Information about Clifton Firth and our photograph collection.
Life and career
Clifton Firth had a photographic studio in Queen Street from the end of the 1930s to the 1970s, from which he took stylish shots of well-known Auckland identities, writers, musicians, models and the general public. He recorded an era of Auckland's growth - its people, styles, leaders and intellectuals. His trademark, a dramatic blend of light and shadow, was achieved by intense lighting from differently angled light sources. Firth wanted to produce a glamorous, almost theatrical image, in the manner of Hollywood black & white still photographers.
Clifton Firth was born in Auckland on 12 April 1904, the eldest son of Edward Thompson Clifton Firth. He trained at Elam School of Art and in his early working life was a freelance commercial artist. The family lived in Epsom but moved to Rangiriri in 1927 after a fire destroyed their family home. Here Firth's father and younger brothers established the Firth Concrete Company in which Clifton was employed as a graphic designer.
On 16 September 1933 Firth married Joyce Patricia Fitzherbert, a journalist in Auckland. It was the era of the Depression and a difficult time to make a living. According to an article in the New Zealand Herald (4 July 1970), Firth knew nothing about photography. When a client required shots of products, Firth bought a camera for 4 pounds from a dealer, on the condition that he could return it if the photos were not a success. The client was thrilled with his photos and Firth kept the camera. In 1938 he opened his studio at 110 Queen Street where it remained until he retired in 1974. He was kept busy during the war years photographing New Zealand and American servicemen and the girl friends they left behind. He rapidly became the most popular and imaginative portrait artist in Auckland.
Clifton and Patricia Firth divorced in 1940. He married Melva Martin the same year and they had two sons and a daughter. In the mid 1940s Firth opened a second studio in Christchurch which he would visit every few weeks.
When he retired, Firth gave a large collection of prints and negatives to Auckland Libraries. His portraits include prominent New Zealanders, members of Auckland's leading families, famous artists and literary figures, fashion models, debutantes and advertising material. Clifton Firth died on 31 August 1980.
The Clifton Firth collection
In 2001 Auckland City Libraries scanned and catalogued 5,000 Firth negatives. Due to privacy concerns, not all scanned images are available for viewing through the web site. However all scanned images are available for viewing from computers within the libraries.
See the Heritage Images Online or the Photographers Database.
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