May 30, 2009

A Unique Photographic Discovery

Streetscapes of Christchurch in 1868 are quite rare; there are only ten that can be positively identified to that specific year, with another four being designated as circa 1868. Accordingly, we were pleasantly surprised when our hawk-eyed scrutiny revealed that a pair of these 141 year-old photographs were taken within minutes of each other and almost certainly by the same photographer.

In that era hand held cameras were still a far off dream and the bulky equipment would have necessitated the use of a tripod as the exposure time for a sun lit landscape would then have been about five seconds. What can be ascertained by the digital interpolation of the photographs with variable transparency, is that although they were taken from the same vantage point, the camera's lens had been changed between the exposures, with the second photograph probably being taken with a portrait lens.

The pair of photographs, which would appear to be unique in the annals of early Christchurch photography, were taken from the intersection of Oxford Terrace and Cashel Streets (near to where the Bridge of Remembrance now stands). In these northerly aspects across Hereford to Worcester Street, the horse and cart to the Left has moved on in the second photograph and the man standing on the pavement to the Right has turned his back to the camera.

As yet unable to positively identify the photographer, our best guess would currently be Alfred Barker, that renowned gossip, city Coroner and pioneer of Christchurch photography. His enthusiasm for amateur photography would not only be in keeping with an experimentation of the same subject, but he was also said to have cut up window panes from his house (which is not quite visible in the photographs) in order to make more glass negatives.

In that era our common coins, from threepences to half-crowns, were made of 92.5% Silver. These could be dissolved in Nitric acid, with the resulting silver nitrate salts then mixed with Gelatine (derived from animal bones), which would then be used to coat one surface of the 165 by 216 millimetre glass plates.

In order to wash the exposed negatives, Dr Barker would leave them in a box in the Avon River overnight. His journal mentions the ongoing problem of their being stolen from the river during the hours of darkness. Perhaps these unattributed photographs were among his losses.

We've come a long way since the observation that silver tarnished in sunlight led to the invention of viable photography. Thanks to the architect Benjamin Mountfort, who taught photography to Alfred Barker, the photographic record of our city's development began within three years of its foundation.

The same view as it appears in 2009


Jayne said...

The passion of the amateur photographer seems to have captured much more than the professionals of the day and left a lasting legacy for historians.

Canterbury Heritage said...

Postcards were yet to be introduced at the time that these photos were taken; most photographs were still studio portraits in that era. Alfred Barker's vision of creating a visual record of Christchurch's early development has thereby ensured him an enduring place in posterity.

Interestingly, if both photos had been taken with the same lens, it would have been easily possible to create a motion picture sequence from them (using the Adobe Shockwave software application).

Brett Payne said...

An interesting discovery - thanks for sharing it, and please keep them coming. Regards, Brett

Canterbury Heritage said...

Thanks for the encoraging comment Brett, your articles about old photographs, photographers and their subjects are a real inspiration.