The foundation of Te Papa's photography collection lies with the Colonial Museum in the second half of the nineteenth century. Photographs were primarily taken or collected as illustrative material for the various research interests of the Museum. Ethnology, the scientific investigation of races and cultures, was a particular interest of the Museum around the turn of the century. This means Te Papa has a strength in the area of early images of Maori and Pacific peoples.
Later in the twentieth century, photographs were also collected for their historical value—as illustrative of past times. The negatives of the Burton Brothers studio, for example, were purchased in 1943. This Dunedin-based studio produced what is undoubtedly the widest photographic coverage of New Zealand in the nineteenth century. The work of the Burtons ranged from townscapes, to scenic wonders, to views of Maori village life.
Other additions to the collection have included the family photographs of Levin farmer and scholar, Leslie Adkin, taken between the two world wars; the commercial photographs of the Gordon H Burt studio from the mid-1920s to the 1950s; studio portraits from the mid 1930s to the late 1950s by Spencer Digby; and the life's-work of New Zealand's best-known international photographer, Brian Brake (1940s to 1988).
Photography as an art medium was collected by the former National Art Gallery from 1976 and its collection forms the basis of another side of Te Papa's photography collection. The focus was, and continues to be, on New Zealand photographers, with some forays into international collecting. Te Papa holds a significant body of work by pictorialist photographers from the 1920s to 1950s, such as George Chance, Les Casbolt and Harry Moult. It also has holdings by all the major New Zealand contemporary photographs from the 1960s onwards, such as Laurence Aberhart, Mark Adams, Gary Baigent, John Fields, Marti Friedlander, Anne Noble, Yvonne Todd, Peter Peryer and Ans Westra.
Today Te Papa continues to actively collect both in the fields of historical documentary photography and art photography.