Monday, 1 July 2013

Herman John Schmidt

It sounds like something out of a movie but it is true .... In 1970, a construction worker found a large number of glass-plate negatives stored in the attic of the Edson’s Building, a century-old structure at 270 Queen Street, Auckland which was marked for demolition . News of this discovery travelled fast and when deputy librarian Wynne Colgan and New Zealand reference librarian Pat French heard about it, they organised a speedy rescue mission.

A team of determined rescuers climbed repeatedly up into the attic and carried out the precious find. Around 26,000 half plate and whole plate negatives were saved. These images represented the lifetime’s work of the gifted and versatile photographer Herman John Schmidt (1872-1959). Amazingly, Schmidt’s accession registers and day books were also found and saved - these have proved to be essential for identifying the subjects of his portraits.

Ref: 31-WP626, Schmidt family, by Herman Schmidt, c.1910s, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Despite his German sounding name, Schmidt was an Aucklander, born and bred, descended from immigrants from Bremen. As a young man, he was a well-known sportsman: ‘a good middle-distance runner and a prominent competition cyclist, besides taking an active part in yachting and the administration of rowing’. Despite his name, his essential ‘Kiwiness’ must never have been in doubt since during WWI he was not subject to any anti German feelings and his shop had a constant stream of customers, including many soldiers.

Ref: 31-58111, Mr & Mrs Jones, by Schmidt, 1909, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Schmidt learnt under the well known Auckland photographer Charles Hemus. By 1905 he had taken over the management of Hemus’s studio and by 1908 he was operating under his own name on the first floor of Edson’s Building. He continued working at this location until his retirement in 1942.

Schmidt was interested in both the commercial and more artistic aspects of photography. He entered many international competitions and won numerous awards. In 1937 he received the honour of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. For many years he also contributed images to the Auckland Weekly News, the New Zealand Home Pictorial and other illustrated journals. His main income, however, came from portraiture.

Ref: 31-WPSCH44, Auckland Ferry Building illuminated, by Schmidt, 1920-29, Sir George Grey Special Collections
About 4,500 of the Schmidt negatives are from the WWI soldier portrait series. They have been scanned and made available through the Heritage Images database. Most of the negatives have at least a surname scratched on the edge and many also have an initial. This indicates the person who booked the sitting (usually also the subject of the photograph). Library staff have carried out some research and the surnames have been checked against Schmidt’s accession registers and in the Nominal rolls of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. This has given us the full name, rank and serial number of each serviceman. Most of the soldiers photographed also have identifiable badges or insignia.

Ref: 31-A2, Privates of the New Zealand Māori Battalion, by Schmidt, 1916, Sir George Grey Special Collections
You can find out more about researching  WW1 soldiers through the NZ History website and about Schmidt using the Photographers database (just enter Schmidt into the Name box). To search for any of Schmidt's images in Heritage Images, all you need to do is enter Schmidt into the search box. To refine your search use the Advanced Search option - simply enter Schmidt into the Photographer/Publisher search box and then enter a subject e.g. baby into the Description search box and click on Advanced Search.

Ref: 31-55951, McLeod baby, by Schmidt, 1909, Sir George Grey Special Collections

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