Monday, 29 July 2013

Clifton Firth

During the mid twentieth century, there was no NZ photographer more versatile, imaginative and accomplished than Reginald Clifton Firth (1904-1980). Yet he fell into photography by fluke.

Ref: 34-M7B3 woman modelling a hat for Milne and Choyce department store, c. 1940-50s, Sir George Grey Special Collections
When he was young, he he trained as a graphic designer at the Elam School of Art in Auckland. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he made a living as a commercial artist. By chance, a client asked for photographs of company products rather than drawings. Firth bought a camera for £4 from an Auckland shop in anticipation of the job. However, knowing little about photography and feeling concerned that he wouldn't do a good job and lose hard earned cash, he asked the shopkeeper for a money-back guarantee. He needn't have worried since the client  was delighted by the results. This changed Firth's career path forever.

Ref: 34-D190, Spencer Digby, 1945, Sir George Grey Special Collections
By1938 he had opened a photographic studio in Queen Street. His reputation grew swiftly and he could barely keep up with demand for portraits, advertising assignments and fashion work.

Ref: 34-428, Tiki Taylor (later Newman), 1966, Sir George Grey Special Collections
In his teenage years, Firth was influenced by the clean-lined modernist designs of the Bauhaus school in Germany. This style can be seen in his more consciously artistic photographic compositions. However, he was also open to a wide range of other influences. Including the dramatic lighting effects used to great effect for images of movie stars by such Hollywood-based glamour photographers such as as Ernest Bachrach, Frank Powolny and Clarence Sinclair Bull. There is sometimes a striking similarity, too, between Firth's fashion photography and Cecil Beaton, his English contemporary.

Ref: 34-B25, Briscoe and Company Limited building in Customs Street East, 1939, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Sheila McGuire (seen in the image below) was Firth's favourite model and she also worked in his studio during the the 1940s as a receptionist and retoucher. He described her as 'the glamour puss of Auckland. We had other beautiful girls modelling for us, but Sheila was definitely the tops - a splendid girl'.

Ref: 34-426, portrait of Sheila McGuire, 1940s, Sir George Grey Special Collections
When he retired in 1974, Firth gave much of his surviving work to the library, including many display prints as well as more than 100,000 photographic negatives, which are held in the Sir George Grey Special Collections. You can find out more about Firth from the Photographers database and search for a large selection of his images in the Heritage Images database (just enter Clifton Firth into the search box of both databases).

Ref: 34-S636P, sugar company employee, taken for Dormer Beck Advertising, 1954, Sir George Grey Special Collections

1 comment:

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