Palmerston North's photographic history preserved

Kenneth Gillon, on the ladder, passes one of the 172 boxes of negatives to Heather Glasgow, of the City Archives, who ...
WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Kenneth Gillon, on the ladder, passes one of the 172 boxes of negatives to Heather Glasgow, of the City Archives, who places it on the transfer trolley. Terry Bowness, beside trolley, assists them.

A historic decision will give new life to vintage Manawatu Standard photos.

Thousands of Manawatu Standard photo negatives, representing 40-plus years of pre-digital local news, were given an upscale new home this week.

On Tuesday the collection, filed in approximately 172 labelled, dated boxes from 1956 to the late 1990s, was handed over to the Palmerston North library's Ian Matheson city archives. There, a new purpose-built, temperature controlled space awaits them.

Clockwise from top left; Richard Poole, chief photographer 1961-1962, Susan Clark, first female photographer in the ...
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Clockwise from top left; Richard Poole, chief photographer 1961-1962, Susan Clark, first female photographer in the 1980s, Frank Stephens, chief photographer 1962-1963, Howard Kidd, chief photographer 1957 -1959, Maurice Costello, centre, chief photographer 1963-1987 (with staff photographers) and Wiff Turney, chief photographer 1955.

Over the years, the collection has been shelved in various parts of the Standard building through several renovation periods, including side rooms, a basement and finally, an office/library area in the newsroom.

The historic handover, arranged between the Standard's parent company Fairfax, Manawatu regional editor Jonathon Howe and the archives' heritage team, will mean more than just a new and improved home for the pictures.

These slices of Palmerston North life, taken through the decades, mostly in black and white, will be digitised and placed on the library archives' Manawatu Heritage website.

Lesley Courtney, heritage team leader at the city library archives.
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Lesley Courtney, heritage team leader at the city library archives.

"This is a process that will obviously take several years," says archive photo specialist Heather Glasgow, "but the public will be able to access them, enjoy them and even download them from the site."

First inklings of deterioration in the boxes became apparent when the archives started digitising some of the negatives for the Standard's weekly Way We Were Wednesday vintage photo series.

Howe said "the photo negatives had been gathering dust in our old library room for a few years, and I suspect many in the newsroom had forgotten they were even there. But it was still a shock when Heather, having conducted tests on the negatives, informed us that some were showing signs of deterioration.

"We obviously had to do something about the issue, but we simply didn't have the capacity to store them in a temperature-controlled area in the Manawatu Standard office. So when the library kindly offered to store them in the city archives, it was far too good an offer to pass on."

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Despite delays due to issues with paperwork and logistical concerns, "all of the people involved in sorting it out, both at the library and Fairfax, did an excellent job in getting it across the line."​

Glasgow said "in my opinion, these negatives are going to be the single most important photograph collection in our archive. It's certainly the biggest! One of the important things to remember is that these photographs depict events within living memory for a lot of Palmerston North residents…we will be able to pick the very best images for engaging with our community…"

Former Manawatu Standard chief photographer Maurice Costello worked on the newspaper for 35 years (1962-1997) and was on the spot when most of the original photos were taken. The job then was a far cry from the speed and technology of today's press coverage.

In the early 1960s, Speed Graphic, Rolleiflex and Leica cameras were used.

Costello speaks warmly of those days.

"The Nash family [owners] supplied the best photographic equipment available …we could provide sharp, quality enlargements for sale.

"In 1962 we were really run off our feet with just two original photographers. We started at 8am each day, our assignments were made out by the news editor Gerald Nash and discussed with editor J.H. (James Henry) Nash… we stood before him at his desk and only spoke when we were spoken to.

"We'd take a car and search the city for people or happenings of interest. By midday the photos had to be processed and printed – they had to be engraved on a plastic plate by a darkroom technician." The process took half an hour.

At the end of each day, the negatives were put into packets marked with an order number, the picture's topic and the date, and filed away. As well as the featured picture, "we also filed the frame before and after.

"In later years there was more demand on photographers – assignments became more hectic. During the first 20 years, there were only male photographers. It just happened that only men applied for the job. But in the late 1970s, girls started showing keen interest (in the profession) under my watch.

"Our first female photographer – Susan Clarke – started out as a darkroom assistant. Eventually, we became too busy to put time into training new cadets and we were looking at already-trained photographers."

Heritage team leader Lesley Courtney agrees that "the donation of this collection is a wonderful gift to the city, for which we have Fairfax and the Manawatu Standard to thank.

"As you can imagine, [digitisation] will be a long-term, ongoing process. Meantime we will slowly be adding images to Manawatu Heritage, so people can keep an eye out for additions.

"We do have volunteers in the library, and if anyone was interested in the collection and in making it more accessible, they can always contact the Heritage Team on the second floor of the Palmerston North central library and we can talk about how they may be able to help."

Meantime, if you'd like to find a photo from the negative collection, visit the library or email heritage@pncc.govt.nz. Remember though, says Courtney, "that there are gaps in the collection and we require a date to search for an image".

Every picture tells a story, as the old saying goes, and these stories of Palmerston North and districts are ready for their (second) close-up.

 - Stuff

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