Flashback: The search for photographer's lost NZ colour photo plates
A treasure hunt for a swathe of early glass plate images vibrantly depicting 1920s New Zealand through an American lens is on. Matt Stewart reports.
A joint mission to find and identify more than 150 rare scenic colour plate photos of New Zealand taken by an American National Geographic photographer in the late 1920s is under way.
First patented in 1903 autochromes - an early form of colour photography - were single unique glass plate images that had no negative and no multiple prints. It was the main colourisaton process before subtractive colour film took over in the mid-1930s.
In an era when the world was largely rendered in black and white the autochrome's deep, dazzling colours held a captivating allure.
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Enter photographer Fred Payne Clatworthy who came here via the Cook Islands and Tahiti in March 1928 to take photographs and autochromes.
John Meissner - who runs the Estes Park Archives in Estes Park, Colorado, where Clatworthy spent most of his life - has recently been in New Zealand on a fact-finding mission to Te Papa.
Before Clatworthy arrived Meissner said some of his work had been featured in the esteemed National Geographic magazine, and he used this status as a calling card to convince newspapers and government officials that he was here as an agent of the magazine.
"This was probably only partly true. He was mostly there on a Matson cruise ship promising them some of his work for their advertising and publicity campaigns in exchange for a free berth," Meissner said.
"The autochromes he produced from this Cook Islands-Tahiti-New Zealand trip are something of a mystery, since what he sent back to the New Zealand government has apparently been lost, and the remainder of his work from that trip suffers in semi-obscurity in a Denver museum."
In April that year the Evening Post heralded Clatworthy as "America's leading exponent of the art of colour photography".
For his part Clatworthy was equally taken with the country's scenic endowments: "I am amazed at the wonderful variety you have packed into these two islands, and have found it quite impossible to make more than a brief selection in the time at my disposal," he told the Post.
Based out of the capital Clatworthy first headed south to Mt Cook then Queenstown and the Southern Lakes and along the Milford Track before returning to Wellington and heading north taking in the marvels of Whanganui, Taranaki, the Rotorua thermal zone and Auckland and its vulcan harbour.
The Post, on October 24, 1928 reviewed Clatworthy's visit, describing his autochrome of Mt Taranaki "capped in snow, it's slopes tinted with the colours of the rainbow," while his rendering of Mt Cook and The Hermitage was "artistic" enabling "one to realise New Zealand's charms from a new angle."
Meissner, who runs the Estes Park Archives in Estes Park, Colorado, where Clatworthy spent most of his adult life has recently visited New Zealand to show Te Papa curators documents of Clatworthy's tour and ask for help in identifying over 1000 unidentified or poorly identified autochromes held in the US and probably taken here.
"We need help here in America in distinguishing generic scenic shots of New Zealand from similar scenes in Tahiti, Hawaii and the Pacific coast of Mexico, and Te Papa needs help in locating the 50 autochromes that Clatworthy sent back to the New Zealand government in 1928," Meissner said.
Lissa Mitchell, Te Papa's historical photography curator, became acquainted with Meissner and US collector Mark Jacobs a few years ago after writing a journal article on the use of the technique in New Zealand.
Before this bit of archivist's serendipity Mitchell had not been able to find any of Clatworthy's work.
Meissner and Jacobs contacted her saying they knew where some of the autochromes were held.
"I was surprised and delighted to make contact with them and start to uncover more about Clatworthy and where his collection is. However, short of visiting the US I can't see most of them," Mitchell said.
Mitchell confirms the fate of the selection of his best New Zealand autochromes is unknown - although the government did acknowledge their receipt.
Autochromes are small and often mistaken as glass colour lantern slides, which compounds the problem of identification.
Mitchell said autochromes, especially those made here, are rare - which adds to the allure.
"Because it is such a rare and special form of early colour photography, it would be great to access Clatworthy's New Zealand autochromes held in the US," Mitchell said.
But she will have to wait - the Clatworthy collection held in Denver's History Colorado Museum is currently under 'quarantine' until June, while it is conserved and reorganised.