Christchurch In Panorama (with thanks to the National Library of NewZealand)

I’ve recently been playing with the National Library of New Zealand‘s excellent Papers Past archive, along with the Digital NZ website. The former is a resource I’ve long been a fan of – even to the point of printing off whole editions of newspapers held in the archive – while the latter is one I’ve known about for a while but never really used.

It turns out that the big search box that greets you on the Digital NZ homepage is basically a Google for digital New Zealand content. Excellent! Not only can you search just one resource at a time, but a whole host of them, refining the search with filters to drill down to find just what you want.

I can’t believe I hadn’t used it before, but it looks like Digital NZ and the NLNZ’s new beta website are both related and are currently under development. They both work great, sure – but they also look beautiful.

It’s not often that you can say that about a library’s public access catalogue!

One of the benefits of an overhauled new system is a system of APIs which allows developers to make cool stuff using the rich sources of data held by the library. One such project is Tim Sherratt’s QueryPicNZ – a simple tool which performs some pretty complex calculations.

It’ll show you on a graph the number of times a particular search term is used in the whole of the Papers Past archive. It’s great for visually analysing the occurrences of a particular event, say, or for easily identifying the unique uses of a particular phrase.

What’s more, the results plotted on the graph are all clickable, and take you directly to the article in question. Seamless.

Anyway, I stumbled on a 130-year-old article in Papers Past after playing with QueryPicNZ.

I’ve had Christchurch on my mind a lot recently. I can’t really work out why; I’ve spent some time there, but not a great deal. I don’t have family there. But the place resonates within me, and the recent upheaval the city is going through has been a source of constant fascination to me. I’m sure I’ll try and distill this peculiar feeling another time, but for now let’s get back to the matter at hand.

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The article in The Star newspaper described a panoramic photograph of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, taken from the recently-constructed (and now destroyed) Christ Church Cathedral, giving a view of the city in 1881. The article compares the photograph to a particular watercolour which was “a faithful presentment of the Christchurch of 1852.”

The article goes on: “When the tower of the Cathedral had been completed, some of the citizens took advantage of the opportunity to look down, upon the City of the Plains…Beyond the Belts they could see thriving and populous suburbs, and, in every direction, indications that the growth of the community is proceeding with undiminished rigour.”

It describes how Messrs Wheeler and Co. captured “as perfect a panorama as could reasonably be desired.” The panorama affords “much surprise of an agreeable nature, inasmuch as they are not the mere ‘pictures of roofs and chimneys’ which might perhaps have been anticipated.”

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The article closes, praising the panorama as “a most effective and highly creditable example of the status in this Colony of one of the artistic pursuits.”

Praise indeed. But what about that photograph? It sounded great, and I really wanted to see it.

Knowing that I had NLNZ’s excellent tools at my disposal, I performed a few searches, but turned up nothing. (Actually that’s not quite true; I turned up about ten other items of interest which lost me about an hour in researching those in turn!)

Eventually, however, I found a lithograph from 1889 which made reference to the Wheeler photograph. It turned out that it was actually based on the panorama itself, and coloured in. So although I couldn’t find the original Wheeler image, here was a tracing of that image, with added colour!

And the icing on the cake, that comes with so many National Library of New Zealand searches: the image has been scanned and is available to view online instantly. So here it is:

Potts, William, 1859-1947Edmund Wheeler and Son (Firm). Willis, Archibald Dudingston (Firm) :City of Christchurch, N. Z. W. Potts, lith, E. Wheeler & Son, Photo. A. D. Willis lithographer, Wanganui. [1889]. Wakefield, Edward 1845-1924 :New Zealand illustrated. The story of New Zealand and descriptions of its cities and towns by Edward Wakefield; also (by various writers) the natural wonders of New Zealand (past and present). Wanganui. A. D. Willis, 1889.. Ref: PUBL-0019-09. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23041986

It’s a stunning image, I’m sure you’ll agree. The newspaper article wasn’t exaggerating.

But the great news doesn’t end there.

NLNZ haven’t just scanned the above image; no, just like a whole load more images you can find in their archive, they’ve scanned it at eye-searingly high resolution, which you can view and zoom into just by clicking the catalogue link, then clicking ‘See original record’, then ‘View archived copy online’. It’s a slightly fiddly process, but the results are worth it.

Here’s a snippet of the image at full resolution:

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If you ever find an image on the NLNZ catalogue – particularly a photograph from that era – and there’s a link to view it online, do so. The resolution of the scan will be huge, and the quality of those large-format images of the time is insane. I’ve lost hours panning around a street scene from the turn of the century, reading all the shop signs and scrutinising the faces of whoever happened to be in front of the lens the day the photograph was taken.

Related: Check out a recent NLNZ blog post about just this subject: embiggening images.

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On the importance of overhead cables in a photograph

From the National Library of New Zealand‘s Flickr account, a rather striking shot of a building in Wellington, taken in 1940:

Photographer: Gordon Burt, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-036769-G

Here is the brand new MLC building at the corner of Lambton Quay and Hunter Street, photographed in 1940. It is from the negatives and prints of Gordon Burt, one of Wellington’s best-known commercial photographers. He was determined to show the building in all its art deco glory. In the real world overhead wires and cables criss-crossed in front of the camera, but on this print Burt has painstakingly retouched them out of existence.

I was interested to read that the ubiquitous overhead tram cables that run throughout downtown Wellington had been edited out of this image – if you click through to the Flickr page and view it larger, you can easily see where this has been done. And while I agree that it does make it easier to focus on the building’s proud frontage, I can’t help but feel slightly queasy about the removal of something so obvious.

But that’s just me; I love lines and silhouettes in photographs – and overhead cables bring a lot of that to an image. Often when I’m out and about, an image can be framed, or divided up, by some previously unnoticed cables. Other times, the unique arrangement of cables against a solid coloured sky can make the image itself. Even the latticed windows of my bedroom make for a beautiful composition against the right cloudscape.

I remember at least one example where I’d taken a photograph of a particularly nice sunset out of the back of my home in Manchester. Criss-crossing the image are the collection of telegraph cables that proliferate in such a densely populated residential area as this. For me, it made an image where the primary feature was swathes of colour a little more dynamic and interesting – the thick black lines against the bright colours of a fiery sunset made for a wonderful contrast.

Or so I thought.

The image ended up on my Manchester Daily Photo blog, and although I can’t remember it exactly, one of the comments left by a site visitor said words to the effect of “Lovely sunset, shame about the wires ruining it though.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. One man’s defining feature in a photograph can be another man’s distraction. And I quite like that.

Oddly enough, my mother was quick to jump in to the comments and defend the presence of the wires, saying she felt that they made the image. That must be where I get it from…

Incidentally, I’d show you the image I mean, but my Flickr account is currently in a somewhat dormant state as my subscription fees have expired for the first time in six years. This means my 12,000-odd photographs are ‘hidden’, with only the latest 200 showing. I will get around to renewing it when I can though, of course.

Donations welcome…!