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Sunday, 4 October 2015

Which Greymouth photographer was gaoled for debt after his studio was pulled down to create a firebreak?

Abraham Solomon Levinski (fl.1865-1872)

Before his arrival on the West Coast in 1866, Abraham Levinski had run a barber’s shop and photographic studio in George Street, Dunedin. The combination obviously suited him, and in Greymouth he repeated the arrangement, establishing a haircutting saloon in Boundary Street in July 1866, followed soon after by a portrait gallery – the London Portrait Rooms - in the same premises.

Levinski had probably not bargained on much in the way of rivalry, so it no doubt came as an unpleasant surprise when fellow photographer John Low opened a studio at Shannon’s Bookshop on Mawhera Quay at much the same time. After several months of competition, Levinski dealt with the challenge by letting his rooms to Low, and moving his operations to Greymouth’s thriving neighbour, Charleston, in February 1868.

If the plan was to allow Low to exhaust himself, and the local market, it appeared to work. In June 1868 Low announced he was leaving, and Levinski resumed occupation of his former premises. Low was back in Greymouth by December 1868, but now billed himself as “of Greymouth & Onehunga”, dividing his time between the two centres and, intentionally or not, ensuring Levinski the lion’s share of the local trade.

In the meantime Levinski was busy establishing himself both socially and professionally.  He was a founder member of the town’s Ancient Order of Foresters, he participated in local athletics, gave his support to electoral candidates, sold photographs of the Greymouth floods, and promised to submit portraits of the Greymouth Handicap’s winning horse and jockey to the Illustrated Melbourne Post and Illustrated London News.

In August 1869 Levinski completed costly alterations to his studio. Aiming to increase his patronage and recoup his investment, he substantially reduced his prices, but a series of court judgements against him forced him to put his studio up for auction in early April 1870. The timing was unfortunate; in the early hours of 19 April 1870 Boundary Street was engulfed by flames, and in an attempt to arrest its advance Levinski’s shop was demolished to create a firebreak. With no means of realising any capital, Levinski was imprisoned for debt, and released only on the guarantee of tobacco merchant Jacob Basch.

A year later Levinski turned up in Fiji, opening a studio in Levuka in April 1871. Once again his timing was immaculate, competition arriving barely a month afterwards in the form of Melbourne photographer Frank Dufty. Levinski struggled on briefly, but soon dropped out of the trade, although continuing to live in Fiji.

Greymouth as it appeared in 1875. Fire was an ever present danger in colonial New Zealand, as most buildings were constructed of wood. The inquest into the 1870 conflagration that led to the destruction of Abraham Levinski’s studio failed to uncover the source of the blaze, but the implication was that it was caused by coals falling from an open fireplace. Rebuilding began within days. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. NZ Map 6537)