Nel­son’s Glass Plate Neg­a­tive Pro­ject is pro­vid­ing a pre­cious win­dow on the past.

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Nel­son’s Glass Plate Neg­a­tive Pro­ject pro­vides a pre­cious win­dow on the past.

Gar­den­ing en­thu­si­asts might have pre­ferred it if Wil­liam Tyree hadn’t been so busi­ness savvy. While other pho­tog­ra­phers’ glass plates – used to make negatives in the early days of the craft – were some­times re­pur­posed as panes for green­houses, canny Tyree kept his for later use.

With re­print re­quests pro­vid­ing on­go­ing in­come, he had a stron­groom con­structed to keep the frag­ile items safe from earth­quakes and fire. Not only did his acu­men ben­e­fit his own Nel­son-based busi­ness, but the legacy he cre­ated – a col­lec­tion of price­less glass-plate negatives dat­ing back to 1860 – has helped doc­u­ment a vis­ual his­tory of New Zealand.

Now cared for by Nel­son Provin­cial Mu­seum, they’ve been joined by ad­di­tional glass plates from other early New Zealand pho­tog­ra­phers such as Ge­of­frey C. Wood and F. N. Jones, to form a col­lec­tion of some 157,000 plates of vary­ing sizes. And if their guardians have their way, all will soon be avail­able in dig­i­tal for­mat to the pub­lic.

“We feel hugely priv­i­leged to have such a unique col­lec­tion,” says Dar­ryl Gal­lagher, pho­to­graphic col­lec­tion man­ager at the mu­seum.

“The Tyree Stu­dio Col­lec­tion is the most renowned among our stocks be­cause, while many pho­tog­ra­phers re­cy­cled their plates, scrap­ing off the emul­sion to re-use for fur­ther pho­tos, apart from a thou­sand im­ages that ended up at the Alexan­dra Turn­bull Li­brary, Tyree’s is a com­plete pho­to­graphic stu­dio, from the busi­ness’ in­cep­tion right through un­til 1947.”

The col­lec­tion, which in­cludes scenic shots by Wil­liam’s brother Fred, was gifted by Rose Frank, who man­aged the stu­dio for nine years after Wil­liam Tyree moved to Aus­tralia, then bought the busi­ness in 1914 and was in­stru­men­tal in pre­serv­ing the orig­i­nal im­ages. And so, in 2010, the Glass Plate Neg­a­tive Pro­ject was born.

Once at the Nel­son mu­seum, the glass plates were stored on wooden shelv­ing units. How­ever, when these warped un­der the weight and fears arose that gases from the ma­te­ri­als would de­te­ri­o­rate their qual­ity, a plan was made to shift them to metal cases. “It seemed an ideal opportunity to digi­tise the im­ages,” Gal­lagher says.

So far, 150,000 plates have been digi­tised and restacked, with many al­ready up­loaded to the mu­seum’s data­base and made eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic through its Col­lec­tions On­line fa­cil­ity (col­lec­tion. nel­son­mu­seum.co.nz/ex­plore). Set­backs have in­cluded a pause while the build­ing un­der­went earth­quake strength­en­ing and, more re­cently, a tem­po­rary lack of fund­ing.

With new fi­nances se­cured, the pro­ject is back on track. Tech­ni­cians Ian Mcguire and Er­rol Shaw have

both been in­volved since its in­cep­tion, metic­u­lously scan­ning and log­ging each plate be­fore slot­ting them into new pur­pose-de­signed draw­ers.

For Shaw, a high­light was the day he be­gan work on a neg­a­tive, dated 1900, only to re­alise it was of his grand­mother Hilda Iorns’ sixth birth­day party at Colling­wood School.

Gal­lagher had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence after dis­cov­er­ing a rare im­age taken in 1874 of the ar­rival in Nel­son of the ship Adamant; among the pas­sen­gers on that jour­ney were his great­great-great-grand­par­ents Ge­orge and El­iz­a­beth Mercer, em­i­grat­ing from Eng­land with their fam­ily.

It’s hoped the Glass Plate Neg­a­tive Pro­ject will pro­vide oth­ers with sim­i­lar rev­e­la­tions as these pho­to­graphic heir­looms – rather than be­ing re­cy­cled into glasshouses – are used to cre­ate a pre­cious win­dow on the world of the past. FIONA TERRY

Print from a glass plate neg­a­tive of the Nel­son Foot­ball Club, taken at Wil­liam Tyree’s stu­dio in Nel­son.

Top: Ian Mcguire care­fully places a glass plate onto a light­box to copy. Above left: Pro­ject man­ager Dar­ryl Gal­lagher re­moves a plate from new metal draw­ers that have re­placed po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing wooden shelv­ing. Above right: Tech­ni­cian Er­rol Shaw stud­ies a film copy of the 117-year-old plate he found of his grand­mother’s sixth birth­day party.

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