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April 6, 2023

Studio Portraits of Whanganui Men Taken by William James Harding From the 1850s to the 1880s

A fascinating posting on the portrait photographs of New Zealand photographer William James Harding (1826–1899), which provide a detailed picture of Whanganui society from the 1850s to the 1880s, and are a rich source of information relating to Māori and Pākehā individuals and their relationships at a formative time in this country’s history. He’d come to New Zealand from England as a coachbuilder in 1855, along with his wife Annie. He tried his hand at cabinet-making, and in 1860 set up a photographic studio in Ridgway St, Whanganui.

In the main the photographs are the usual Victorian colonial fare of formal studio portraits of white settlers, the standing or sitting subjects posed with props on linoleum floors against rolls of plain paper or painted backgrounds staring straight into the camera lens or obliquely off into the distance. Harding’s portraits never flatter to deceive: Harding’s sitters are also largely unsmiling. But their faces are alight, staring down the camera, eyes aflame. Sometimes they look peevish, bored or exhausted. There seems to be little inclination towards idealization. Harding refused to retouch his photographs as other commercial photographers did. Faces are weathered and freckled; clothing is often ragged, mended or borrowed, illustrating the hardships of colonial life.

What is undeniable is the wonderful, casual yet almost crystalline presence that Harding’s sitters possess... no doubt due to his perception as a human being and a photographer, to his association with the community in which he lived, and to the clarity of the glass plate negatives that he produced.

William Harding used his studio from 1860 until 1889, when he left for Sydney. His collection of 6,500 glass-plate negatives were nearly dumped by the studio’s new owner but were rescued by a relative of Harding’s and the Whanganui Museum. They were bought by the Turnbull Library in 1948.


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