Te Papa’s William Berry Collection contains around 3,000 glass plate negatives. In the 1990s, these were found in a cupboard by one of the tenants of 147 Cuba Street, Wellington. This was the former premises of Berry & Co, well-known Wellington portrait photographers, established in 1897 by William Berry.
Amongst the studio portraits in the collection are almost 80 showing servicemen in uniforms posing with families and friends. These would have been taken before the men left to fight, or while on leave from the European theatres of war.
The soldiers would have given these portraits to relatives and loved ones as mementoes and keepsakes. Some would later be poignant and precious reminders of men who died overseas, but whose bodies were never recovered.
Many World War I servicemen around New Zealand posed for portraits. By luck, some of the negatives, like the Berry collection, remain in public institutions, including over 4,700 held in Auckland City Library taken by Herman Schmidt.
While the Berry portraits would have been keen reminders during and immediately after World War I, today most of the details of their subjects are lost. This is because barely any information is recorded on the negatives – usually only a surname and a numeral. The latter was perhaps the number of prints ordered by the sitter, or by the person who paid for the photographs.
Using service records, we can speculate about the identities of sitters. However, additional information about those featured in the portraits would be welcomed.