Images from the frontier
Professional photographers whose work spanned nearly 50 years around the turn of the century, brothers William and Fred Tyree started what is now one of the most important pictorial archives in the country. The Tyree Collection is an extraordinary provincial insight into a colony struggling towards nationhood.
Details are long forgotten, but it is safe to assume that Fred Tyree’s journey to Paturau in the year 1900 would not have been an easy one. From Collingwood, buggy laden with bulky photographic gear and two weeks’ worth of supplies, he would have headed north along Golden Bay’s expansive tidal flats before picking up the muddy track that followed an old Maori trail over Pakawau Saddle and down to Whanganui Inlet.
The successful fording of the first deep channel would have been a relief, but there was no time to spare as he spurred his horses, Photo and Lana, into a stiff trot. The 12-kilometre slog across the inlet’s muddy flats would be a race against the incoming tide, and then there was a final treacherous channel crossing. The recent drowning of two men there was no doubt fresh in his mind.
Safely through, he carefully unloaded his Thornton-Pickard plate camera and set it up with well-practised precision on its wooden tripod near a makeshift jetty jutting out into the channel. A steam launch carrying flaxmill workers pulled alongside. The men were obliging subjects, doing their best to keep perfectly still while Tyree exposed a glass plate with their image.
Hurrying to make the flaxmilling camp before dark, Fred could not resist unloading his camera one more time—on a shingle shoal in the middle of the Paturau River—to record a packhorse team using the riverbed route to take stores to the nearby Taitapu goldfields.
Fred would go there later as well, but tonight he rested at the tiny settlement at the mouth of the river. Since Prouse and Saunders had shipped their plant from Foxton a few months earlier, the flaxmill here had trebled production.
Unhitching his weary horses, Fred joined in the Saturday evening festivities, well pleased he’d made it for the workers’ one day off a week the following day. All were eager subjects, for probably none of the 16 men had ever been photographed before.
Sunday morning was spent setting the scene beside one of the camp huts. A pirate flag was hoisted as a backdrop. Bundles of flax were carefully placed. Fred choreographed every detail before finally climbing under the hood of his camera. Sixteen men posed rock-still in various poses: one reading a newspaper, two pretending to box, another pointing a rifle at a stuffed kiwi. The cook stood proud in his whitest apron while a boozer drained a bottle. Some men bore tools, there was a clothes washing demonstration and three musicians posed with their instruments.
Fred uncapped the camera lens on a postcard-perfect scene (page 68). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a Tyree print could say a million.
Nineteenth century New Zealand was a frontier in gradual advance to nationhood. Although it lacked the gunfights and glamour that characterised its American counterpart, it generated a no less romantic tradition derived from its many tales of hardship and adventure.
In the recording of that tradition, this country had one terrific advantage. The last group of sizeable islands to undergo European colonisation, New Zealand came into formal existence in 1840. Just one year earlier, the French Government had released the formula, free of patent, for making daguerreotypes, a permanent positive image on a metal plate. The colony of New Zealand and the era of photography came into being almost simultaneously.
So while previous colonial evolutions could only be recorded by artists and writers, New Zealand became, by dint of lateness, the only English colony in the world to have its early years recorded in still-life black and white.
New Zealanders haven’t stopped clicking since, but appreciation of our unique photographic heritage has been slow in coming. Even today, most regional museums lack the special facilities needed to preserve perishable photographic negatives. Yet when the Tyree Collection was moved to the Nelson Provincial Museum in 1974, it became the nucleus of a collection that today numbers 1.2 million negatives covering 140 years of Nelson’s history.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world has such a small geographical area had such voluminous and comprehensive chronological coverage.
“In America, a collection of this size would be in the Smithsonian or Library of Congress,” says Maurice Watson, Nelson Provincial Museum’s Manager of Public Programmes. “We’re talking about a collection of international significance here.”
What is especially important, says William Main of the New Zealand Centre for Photography, is the number of portraits in the collection. “There can’t be many cities where, over a period of 140 years, nearly anyone who was anyone has been photographed.”
So who were these brothers who left behind such a comprehensive photographic legacy and inspired others to add theirs? Biographical information is sketchy. Until 20 years ago, few people beyond the Nelson area had even heard of the Tyrees.
William and Fred were the sons of William Tyree (snr), master bootmaker of Middlesex, and his second wife, Elizabeth Frances Baker, butcher’s daughter from Christ Church in Surrey. William (jnr), the eldest child, was born in Surrey on April 19, 1855. Two more children followed, before Fred was born in London on March 7, 1867. Elizabeth, 37, died a few weeks later from complications, and William married his sister-in-law, Ann Catherine Baker, two years later.
No doubt it was the normal colonial impulse of hope of a new life that saw the family emigrate to New Zealand on the S.S. Otago, stepping ashore at Port Chalmers in 1871. William soon took up bootmaking in Queenstown, where his two brothers, James, a photographer, and Frederick, a carpenter, were already in business.
A picture of the family begins to emerge. Writes Tyree historian Les Cleveland, “They were a family of middle class business people, typical of the kind of small tradesmen and artisans who were so active and influential in the settlement of New Zealand. In a word, they were go-getters.”
And innovators. Jetboaters on the Shotover River still tear through the Tyree Cut, a marvel of goldmining engineering five years in the making. Anecdotal evidence suggests it was designed and instigated by none other than photographer James in the early 1860s.
With goldrush writing on the wall, all three brothers packed up and shifted to Dunedin to practise their respective trades. There is a record that by 1884 James was running a thriving photographic studio.
We can assume that William (jnr) trained from an early age with his uncle, for at the age of 23 he was confident enough to shift north and establish Tyree Studio in Nelson’s main Trafalgar Street in 1878.
From the outset, William’s principal work was studio portraits. The serious posing that is a characteristic of these pictures had more to do with the average two-second exposure times needed for films of that era than with the sober demeanour of the subjects. These were not the days of the snapshot, and whole groups had to co-operate for the photograph to succeed.
William was something of an entrepreneur. In 1884, we find him also trading as Hope Fruit and Produce Co. (one of his 1883 advertisements read “wanting 100 tons of pie melons and able to buy strawberries.”)
Only a year earlier he had married Mary Anne Evans (née Cross), the daughter of Nelson’s first harbourmaster. Although they had no children of their own, William became a dutiful father to Mary’s young son Arthur.
Younger brother Fred, in the meantime, had trained as a druggist in Dunedin before abandoning that career and working for Clifford and Morris Studios. By the time he shifted to Nelson in 1886 to work for his brother, the 19-year-old boasted considerable photographic knowledge.
And fortuitous timing. When American George Eastman patented his dry plate process in 1882, it finally freed photographers from the arduous task of having to pour silver-bearing solutions over a glass plate in a darkroom, load it into the camera and expose it, before rushing back to the darkroom to develop the plate before it dried.
Now glass plates came with the emulsion already in place. This meant photographers on the other side of the world could receive boxes of unexposed plates from Eastman Kodak or other suppliers, and keep them ready-to-use for months. Better still, it meant that, once exposed, the plate could be stashed away for developing at a later date.
Suddenly, the backblocks, along with all sorts of associated human endeavour, were ready and waiting to be caught on camera. This suited loner Fred down to the ground. The precise working arrangement that existed between Fred and William is unclear, but it seems that many of the scenic and goldfields studies in the collection are the work of Fred. Certainly, Fred’s daughter, Grace, recalled a father who was often away, driving around Nelson, Marlborough and the northern West Coast in his buggy and tandem and photographing scenery, timber mills, mining camps, farming ventures and modes of transportation.
Fred often added his own touches of compositional whimsy. In a shot he entitled “Smoke 0,” he captured bullocky William Brooks taking a break with his team at Kohatu Junction, holding up a bottle of whisky as he rested against a sitting bullock, especially trained to be an armchair. Everything is in perfect focus except the cud-chewing mouths of the bullocks.
In “Rockmen on Strike,” photographed at the Quartz Ranges inland from Collingwood, one militant striker points a rifle at a company man while the rest pretend to be “waiting it out” (see contents page).
Several old-timers still recall Fred’s quick sense of humour and extreme meticulousness when setting up such scenes. One 94-year-old surviving relative described him as a jack of all trades, no better evidenced than by a deft hand at dentistry. Vern Tyree of Richmond still has his grandfather’s kit of tooth-pulling pliers. After photo sessions, it seems Fred would become camp dentist, using a glass of whisky as a sedative.
Fred worked for his brother for only a few years before establishing his own branch of Tyree Studio in Golden Bay in 1889. He apparently still sent his photographic plates to be processed and stored (uncredited) at his brother’s studio in Nelson, which explains how their separate work has ended up being lumped together.
Fred married local Motupipi woman Grace Scott in 1892. With a child on the way and a photographic business perhaps not coming up to expectations financially, they shifted to Christchurch to work for another brother, Alfred, a footwear manufacturer. Returning to Golden Bay in 1897, Fred revived his photographic business and did whatever work he could on the side, eventually becoming publican of the Collingwood Hotel (1901-1904).
But while Fred seemed content with eking out a living in semi-isolation, brother William was engaging in more ambitious ventures. Coinciding with Nelson’s 50th jubilee celebrations in 1892, he began giving evening limelight slide exhibitions, projecting images from inside his studio on to the first floor window. These earliest picture shows became a regular Saturday night entertainment in Nelson, when shops would stay open to 10 P.M. Large crowds gathered on the street below while a brass ensemble accompanied the images from the balcony alongside. The shows were great for business!
William early appreciated the power of images in advertising. Look at the way his studio frontage was decorated, for a start (page 64)! And he may rightly be regarded as a pioneer in tourist trade publicity. At the request of the proprietors of the Buller Coach Service, Newman Bros. and Canning, William took a number of 10-inch by 8-inch pictures of coaches and scenery in the Nelson, Blenheim and Buller Districts for exhibition in main cities and towns throughout the country.
Seizing the opportunity, he took out an advertisement in June 1895 inviting the assistance of businessmen in an attempt to induce tourists to take “The Finest Coach Drive in New Zealand”-600 miles of road and river scenery between Christchurch and Picton via the West Coast and Nelson. “At present,” the advertisement stated, “very few of the thousands who visit New Zealand travel this route, and thus tens of thousands of pounds are lost annually to the Colony.”
The invitation worked. The fledgling Government Tourist Department picked up his campaign and sent large framed promotion boards of his photographs around the world with the Orion and New Zealand Steam Ship Companies. It was a public relations exercise before the term was coined.
With such an inventive mind, William must have found Nelson lacking in business opportunities—a disadvantaged back-water. He was a tinkerer, his interest latching on to anything new. One of his passions was a scheme to develop an improved acetylene generator for gas lighting.
Appointing his trusted and highly capable assistant, Rosaline Frank, as studio manager with power of attorney in 1895, William left for England to gather technical information for the gas project. A notice in The Colonist on the eve of his departure guardedly describes his intention “. . . to visit Great Britain to make arrangements for placing on the market a patent of which he is the possessor.”
William’s eyes must have been opened on his arrival in an England entering the technological age. Members of the Tyree family recall his return to Nelson with an Edison phonograph and “moving pictures” of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. With a new and unbridled enthusiasm, he installed an acetylene-powered lighting system in the Christchurch home of brother Alfred and established a company to produce generators and sell carbide to power them.
His patented Perfection Generator consisted of a large tank in which acetylene gas was prepared under pressure by the addition of calcium carbide to water. (Cavers’ headlamps operate on the same principle.) His grandiose plans to light all of Nelson were quashed by councillors who considered the scheme too dangerous, even insisting he keep his supplies on the outskirts of town.
No doubt it was all a great disappointment to William. After years of trying to make a living in Nelson, he shifted to Sydney before the turn of the century. His reasons for leaving Nelson are unclear, but Les Cleveland thinks William considered Australia “a more sophisticated environment to further his inventions.”
And invent he did! Across the Tasman, William put all his Nelson dreams into action. A number of ornate letters patent, some in foreign languages, still exist for such diverse patents as an improved egg tester, improved mouse trap, improved deck chair (which doubled as an improved life saver) and an apparatus for washing clothes (a predecessor of the Simpson?)
An early letterhead for Tyree & Tyree (in partnership with his wife), Engineers and Ironworkers of Sydney, lists 25 Tyree patents, from Tyree Insect Death to Tyree Refrigerator Paint Powder; Tyree Waterproof Whitewash to Tyree Blackberry Destroyer. Add to the list waterproof soluble tar, fireproof powder and an “improved acetylene sprayer” that was used to paint the extensive roof area of the Sydney Central Railway Station.
As if all this wasn’t enough, William took over the photographic business of J. Hubert Newman in Lower George Street as a sideline. He built the first block of residential flats in Sydney, overlooking Mosman Bay, then exchanged them for a two-storeyed home with a five-acre mixed orchard in Pennant Hills.
But the beginning of World War I saw a decline in William’s business interests. He was forced to sell his Nelson studio to Rose Frank for 750 pounds, a figure he said was “… considerably less than what I was offered for it, but I recognise that you have done your best for me all these years we have been together.” After agreeing that she should keep trading in the Tyree name, William offers a glimpse of the state of his own affairs: “Business here is very hard and likely to get worse. I have closed down, and don’t know when I will start again. Thousands are out of work. . . .”
There was to be no recovery. Unable to keep up their mortgage payments, William and Mary lost their idyllic home and orchard and had to return to Sydney, where they lived out their final thwarted years living with and supported by their son, Captain Arthur Tyree. William died of cerebral meningitis on June 1, 1924, aged 69.
And what of Fred and Grace back in New Zealand? They lived out their days in Golden Bay, buying a farm at Rockville, where they built a house and raised three children: Fred, Edward (Ted) and Grace. In a room next to a small bakehouse on the property run by his wife and daughter, Fred maintained a darkroom and photographic workroom. He held the licence to the Collingwood Hotel again in 1915-16, but eventually settled back to what he liked doing best: farming pursuits interspersed with photographic work. He died at Rockville on April 8, 1924, aged 57, just eight weeks before the death of William, and is buried in the Collingwood Cemetery.
That their collection has endured virtually complete is in itself remarkable, attributable as much as anything to the fact that it stayed housed in a very solid detached concrete and brick strongroom at the rear of the Nelson studio, where it remained virtually undisturbed until around 1948.
Much credit must go to Rose Frank, who ran the Tyree studio for many of the 61 years she worked there. Even when she retired at age 82, she realised the value of the huge bulk (around four tonnes) of quarter plate, half plate, full plate and 10-inch by 8-inch glass negatives—complete with catalogues—maintaining ownership of them even after the sale of the studio to Cecil Manson in 1947.
The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington was able to buy 1050 glass plates for the sum of one hundred pounds in 1948 from Rose. A few months before she died in October 1954, she gave the rest of her priceless Tyree Collection—some 105,000 negatives—to the Nelson Historical Society, which later handed it over to the Nelson Provincial Museum in Stoke. There it has attracted the collections of other local professional photographers.
As photographers, how significant were the Tyrees? Opinions are divided. Nelson photographer and writer Rosalina McCarthy, who is researching and writing books on both Rose Frank and the history of photography in Nelson, considers that William Tyree has received far more credit for the Tyree Studio’s achievements than he deserved, since, for much of its history, Rose Frank was the Tyree Studio. But many of the plates taken beyond the town of Nelson—the goldfields, the bullock teams, the scenic shots—were undoubtedly the work of one or other of the brothers.
The images themselves have been criticised as being unimaginative—little more than “line-’em-up-and-shoot” records of events which have gained a cachet of romance and inspiration only through the passage of time. Says Maurice Watson, “For every singular image there are 20 visual cliches.”
Even so, one cannot help but be impressed by the scope of their work: images of foot travellers and coaches traversing the tracks that then passed for roads, often in the shadow of forest the like of which is rarely glimpsed today; sailing ships in port; lighthouses; vintners; the general store; the Waimea Plain, laid out in neatly tended fields with hedges and fences and clumps of poplars and eucalypts, surprisingly similar to today apart from the stooks of hay covering the paddocks; city streets; gold miners and coal miners; home interiors; sports events; celebrations; portraits, from children to groups of beauties; ships entering the harbour; military encampments; Griffin’s original biscuit factory; hop growing; horse or bullock teams with wagons and buggies; hostelries and dignitaries—these from just a sampling of the thousands of negatives.
Perhaps the lasting import of the Tyrees’ legacy lies not in the pictures themselves, but in their historical context. John Turner of Auckland University’s Elam School of Arts comments, “The interesting thing about the Tyrees was their exceptional and successful promotion of their local area. It was an idea that was far ahead of its time.”
Although it seems hard to credit today—in an age of disposable cameras and one-hour processing—a hundred years ago photographers were key figures in society. Cameras—large, impressive affairs, with their mysterious back-cloths and explosive flashes—were still the preserve of a few professionals, and if you wanted an image of your family for posterity, you had to enlist a photographer. Writes Jonathan Raban in Bad Land, a story of colonial life in the western United States, and one which parallels our own national story, “Photographs were at once precious keepsakes of the past . . . and palpable evidence of a new life. In young western towns, where everyone came from somewhere else, and everyone needed `likenesses’ to send home, photographers were as much in demand as saddlers, attorneys and Chinese laundrymen.”
Fortunately, most of these frontier photographers kept their negatives, and, despite time’s depredations, a surprising number have survived.
If it hadn’t been for the likes of the Tyrees, Nelson’s past—indeed all of New Zealand’s—would be dim indeed.