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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Which New Zealand photographer was reported dead in 1875, but actually died in Sydney in 1911?

Robert Henry Bartlett (1842-1911)


In the 1860s and 1870s Robert Henry Bartlett was a high-profile Auckland photographer. Like other photographic artists of the era, he found that persuading visiting actors and musicians to sit for him was a highly lucrative business. Such arrangements promoted both the photographer and the performer, and provided a steady source of income.

Reproducing photographs obtained from other sources was similarly rewarding. When Henry James O’Farrell shot and wounded Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, at Clontarf near Sydney, Australia in 1868, Bartlett quickly acquired cartes-de-visite of the prince and his assailant, and set about churning out portraits under his own name. Within a month he had sold some 1600 likenesses of the prince alone at one shilling each.

The scheme had unexpected results. After recovering, the prince made a brief visit to Auckland in December 1870, and Bartlett was invited to accompany the royal party to Rotomahana. Photographs he took during the expedition were displayed at his Queen Street studio, and he subsequently presented Prince Alfred with a set of 36 views of the colony. The prince reciprocated with the honorific title "Photographer to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh", said to be the only appointment of its kind in New Zealand.

Rumours of Bartlett’s death reached the Daily Southern Cross newspaper on the evening of 2 August 1875. But it was a Mark Twain moment, the photographer’s demise being much exaggerated. Earlier in the day Bartlett had suffered an epileptic fit, collapsing outside the New Caledonia Hotel. He was carried to a private residence, and prescribed rest and quiet as the best aids to recovery.

Bartlett continued to practise as a photographer in Auckland until well into the 1890s, despite a disastrous fire that destroyed his premises in September 1873, and repeated flirtations with bankruptcy. He died at the Rookwood Asylum in Sydney on 2 June 1911.

In 1868 Robert Henry Bartlett’s studio was on the upper floor of the building at the corner of Wellesley Street West and Queen Street (extreme left). At this point of his career he traded under the name of Bartlett & Co at the rather grandiose sounding New Zealand Academy of Photographic Art. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 4-85)

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Which photographer of the Auckland waterfront died in an airship explosion over Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1912?

Melvin Vaniman (1866-1912)


American Melvin Vaniman arrived in New Zealand from San Francisco on 4 February 1902 bringing with him large-format panoramic cameras of his own design and construction.

Originally a musician and opera singer, Vaniman stayed on in Honolulu to become a professional photographer when the opera company of which he was a member self-destructed while on tour in Hawaii. Throwing himself into his new profession, he developed refinements in panoramic camera design and experimented in artificial vantage points for his equipment. His work caught the attention of an American steamship company, and in 1901 he was engaged to photograph tourist destinations in New Zealand and Australia.

While in Christchurch Vaniman constructed a 32 metre tall pole to photograph the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company works. In Auckland, he clambered to the top of a ship’s mast to secure a view of the waterfront. Moving on to Sydney, he realised that if he was to capture a satisfactory view of the harbour, masts and poles or scaffolding would be inadequate. He therefore imported a purpose-made balloon to carry his camera aloft.

Vaniman’s aerial success encouraged him to travel to Europe, but his plans to photograph its principal cities from tethered balloons were thwarted by unfavourable atmospheric conditions. Undaunted, he teamed up with US newspaper proprietor Walter Wellman who employed Vaniman’s ballooning expertise in two failed attempts to reach the North Pole by airship in 1907 and 1909. After Peary’s conquest of the Pole in 1909, the pair switched their attention to the Atlantic, setting new world records for balloon travel in 1910. On 2 July 1912, during a second attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, airship Akron exploded killing its skipper Vaniman, his brother Calvin, and three others.

One of the last photographs of Melvin Vaniman (centre) before his tragic death in the airship Akron. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. AWNS-19120815-12-4)