Over th ensuing decades, he achieved a reputation for his portraiture and fashion photography, which was highlighted by the use of strong lighting in the style of Hollywood glamour. Reginald Clifton Firth was born on April 12, 1904, in Auckland, New Zealand, to a wealthy family. His grandfather, Josiah Clifton Firth, was a visionary pioneering pastoralist and businessman who once owned the vast estate that is now Matamata, and his father and younger brothers founded the Firth Concrete Company. Clifton went to Auckland commercial art school in the following his high school days, before going to E School of Art to work as a design apprentice, and then worked in the family business as a graphic designer before he finished the course. in 1934 he got married to Joyce Fitzherbert in Auckland, the journalist from whom he’d secretly fallen in love years earlier. Patricia studied photography at a portrait studio on Queen Street in the late 1930s, while Clifton continued to work as a freelance graphic designer.
They established a commercial photography studio together, which had several addresses in Auckland before settling at 110 Queen Street in 1938, where it remained until Clifton’s retirement in 1974. At the time of his return to New Zealand, Clifton, the form and its relationship to the subject was avant-garde for print ads in the country, but its use of black and white Hollywood glamour photography followed a contemporary tradition pioneered by Bauhuescher. Until printing, the negative with high-strength toner and white soft graphite to fill in skin wrinkles and imperfections, the big negatives were initially processed using a weak toner and to lower contrast.Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s were regarded as a glamorous period for women’s fashion. As millions of people were experiencing economic hardship, the fashion industry embraced fantasy and glamour, perhaps as a reaction to the hardship. It is remembered as the escapism era and the birth of the sexy Hollywood siren. However, the Depression ushered in a period of democratization in the women’s clothing industry, in addition to the glamour. Simple art deco lines and patterns were used instead of more expensive decorative methods, and rayon rather than silk was used as a fabric. It was essentially the start of the market era, with a transition to ready-to-wear fashions that women of modest means could afford, a movement that has persisted to this day.
Fashion magazines and retailers continued to advertise garments “in the style of” the Paris fashion houses, indicating that Paris remained the fashion capital. This meant that Clifton Firth’s fashion and portrait photography dates from a period when foreign fashion trends were widely disseminated and fashion was more affordable and available than ever before. Seasonal photography for Milne & Choyce, one of Auckland’s most upscale luxury department stores, was a large part of his commercial work. Milne & Choyce was also based on Queen Street directly across from his studio. Five large department stores dominated fashion shopping in Auckland at the time, where customers could be individually fitted for clothes and luxury pieces were sold alongside everyday items. Department stores had their own workrooms where they manufactured garments for their stores, completed fittings and modifications, and also made garments to order for their customers. Milne & Choyce, one of Auckland’s most trendy department stores, commissioned Clifton Firth to photograph their seasonal collection. Auckland Libraries’ Sir George Grey Special Collections provided this picture. Following the Great Depression, the war years created a market for portraiture, and Firth Photography studio Auckland grew to be a highly successful company with seven employees. It’s no wonder that Clifton embraced American Hollywood glamour in his portrait work during this time. During WWII, New Zealand served as a strategic base for operations against the Japanese in the Pacific. Between 1942 and 1944, American forces were stationed in New Zealand, where they trained for upcoming offensives or rested and recovered their health after serving on the front lines. Thousands of young, well-paid Americans undeniably influenced the local culture and fashion of our major cities.
During these years, approximately 1500 New Zealand women married American servicemen. Many Aucklanders, in addition to New Zealand and American servicemen, commissioned portraits, and Clifton’s portraits were regularly published in local journals and magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, while his architectural photography was also published in Home and Building magazine. SaloteTupou, the Queen of Tonga, is depicted in this portrait. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 34-T152. Picture courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 34-T152. There are no limitations on copyright that we are aware of. Clifton opened a second photography studio in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, in the mid-1940s, and he would fly to Christchurch every few weeks while still living in Auckland. In 1942, he was joined in the studio by his neighbour, musician and photographer Frank Hofmann. Later, Frank Hofmann established Christopher Bede Studios, a national chain that specialised in advertisement photography, as well as wedding and family portrait photography. In 1940, Clifton and Patricia Firth divorced, and in the same year, he married Melva Martin, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Clifton was a slender man who dressed well, wore glasses, smoked a pipe, and sported a moustache much of the time. He made his home and studio meeting places for a wide community of artists and academics, including poets A R D Fairburn and R A K Mason, with whom he shared an active interest in left-wing politics, philosophy, and art. He was described as a “post-war dandy, self-opinionated and humorous.” Clifton was an enthusiastic painter who exhibited his and other artists’ work in the ground floor of his Queen Street studio. He even read and wrote poetry (though nothing was published). During the 1940s and 1950s, he published essays on photography and sculpture, and he exhibited and lectured at the Auckland Photographic Society on a regular basis.
Clifton Firth passed away on August 31, 1980, in Milford, Auckland, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and son. Clifton Firth’s photographic negatives are held by Auckland City Libraries, which have over 100,000 of them. Portraits of influential New Zealanders, members of Auckland’s most prominent families, well-known artists and literary figures, fashion models, debutantes, and promotional photographs for hats, shoes, and garments are among the images in the album.