But, until now, the inspirational story of the people behind the photographs - Leo White (company founder); Clyde Stewart (chief photographer and head of colouring); and the mission-critical ‘colouring girls’ has not been told.
Peter Alsop, who has previously published some of our favourite New Zealand design books, Selling the Dream and Promoting Prosperity (extracts of which featured in issue five of Glory Days), decided to remedy this and has produced Hand-coloured New Zealand: The Photographs of Whites Aviation, due for release in October 2016.
We also encourage you to watch the delightful short documentary, The Colourist, that Peter and Greg Wood have just released.
Leo Lemuel White was born at Auckland on 4 July 1906 and after acquiring a Brownie box camera at 18, he began to freelance as a photographer, contributing photographs to the New Zealand Herald, Auckland Star, Christchurch Weekly Press, and New Zealand Pictorial News. In 1921 White took some of the first aerial views of Auckland and ten years later he began learning to fly.
In 1935 White and Frank Stewart, a pioneer Auckland cinematographer, started Stewart and White Ltd. The partnership lasted until wartime shortages of photographic materials forced the firm's closure. However, the war also meant that White was able to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a photographer, compiling an extensive archive of photographs of the RNZAF in New Zealand and the Pacific. As a pilot officer and flying officer he compiled an extensive archive of photographs of the RNZAF in New Zealand and the Pacific. (The negatives are held by the RNZAF Museum, Wigram, Christchurch.) .
Transferred to the RNZAF reserve in January 1945, White established Whites Aviation Limited in Auckland and launched a number of periodicals including Whites Aviation (1945–71), New Zealand Flying (1947–51) and the annual Whites Air Directory (1947–88). He also wrote and published Fighters, an account of the RNZAF fighter squadrons in the Solomon Islands.
During the early 1950s Leo White covered New Zealand by air, taking photographs for Whites Pictorial Reference of New Zealand, which was published in 1952 and revised in 1960. Some of New Zealand’s best hand-coloured photos were produced by Whites Aviation over 40 years. The glorious scenic vistas were a sensation, adorning offices and lounges around the land; patriotic statements within New Zealand’s emerging visual arts. Now, despite massive changes in society and photography, the unique scenes have become respected and coveted pieces of photographic art.
By colouring scenic photos by hand, Whites Aviation changed the way New Zealanders viewed their country and in one of his late life interviews, Clyde Stewart recalled that the colouring side of Whites developed over many years. ‘We had established a technique for colouring right from the early days of Stewart and White [c.1939]. The first principle of making coloured pictures was to produce an image that withstood colouring, from the point of view of density and contrast and the degree of absorption of the gelatine [during developing], so the paint would stay on the surface rather than sinking in.'
The photos were painted in oil, thinned with turpentine to allow the paint to be translucent; that wash-like effect. The idea was for the photo to shine through the paint – the very essence of hand-coloured photography. Windsor & Newton paints were used, mixed to form different colours and shades as subject matter required. The colour white was never used; any white in a finished picture was just the underlying photo itself.
For application, paint brushes were only rarely used and, instead, a small amount of cotton wool was wrapped around the end of a thin grapevine to create the ‘brush’. Cotton wool had the advantage of being able to create a
thin film of colour, and in a uniform, streak-free way.
Care in applying the colour was important but errors could be corrected before the diluted paint had dried. Turpentine would allow paint to be removed and it could be painted over, with more success if going darker as opposed to lighter. Razor blades were also sometimes used for paint removal. Large surface areas needed
special attention, with sky in particular requiring a consistent and quick hand to avoid patchiness.
The photos were printed on a special semi-matte, fibre-based paper, striking just the right level of absorption to allow the colour to cure without bleeding. Once signed off by Mr Stewart – that famous ‘Whites’ signature – a cellulose lacquer was applied to both protect and enliven the colour.
Grace Jackson was born in Auckland in 1933. At the age of three, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. ‘I will be an artist!’ she said firmly. Grace went on to study and work in painting miniatures in New Zealand and colouring photographs of traditional English scenes in Britain. "I had no interest in learning typing and shorthand to be a secretary, as suggested by my dad.’
After arriving back from her travels to New Zealand in 1953, Grace heard of the growing reputation of a company called Whites Aviation and its speciality in aerial scenic work. It was a perfect, seamless transition: from colouring scenes of Britain to the chance to colour scenes of New Zealand. ‘As the Whites business was advancing rapidly, my timing was absolutely right.’ She promptly applied and soon met Mr White.
Grace recalls meeting White like it was yesterday: ‘He was the perfect gentleman and extremely polite. I was so determined get the job. I had to try and convince him that I could do it and I remember being very nervous. He asked what I’d done in the past to give him confidence I could produce what he wanted, so I explained I had been painting photographs of beautiful Britain scenes. He was quite happy I had experience.’ Despite showing White her British portfolio – old mills, bridges and thatched roofs – Grace was also asked to paint some of White’s own photos to further prove her worth.
When Grace commenced at Whites Aviation, she recalled Mr White’s ground shots of famous scenes across the North and South islands. ‘I was luckily able to colour some of the originals – what became reference pieces for other colourists to follow – and they became extremely popular.’
During her time as one of the close knit group who became known as the 'colouring girls', Grace recalls the standard sizes of the ‘Scenic Series’ photos as 20 x 16 or 16 x 12 inches. A 20 x 16-inch image would take about one morning to complete. ‘It was surprising how proficient we got. Once we learnt how to do the colours and how it looked, we could be pretty quick about it.’ When the girls painted large murals, it wouldn’t be uncommon to work as a team, standing, sitting or climbing up on stools. Even then, big pieces could take many days to complete, nine in the case of a large Lake Taupo photograph worked on by four girls in 1963. Each girl had their favourite aspect – for Grace it was colouring mountains – but big pictures carried special enjoyment for their variety and added camaraderie. There was also a special interest in doing something absolutely new.
For cityscapes – which Grace found the hardest to get right given intricate building detail – notes were taken of the colours of roofs and special buildings, ‘otherwise we were free to use our own ideas’. For landscapes, she recalls Mr White describing the right colours, always ensuring ‘clarity in the New Zealand light’. To ensure correct colouring, the photographers frequently brought back samples, ‘such as the time Mr White returned from the South Island high country with a handful of tussock’. For Grace, ‘once we knew the right shades for the South Island and its golden tussocks, and the North Island of green paddocks that sheep graze on, it would then be relatively quick to do.’
Reflecting back, Grace explained her theory on the Whites sensation. ‘It was very important for people to have photographs of New Zealand on their walls in those days. In my view, everybody bought them because there was nothing else like them at the time. It was real; and the country we lived in; and hand coloured. It absolutely took off.’
Grace finished with Whites Aviation in around 1963, ending over a decade’s loyal service and, for her, extremely enjoyable employment. ‘I feel very privileged to have been part of that.’ Grace spent the next 20 years designing clothes: ‘woman’s dresses, suits and many ball gowns. In later life, Grace turned back to oils, reigniting her passion for painting and selling scenes of New Zealand.
More widely, Grace knows first-hand that the hand-colouring legacy lives on. ‘I love to come across the photos 60-odd years later: Wherever she goes in New Zealand the popular Whites Aviation scenes are never far away.
Click on the image below to watch Grace talk about her time at White's in the short documentary The Colourist.