When Edson’s Building, a century-old structure at 270 Queen Street, Auckland, was marked for demolition in 1970, a construction worker found a large number of glass-plate negatives stored in the attic. News of this discovery reached deputy librarian Wynne Colgan and New Zealand reference librarian Pat French. They organised a speedy rescue mission, in which a team climbed repeatedly into the attic with tote-bags. Around 26,000 half plate and whole plate negatives were retrieved, representing the lifetime’s work of the gifted and versatile photographer Herman John Schmidt (1872-1959). Schmidt’s accession registers and day books were also saved - valuable aids in identifying the subjects of his portraits.
Although his name suggests German ancestry, Schmidt was an Aucklander, born and bred, descended from immigrants from Bremen. According to his obituary in the New Zealand Herald, he was, in his youth, 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’. His essential ‘Kiwiness’ must never have been in doubt. Anti-German feelings ran high in New Zealand during World War One and a Teutonic ring to one’s name was sometimes all that was required to provoke hostility. Yet, throughout the war, Schmidt’s studio had a steady stream of customers, many of them from the armed forces.
Schmidt learned his craft under the tutelage of the venerable 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 these premises until his retirement in 1942. Interested in the artistic as well as the commercial aspects of photography, he entered international competitions and won many awards. His international standing was further enhanced in 1937 when he was 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.
About 4,500 of the Schmidt negatives form the World War One soldier portrait series. They have been scanned and made available through the Library’s website (www.aucklandcitylibraries.com) on Heritage Images Online. 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). The surnames have been checked against Schmidt’s accession registers and in the Nominal rolls of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to find the full name, rank and serial number of each serviceman. Most of the soldiers photographed also have identifiable badges or insignia.