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Josiah Martin Lantern Slides

Georgia Kerby, Exhibitions Curator

Have you ever thought about how people shared photos a hundred years ago? Before the internet and email, people shared photographs publically through newspapers or printed media, or privately through sharing printed photographs or albums at home. Alternatively they used one of the most exciting and wide spread technologies of the 1800s- the magic lantern. Their ability to project any image (some could even project 3D objects) onto a wall prompted their adaptation to many public and domestic settings. As discussed in previous articles magic lantern shows shared series of images projected from transparent slides, either at home or in a public setting.

While the creation of hand painted or printed lantern slides had been minimal in New Zealand compared to overseas industries, a new photographic slide market boomed. With improvements in photography methods in the 1870s, New Zealand professional and amateur photographers were now enabled and inspired to produce their own photographic lantern slides.

Whangarei Museum cares for a small collection of just such slides, with several being on display in our current ‘Magica Lanterna’ exhibition. Some of these slides have been labelled by either the slide maker or original photographer; in some cases the same person. Josiah Martin Photographer, Auckland or simply “J. M.” pops up a few times. His photos include views of the Hatea River and Whangarei Town Basin, familiar even in black and white.

Josiah spent the majority of his career in other fields, starting out as a coal merchant in London, England, and after immigrating in the 1860s, he was a farmer, then a teacher in Auckland. At 35 years old, he was Headmaster of Grafton District School. Soon after he founded the Auckland Model Training School in Symonds Street. For various reasons Josiah Martin resigned in 1879, just in time to pursue his interest in photography and learn about the new ‘gelatin bromide’ or ‘dry plate’ developing process.

On return from a research trip to London, Josiah partnered with experienced photographer W. H. T. Partington to open their own studio on Queen Street, Auckland. Clearly the pair were at the front of the photographic market, with their portraits being described in the 1881 Observer as “soft and clear as an oil painting by an old master”. In 1882 the partnership ended, which perhaps freed Martin for his real interest, New Zealand landscapes, flora, and fauna. His subsequent series of scenery of Auckland and New Zealand are particularly well known as being leading products for early New Zealand tourism. Photographs of waterfalls, marae, bush scenes were reproduced on postcards, booklets, lantern slides and stereopticon cards.

Through this work, Josiah developed a reputation as an advocate for New Zealand tourism and nature, even travelling back to London to lecture on our natural geothermal regions. His work was set at the time where our national photography and lantern slide industries were improving rapidly. People were quickly realising the commercial possibilities of capturing the country’s unique landscape and culture. The move away from British and American produced slides was a complicated change. Local photographers took the opportunity to advertise their photography by making attractive sets of lantern slides, while the consumers were leaning away from colonial and often irrelevant topics to those that better suited local tastes and celebrated their communities.

Josiah Martin’s work was of high quality and well-renown, winning him awards at several international exhibitions. Locally, he published his works in many mediums such as presentations to the Auckland Photographic Club and prints in the Auckland Weekly News. He is even recorded as having illustrated one such talk with an “optical lantern”. He passed away in 1916, leaving as one of New Zealand’s photographic pioneers. We are lucky to preserve even a few Josiah Martin lantern slides, especially pertaining to Whangarei. Their contents help to show us the great changes Whangarei city and landscape has seen since the last century, so well preserved in Josiah Martin’s photos.