Thelma Rene Kent – Intrepid Photographer

Day 167 of Colourisation Project – October 21

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

More often than not, female photographers fall into obscurity for more reasons than just the passage of time. One such example was New Zealander, Thelma Rene Kent. Born this day, October 21, 1899 in Christchurch, Kent was a well-known pictorialist in her day, and highly regarded for her photographs of the landscape of the South Island.

Thelma Rene Kent

Self Portrait: Thelma Rene Kent 1939 Arawhata River, Westland – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Having spent her whole life in Christchurch, with the Southern Alps as its backdrop, her images reflected the grandeur of her geography. An intrepid traveller, Kent drove and trekked around New Zealand, sometimes on horseback and on foot to capture her distinctive award-winning natures shots and landscapes. She would usually take a female companion with her on her trips to act as an assistant and to appear in her photographs as a lone figure set against spectacular background scenery.

The biographical details for Kent are scant and it has been difficult to gather adequate information to compile a short bio on today’s subject for colourisation. However in the May 1938 edition of the New Zealand Free Lance, formerly one of New Zealand’s most popular weekly, pictorial newspapers, Kent was praised thus:

“There is an old saying concerning prophets without honour in their own countries. It is not New Zealand‘s fault that it does not accord to Miss Kent all that is her due. She has kept herself in the background so that few realise that in this alert, bright-faced girl there is an artist whose photographic studies have been hung in every capital in Europe…

Miss Kent has no need to envy our best artists. Her work, so clear and so understanding in the sphere of beauty, constitutes a fresh proof of the purely artistic possibilities of photographs”

Although she was a well known member of the Christchurch Photographic Society, and had received many accolades internationally through camera clubs and photographic salons, Maree Prebensen in her thesis, A Pictorialist Practice: The Life and Times of Thelma Kent, suggests a possible reason for Kent’s relative lack of profile today;

Another reason that Thelma Kent‘s work failed to receive the attention it deserves is that photography in New Zealand from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the era in which Kent was active, is largely viewed by historians as overtly sentimental and derivative of out-dated English formulas. Pictorialist photography does not have the romance of the first photographers of New Zealand‘s nineteenth-century colonists, nor the street-cred of a later generation of documentary photographers. The era of pictorialist photography falls uneasily into the sphere of conservative middle-class practitioners mimicking the trends of the Mother Country.

An associate member of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, Kent promoted photography through articles, lectured on photography techniques, and did a series of radio talks on various aspects of photography such as ‘Hiking with the camera’ and ‘Photographing the unusual’.

Her work was not just restricted to landscapes. Kent was also interested in natural history and documented the native flora and fauna of the coastal regions of the South Island. From shots taken in her garden she created a detailed photographic series showing the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, photographed on colour slides as well as in black and white.

Predominantly active from the 1920s through to the early 1940s, her life which covered the Pictorialist movement in New Zealand photography, was cut short in 1946 when she succumbed to cancer at the young age of 46.

Her mother donated a collection of her negatives and prints to the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, in 1948.


“Far away thoughts will visit a lover of the mountains, these thoughts gradually form themselves into a picture, then plans formulate and the picture eventually becomes a reality.”   –  Thelma Rene Kent

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, New Zealand, Photography, Women, Women Photographers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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