Sometimes a book appears on the bookshelf in your local bookshop and it catches your eye and you think, “Wow, what an amazing book”. So, you step inside and take the book in your hands and start to flick through. Often it is sort-of interesting, nice pictures, a bit long, not really my thing. But sometimes, just sometimes, it absolutely captures your heart. This is that very special book.
From 1945 Whites Aviation took a number of photographs of New Zealand. These images were often spectacular, very beautiful and impressive. Then they went a step further. They decided that by hand-colouring each photograph they could produce an even more spectacular record of the beauty of New Zealand. The images are known to us still. They graced the walls of offices and homes, they travelled around the world on postcards and they are sought-after vintage photos for the current generation.
While all this sounds interesting it is the story of the people involved in this process which captivated me. Leo White who founded the company, Clyde Stewart who not only took the photographs but was the lead photo colourist and then the colouring-ladies. These remarkable women spent countless hours with cotton wool colouring each photo in a realistic and sympathetic way. The subtle tones and shades, the depth and the detail all came from their talented hands. The stories of the people behind the images added a real depth to the second half of the book: the plates themselves. So many of these images are familiar to me. I grew up with these in public buildings, in shops and offices and we even owned one of Franz Josef, which hung in pride of place in the good lounge!
The details are superb both in image and story. Leo White’s first images of the Homer Tunnel avalanche, of the Napier earthquake and then of Northland, where a night in the mud on 90 Mile Beach resulted in health issues for the rest of his life. In fact, he found the only relief from his asthma was the Glaciers, and spent 2-3 months each year in this favourite part of the country. It is such details that lift this book above the coffee table tomes of the past.
When you have read the stories, you get to enjoy the images. They are wonderful and all of my Christmas visitors have had a session at the dining table, reverently turning the pages. At $80, this is the best buy book of the year. It is big, beautiful and a bargain to boot.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
Hand-Coloured New Zealand: The Photographs of Whites Aviation
by Peter Alsop
Published by Potton & Burton