In the middle decades of the twentieth century there was no New Zealand photographer more versatile, imaginative and accomplished than Reginald Clifton Firth (1904-1980). Yet he said it was only by a fluke, when he was short of money during the Depression years, that he became involved in photography. As a young man he trained as a graphic designer at Elam School of Art in Auckland. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he made his living as a commercial artist. Then a client asked for photographs of company products rather than drawings. Firth bought a camera for £4 from an Auckland shop, but knowing little about photography, fearing he would botch the job and not wanting to squander hard-earned cash, he asked the shopkeeper for a money-back guarantee. The client, however, was delighted by the results and Firth's career changed course. In 1938 he opened a photographic studio in Queen Street. His reputation grew swiftly and he was inundated with requests for portraits, advertising assignments and fashion work.
In his youth Firth was impressed by the clean-lined modernist designs of the Bauhaus school in Germany. Bauhaus leanings are sometimes apparent in his more consciously artistic photographic compositions, but he was also alert to a wide range of other influences, including the dramatic lighting effects favoured by such Hollywood-based glamour photographers as Ernest Bachrach, Frank Powolny and Clarence Sinclair Bull in the publicity shots they took of movie stars. There is sometimes a striking similarity, too, between Firth's fashion photography and that of his near-exact English contemporary, Cecil Beaton.
Besides being Firth's favourite model, Sheila McGuire worked in his studio in 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.' Interested in acting as well as modelling, in 1952 she moved to the United States, where she did a screen test for the film Battle Cry (based on Leon Uris's novel). Feeling homesick, however, she returned to New Zealand and married shoe manufacturer and racehorse owner Noel Taylor. In the mid-1960s she appeared in the Australian television show People in conflict. She also had a small role in the 1979 film adaptation of Colleen McCullough's novel Tim, starring Mel Gibson.
On his retirement 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.