16 JAN - 17 FEB 2019

Unseen science on glass plate negatives from the Plant & Food Research collection

This summer Plant & Food Research will present a photographic exhibition to the public of historical science photography, created by former photographers of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR).

The exhibition is a unique collection of images from skilled science photographers including Steve A. Rumsey and Jan W. Endt as well as several anonymous works made in the mid-twentieth century. Working in the in-house photographic department, these photographers serviced many DSIR scientists, documenting their research, experiments, scientific developments and discoveries. While technical in raw intention, these images are still driven by artistic motivation or enquiry.

The images printed for the exhibition are all reproduced from glass plate negatives, an analogue medium no longer in common usage. The plates are very fragile, and the emulsion surface can be easily damaged by rough handling.

Invented by English photographer and physician Dr. Richard L. Maddox in 1871, the dry-plate process, also known as the gelatin process, was used to document science subjects by photographers internationally and in New Zealand because of its superior chemical stability and superior quality compared to film. Glass plates were still being used in high-quality photography as late as the 1980s but were replaced at Plant & Food Research by digital cameras in the early part of the 21st century.

Since the subjects often appear unusual and even surreal, they offer an intricate and beautiful glimpse into the world of science that combines both the technical and the aesthetic. The eclectic collection of images includes natural plant diseases, The endemic New Zealand Wētāpunga (Deinacrida heteracantha), climatic effect on peach pits and science samples taken from the field.

The images exhibited are from plates that were found in cardboard boxes mysteriously placed outside Plant & Food Research's current photographer’s office during renovations at the Mt Albert Research Centre. Negatives are a rare sight to a modern photographer, trained in digital practice where images are captured as RAW file format. But their value was immediately recognised and steps were taken to ensure their long-term preservation.

The rediscovered plates were contained in individual paper sleeves, often accompanied with a precise hand written label with a short description of the subject, its purpose, location and the date of when the image was made. A small positive print of the plate was also included. They are unique, the plates themselves cannot be copied. The original glass plates will be featured as exhibits in the same space as the printed images.

Alberton House

Situated on the lower slopes of Mt Albert and once the centrepiece of a 500-acre country estate, Alberton began life as a two-storey farmhouse built in 1863. It belonged to Allan Kerr-Taylor, one of several brothers of Scots descent who purchased estates in early Auckland. The Kerr-Taylors inherited fortunes from their father, a colonel in the British Army stationed in India.


Exhibition runs 16 January - 17 February 2019
Opening hours, Wednesday - Sunday
10.30 am - 4.30 pm


Entry to the exhibition is free
(A $10 fee applies to view the entire Alberton House)

Copyright © 2019 The New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited