health & science

Renovation reveals long-lost scientific photographs

A renovation at Plant and Food Research has led to the discovery of long-forgotten scientific images from the 1950s.

A cardboard box was left outside the current photographer’s office. Inside were individually wrapped glass plates, some with precisely hand-written notes describing detail about the image.

Glass plate photography existed before film was invented. Even after film became commonplace, the time-consuming gelatine or dry plate process was still sometimes preferred - especially for scientific images - because of the chemical stability of the slides. Nowadays, science photography is digital.

The plates will be exhibited, along with prints made from them, in the Science in the Darkroom exhibition taking place this week at Alberton.

“The exhibition brings impressive composition, amazing plant photography and the unique finish of glass plate photography into our contemporary world,” said Plant and Food Research photographer Wara Bullôt, who is a co-curator of the exhibition.

“Some of these photographers, like Steve Rumsey, were phenomenal in their time. They were highly skilled and had great patience and understanding of their craft.”

The images in the exhibition range in subject matter from plants, to wētāpunga to fruit picking equipment. Some, like an image of a rust fungus on a vine, appear surreal, almost resembling a dragon.

Some images are by anonymous photographers, but others are by Rumsey, who later became well-known for his modernist photography.

A deformity on a clematis vine caused by rust fungus.
Photo: Plant & Food Research, photographer unknown.

Another photographer, Jan W Endt, originally from Holland, is less-known, but with a fascinating past.

His granddaughter Carolyn Melling shared his story with Newsroom:

“My grandfather was part of getting Jews out of Holland to safety.”

As part of the Dutch resistance the family hid Jewish people in their factory attached to their apple nursery. Eventually under suspicion and fearing for their lives, they themselves fled.

“The Germans came to shoot them, but for some reason decided not to that day. When they came back the next day, they [the family] had gone into hiding.”

New Zealand became home for Endt in 1951. He opened a photography studio, and later gained a position at what is now Plant and Food Research (formerly DSIR) where his photography skills and his knowledge of plants was put to good use.

Melling was 11 when her grandfather died but she remembers his love of photography clearly.

“I never ever saw him without his camera. He always had his camera with him, and he took amazing photos. He just captured things.

“He had a Rolleiflex camera. It was one where you look down into the lens, so he never looked like he was pointing the camera at people. He really captured the essence.”

Endt also had a love of plants, bringing ones discarded by work home to give to his son Dick Endt.

“Instead of them going in the dump, my grandfather would take them home and give them to my dad,” said Melling.

Dick Endt went on to become a well-known plant person and many of the plants his father saved from the dump are still on the property, Landsendt, which Melling runs.

Melling said she is "blown away" by her grandfather’s inclusion in the show. Her father, who passed away in 2018, always thought his father’s work should be shown.

“He said, ‘Oh, my dad was never really appreciated for his work’, but I think he was. I think he actually was appreciated, but it was never really shown.”

Peach pits, grown in different climatic conditions, 1953.
Photo: Plant & Food Research, Jan W. Endt

Plant and Food Research principal scientist Ross Ferguson explained how photography can play many scientific roles.

Sometimes it’s to record things like disease. Other times it’s to share information.

“Quite often you want to demonstrate to others, in talks. Inevitably pretty pictures are much more efficient than words.”

Even in an era where everybody has a camera on their phone, Ferguson said professional photographers are central to getting an effective photograph.

“They can do things amateurs can’t. They can do the lighting and clean the image up. We rely heavily on good photographers.”

He said it's been interesting to see which of the glass plates were chosen to be part of the exhibition.

“It's rewarding to see that what happened 30, 40 years ago is still of value and can still be appreciated.”

The exhibition of 15 photographs, along with their glass plates, will be held in Auckland’s Alberton, 100 Mt Albert Road from January 16-27.

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