipulating the playback methods and mixing his various sources on the fly. As I mentioned above, the ‘How Radio Was Done’ strand has a hundred episodes, but Joyce did his show for more than thirty years. Thanks to his band Negativland, there is a vast collection of more than a thousand episodes of the show Over The Edge available on archive.org.

I’ve been listening to Over The Edge’s How Radio Was Done series in snippets over the last week or two. The mixture of sources is mindblowing, and as clever as it is entertaining. It’s also, genuinely, a good insight into the history of radio.

And on top of that, the production itself is mesmerising: the way Joyce weaves the vintage radio sources around ambient background music and various other clips means one feels surrounded by sound. Many of my listening sessions have been while walking to or from work, and the leak of real-world ambient sounds into my ears on top of the show itself – sounds of traffic, birdsong, sirens, and recently fireworks – has made for an even more ‘immersive’ experience. Utterly compelling.

With (by my reckoning) more than three thousand hours of audio to get through, it is humbling on a scale I can barely fathom. If I begin to work out how long it would take me to reasonably find time to work through this entire archive, it is approaching a real-time playback of the man’s career: 20-30 years wouldn’t be out of the question if I am completely honest about how long I can actually set aside in a given week.

On the one hand I wonder if it is ‘right’ to have an easily accessible digital archive of the man’s work which was itself so ephemeral and precarious. To have listened-in live while those shows were being put together would’ve been magical and it was exciting to hear the Radio Survivor folks describing what that was like.

But on the other hand I am so grateful to know his work – and what work it would have been to compile and produce – is safely preserved and accessible now to the likes of me, whenever one comes to discover it.

To think of all the kinds of work like this that were produced live and ‘lost’ to the ether is at once heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. But I am glad Don’s work is there for me now.

October

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It’s turning cooler now, and I enjoy that feeling in the air. The threat of rain is less enticing but a change is a change and I salute them when they come. Dull, grey skies are a reasonable trade-off for those stark, crisp, blue days which we find scattered along the way.

Sunday’s grey drizzle made for good running conditions as M and I plotted a curved route south, making for the City and terminating our run at St Paul’s.

It never fails to amuse and humble me that we can step outside our flat and run (or walk!) to such significant landmarks.

One week earlier we had run to almost the same spot to see the inspiring sight of many thousands of marathon runners filling the roads as they passed the 24-mile mark on their way to the Mall. Their efforts have once again compelled me to enter the ballot for next year’s event.

I read the words of friends who herald the coming of the new season in a way I find somehow harder to comprehend. Our flat is comfortable and modern, but coming with that is the hermetically sealed environment which traps in a steady warmth of 22c or so, and the limited windows make it hard to feel connected to the light and conditions outside.

When I am made more aware of the sunrise and sunset time each day by the automatic blueing of my smartphone screen, it tells me I have become almost completely detached from the natural world in a way that makes me rather sad.

I look forward to some more outdoor adventures in the coming weeks: walks where the length of the daylight will become crucial as we race the sun to the horizon (although we will be marching east and we will have to salute the sun at midday as it heads on its own way west).

Lately we have returned to lighting candles in the evening and that is absolutely one of my favourite things to do during these shortening days. That their heat makes our modern living room warm enough to sit in shorts and tee shirt is a little disconcerting, but the fragrance and the flickering light and the ritual are all things to love about this time of year. Such a primitive joy from creating a fire for comfort in one’s home.

Two blogs I love are back being active

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Nothing much to say here except that two blogs I really enjoy, and which both separately had a longer or shorter period of time away, are back to posting regularly.

First is Weightshifting, from Naz Hamid.

I’ve followed Naz for years – initially because he posted gorgeous photos of bike rides around San Francisco, and then just because he posted gorgeous photos, full stop. With Weightshifting, he’s back posting regularly, and his recent posts feature huge, gorgeous photos, as well as a nice reflection on what he’s been up to. Naz’s blog is actually an email newsletter, but luckily one that’s archived online, complete with an RSS feed, so it’s basically a blog.

And second is James A. Reeves at Atlas Minor.

I’ve pointed to Reeves’ blog before, back when he was last posting daily (throughout 2020). He’s recently been involved in a project of quite staggering scale and is now, as far as I can tell, back to his daily postings of an image, a shortish piece of narrative, and an accompanying audio file / song. Never not worth my time.

(And with a couple of recent tracks James posted by Fuck Buttons and Autechre, another reminder that for some reason my Asus Chromebook’s speakers are about 400 times better – louder, richer, bassier – than they have any right to be.)

These two merely add to the long list of blogs I follow unconsciously every day.

Some post multiple times a week, others once a year or less. I try to point other people to some of them now and again, and I am always threatening to produce a blogroll.

Those are the ones I know are still active. Others simply live on in my feed reader as a defunct blog which is never likely to be updated again. The author has probably long since forgotten the login details. But I keep the feeds there, servers to be pinged until the end of time, in the hope that they may one day post again.