Kiwis will get their first look at a large, historic collection of 19th and 20th century vintage photography in a new exhibition and auction in Auckland.

Dating from the 1860s to the 1930s, these rare photographs from New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific, South East Asia, Japan, Africa and the Americas were assembled by a private collector over almost 20 years.

The Webb's auction will be the first time this fascinating collection of 243 Cartes de Visite, postcards, Lantern slides and large format photographs will be on display and available to the public.

Inspired by a love of anthropology and New Zealand and Pacific history, the collector was particularly captivated by the people and wide range of cultures that inhabit this unique part of the globe.

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FOY BROS, THAMES Portrait of Ana Rupene and child, Ngāti Maru. Photo / Webb's
FOY BROS, THAMES Portrait of Ana Rupene and child, Ngāti Maru. Photo / Webb's

The fascinating individuals and stories in the photographs prompted the collector to repatriate their collection:

"It was always my desire that the collection must come back to New Zealand from where the subjects of many of the photographs lived their lives and where their descendants live today..." he said.

"My hope is that a person living today will be able to recognise a family relative or family friend from the period in history, and even better if the photograph was not known to have previously existed."

Fine art specialist Amanda Morrissey-Brown said while there are a few key figures that have been named that are already in public collections, there is about 50 unidentified people within this collection of images.

"There is a good cluster that it would be fabulous to find out who they are.

"Once you start researching you get quite fond of all these faces and are really keen to find their history, identity or connection. You wonder why they were chosen to be photographed," she said.

FOY BROS, THAMES Māori man with feathered and korowai cloaks, holding a mere. Photo / Webb's
FOY BROS, THAMES Māori man with feathered and korowai cloaks, holding a mere. Photo / Webb's

"The ones I have found out who the person is are the wonderful ones. It is mainly the Pacific, Samoan and Fijian ones – I was thrilled with a beautiful woman in the Fijian section who we identified as a princess, and the granddaughter of the King of Fiji.

"We now know she is Princess Adi Cakobau – a beautiful, confident, accomplished looking young woman."

Some notable portraits in the collection were also used by celebrated New Zealand painters; including, the Foy Brothers' portrait of Ana Rupene and child and Benjamin Peyman's Mrs Pikirakau/Bloody Queen Merewere used by painter Gottfried Lindauer; Hartley Webster's photograph of Patara Raukatauri, Ngati Mahuta of Tainui chief and disciple of Pai Marire, that also became the subject of a C. F. Goldie painting.

From the New Zealand section, an image called Dame Whina Cooper and companion also drew special attention from Webb's researchers.

"They are both wearing cloaks and standing on something that looks like a rugby pitch and they have these beautiful Māori cloaks on with the headdress, and then these really British looking shoes on," Morrissey-Brown laughed.

"These images really show a really fascinating combining of cultures that happened when New Zealand was colonised."

Cartes de Visite of Māori were popular both in New Zealand and abroad, becoming an important part of New Zealand's burgeoning tourism industry.

The traditional dress of Māori fascinated Europeans, and the contrast between Māori dress and adornments and Victorian fashion can be seen throughout the collection in images of glamorous Māori women in Victorian silks with gold jewellery and occasional huia feathers in their hair.

Many photographs, however, were heavily staged scenes and do not depict Māori as they were but instead emphasised their "otherness" for tourists' interest.

"One of the things that really hit me was the Fiji cannibals.

"Fijians were seconded to go to the US and be in circuses and be named as cannibals even though there was no evidence they were," Morrissey-Brown said.

In comparison to the images of Māori, the results of colonisation in other areas show a harsher depiction of indigenous people in both staged and candid photographs.

"It is also quite amazing within this collection the contrast you see between the international images and the different ways the entire Pacific was being colonised, and the different ways people were treated.

"There is a contrast in the way young Māori woman are shown compared to Samoan woman who are all shown topless. It is a really interesting discrepancy," Morrissey-Brown said.

The chance to view this collection is an exciting and rare opportunity for New Zealanders, particularly those of Pacific and Māori descent, to discover pieces of their past that have been brought home from all over the world.

"It is quite important for those images to be returned and for families and iwi to be able to see their relatives," Morrissey-Brown said.

• This collection is currently on view at Webb's gallery, 33a Normanby Road, Mt Eden, Auckland, and will go under the hammer in an online auction running from the February 27-March 4.