30 Nov 2016

The era of hand-painted aerial photography

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 30 November 2016

A new book - Hand-Coloured New Zealand- the photographs of Whites Aviation - looks back at the iconic hand-painted aerial photographs which hung ubiquitously in the living rooms of New Zealand.

The book’s author, Peter Alsop, told Nine to Noon it not only catalogues hundreds of pictures, but also tells the story behind the photographs, who shot them, and how they were coloured by hand.

Aslop says Whites Aviation was the brainchild of Leo White, born in 1906, who was an incredible industrious and ambitious man who fell in love with both flight and photography.

“He had enormous charm, charisma and integrity … [he had] friends from Prime Ministers through to caretakers. He was one of those lovely gentlemen of the era.

“He cut his teeth as probably New Zealand’s best known press photographer in the day. He was documented as being the mostly highly paid, he had a roving commission, the Herald gave him a new car every year to do what he wanted.”

In 1937 he decided he needed a change and set up a company which was a forerunner to Whites Aviation, but the outbreak of the war put paid to that and White headed off to document the war for the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the Pacific. 

After the war he set up Whites Aviation company with Clyde Stewart, which would take aerial photos and sell them to harbour boards, local councils and businesses.

They would also photographed New Zealand landscapes and, in 1952, they put out the Pictorial Reference of New Zealand – in black and white – which was a publishing sensation, selling 10,000 copies in a year.

Whites employed ‘colouring women’ (actually called ‘colouring girls’ at the time) who hand painted the photographs using a length of grape vine with the tip wrapped in cotton wool dipped into thinned oil paint.

Whites Colouring ran strong right through to the 1970s, with one of the long-running colourist working through 1996.

A collection of about 90,000 negatives from the company, from 1945 to the 1980s, are housed in the Alexander Turnbull library, Aslop says. 

“It is one of the gifts of the photos really is to look back at how New Zealand was, and they documented the development of towns and cities and provinces through time."

“It’s a gift that we are really fortunate to have,” Aslop says.

To help with his next book on New Zealand's hand-coloured photography Peter Alsop is asking photographers, colourists, researchers and collectors to contact him at - palsop@paradise.net.nz