Fragile records

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In a storeroom in Mt Albert, Auckland, there stood large steel filing cabinets, which hadn’t been opened for decades. Their drawers were filled with fine sheets of glass, each in its own paper sleeve, filed alphabetically—photo negatives from the 1950s and earlier documenting work of the government research institute that’s now Plant & Food Research. When staff were moving premises in 2018, photographer Wara Bullot discovered the trove of images—documentation made by her science-photography colleagues long ago—and recognised their importance. Many of the glass-plate negatives had hand-written labels detailing the subject, its purpose and location. Others could only be guessed at.

Before Kodak revolutionised film in the mid-1950s, glass-plate photography was the go-to process for documenting science, as it was more chemically stable than film available at the time. The glass-plate process was cumbersome and time-consuming, but has a unique finish—a softness and a wide range of tones.

“I can only admire the skill of the people who worked in this challenging medium and used it so well to capture images that tell compelling stories,” says Bullot. “Some of these photographers, like Steve Rumsey, were phenomenal at their time. They were highly skilled and had great patience and a deep understanding of their craft.”

Bullot has co-curated a selection of photographs, which will be exhibited at Alberton from January 16-27. More details and some of the images can be viewed online at

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