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