First Women Photographers in NZ

Recently I had a chance meeting with a young man in a mens’ fashion boutique in Newmarket; Thomas Thew who told me his Great Grandmother was one of the first women photographers in New Zealand. I decided to do some research and discovered that his Grandmother and another  woman were indeed our first women photographers.

I believe Elizabeth Pullman started  practising as a photographer 6-8 years before Harriet Cobb. It doesn’t appear that these two women knew each other  however their stories have many similarities. This camera was similar to Harriet Cobbs precious camera   bought to NZ on the Lady Jocelyn.  It was a Dallmeyer made in London.


New Zealand’s first female photographer was born on August 1st 1836. Named Elizabeth Chadd  daughter of  Mary (Clayton) and William Chadd in Cheshire, England.  Her father was a bricklayer, and little is known about her working-class childhood. At the age of 22, Miss Chadd married local resident George Pulman, a widower with two young sons and he had a great interest in photography. After giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Pulman and her family sailed from London to New Zealand on the Broadwater  finally arrived in Auckland on July 30, 1861.

Above – Elizabeth Pullman

His wife shared his love of photography, and because independent opportunities for female photographers were nonexistent at the time, she collaborated with her husband, joining him both in the studio and in the field. They were fascinated by the Maori culture, and photographed several chiefs and other historically significant landmarks. 

Above: A beautiful image by Elizabeth Pullman, NZ Govt Photo

Her husband, George Pulman died on April 17, 1871, and Elizabeth continued supporting her family by photography, and her income was compromised by the lack of copyright protection for photographers. Mrs. Pulman became a crusader for artistic copyright protection, and in a letter to the New Zealand Herald, she issued an appeal to the public not to purchase pirated copies of her studio’s photographs. Her activism led to an introduction to another widower named John Blackman, who was a reporter for the Auckland Star. They married on June 14, 1875, and together they had a son. Widowed again in 1893, Mrs. Pulman (she continued using her first husband’s surname for professional purposes) continued operating Pulman’s Photographic Studio and was later joined by her son Frederick. Her deep respect for the Maori people and culture is readily apparent in her portraits that are distinguished by their intricate detail and emphasize the photographer’s mastery of light and shadow techniques. She provides a rare glimpse of the indigenous Ngati Maniapoto tribe, and her images celebrate their unique traditions and ornate style of dress. She was one of the few ‘outsiders’ welcomed into the North Island chiefs’ inner circle.

Above NZ GOVT PHOTO: Photograph of the important Ngāpuhi chief Tāmati Waka Nene, c. 1870. Elizabeth Pulman, possibly our first woman photographer, was one of many early New Zealand photographers who sold portraits of Māori. 

After nearly three decades, Mrs. Pulman sold her successful studio shortly before her death on February 3, 1900 at the age of 63. Her negatives were sold to the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau, and their reprints remain popular tourist keepsakes. Other original photographs and correspondence are housed in the National Library of New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library.

Above: NZ Govt. Photos by Elizabeth Pullman


The other early New Zealand woman photographer was  Harriet Cobb. Harriet lived in Christchurch, England Since Joseph and Harriet both had a mutual passion for photography, they set up a photographic studio in the glasshouse behind their High Street shop (in Christchurch). It was here that Harriet began specialising in portraiture, particularly focusing on taking photos of children. Harriet claimed that the lighting in the glass house enhanced the quality of her work. Harriet gave birth to her first son, Arthur, on 23rd September 1868. Alfred was born on 20 June 1869 and Robert arrived on 20 October 1870.

Below: Harriet Cobb

During this period Harriet won a medal and certificate from The Photographic Society (now known as the Royal Photographic Society) for a portrait of her three children. It is not known if this photo is still in existence. A daughter, Elsie, was born into the Cobb family on 19 November 1872.

 Above: Family Portrait  by Harriet  Cobb

The Cobbs sold their shop in 1881 and eventually took passage on the sailing ship ‘Lady Jocelyn’ in 1883. By that time, they had nine children ranging from 14 year old Alf, to Harold who was just a few months old.

After two weeks of repairs, the Lady Jocelyn set sail from Portsmouth, England to Wellington, on 18th September 1883 with the Cobb family on board. More importantly on board that ship was a special piece of equipment – Harriet’s studio camera!Shortly after their arrival in Wellington, Harriet and her family embarked on the ship ‘Kiwi’ which was heading north to Napier, and arrived there on 5 January 1884.

Below: Dallmeyer Camera similar to the one used by Harriet Cobb


Above: Lenses similar to the ones used by Harriet Cobb

Joseph and Harriet lived in Port Ahuriri for approximately one year. During that time, Harriet opened a photographic studio on Waghorne Street, opposite the London Hotel

According to The Hawke’s Bay Herald, Vol XXI, Issue 7022, 26 November 1884, Harriet exhibited a “fine collection” of photos at the inaugural Working Trades and Art Exhibition which was held at the Theatre Royal, Napier. “Harriet’s photographs get noticed”
A series of photographs which Harriet entitled ‘Vignette Studies from Life’ were exhibited at New Zealand’s first Industrial Exhibition which opened in Wellington on Saturday 1 August 1885 to much fanfare. While the main part of the exhibition was housed in the purpose built Exhibition Building, the art and photographic exhibits were displayed on the upper floor of the adjacent St George’s Hall. The exhibition was a showcase of New Zealand’s talent and organisers hoped to attract overseas interest in the wares on display. One person who noticed Harriet’s work was the famous Sir Julius von Haast, geologist, and founder of the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. He was so impressed by Harriet’s photographs that she was invited to show her work at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London the following May. Haast was present at the London exhibition in the capacity of New Zealand Commissioner.

Above: Harriet Cobb’s Prize medal, Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886

Many of the photographs that Harriet sent to the exhibition in London were of female faces. According to one newspaper report, in the Hawke’s Bay Herald, Vol XXII, Issue 7335, 3 December 1885, the best photographs were entitled, ‘Sympathy’, ‘Happy Thoughts’, and ‘The Gypsy Queen’.

The London Exhibition of 1886 was opened by Queen Victoria and was viewed by more than 5.5 million people in the 164 days it was open! In it, Harriet was one of only two New Zealand photographers to exhibit portraits. Her exhibits were described in the official catalogue as being ‘photographs and vignettes’. All exhibitors at the fair were awarded a bronze medal and a certificate. Click here to see what the certificate looked like. It is unknown what happened to the photographs that Harriet exhibited or the medal she was given.

In the Daily Telegraph, Issue 5398, 11 December 1888, a newspaper reporter described one of Harriet’s photographs called ‘Tired Out’ as “one of the finest  photographs  I have ever seen.”

Harriet’s occupation is listed on the 1896 Napier electoral roll as ‘photographer’. Joseph and their son George, are also listed on it as being photographers.

Harriet  was renowned as a quality photographer by this point. A reporter from the Hastings Standard described her in the 14th July 1896 edition, as being “well-known“, and her work as being “first class”. The brief article says that Harriet has an excellent reputation in the district and that the quality of her work exceeded that of most other local photographers due to her ability to compose a well-balanced picture. Apparently Harriet was admired for the creative way she positioned her subjects in her photographs, and for the finishing touches to her work. The article concludes by saying that Harriet had won medals at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, London in 1886 and the Dunedin Exhibition of 1889.

Above: Harriet’s headstone.

Interestingly some of Harriet’s descendants  live in Auckland and they are also talented in the art world.

Above: Leon Cobb is an Octogenarian.

He has  had an illustrious career in Advertising & Publishing in New Zealand. He was the Art Director in a major company before branching out to publishing and designing books for Handsdowne and Paul Hamblyn. Later on his own company produced books for organisations and companies including handbooks for the NZ National Parks (1980)  and The history of Howick and Pakuranga. New Zealand Synfuel, The Alpine World of Mt Cook, Proceedings of the 13th world Orchid Conference 1990, Great Golf Holes of New Zealand, AA Road Atlas of NZ and many others.

His paintings reflect his wide range of interests   from a series of Hawaian Golf Courses to Mountains and his hobby of growing and painting orchids in their natural habitat.  Leon is a fine artist ( see painting behind his portrait above)

Many of Leonard’s children have developed careers in the world of photography, graphic design and other creative industries.

Harriet was a strong and resilient woman. In spite of losing her husband and a number of children during her life time she went onto work tirelessly for the church after retiring from  photography.

Harriet died on 18th December 1929.

Research from:    TEARA – a biography written by Phillip D. Jackson, which was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.  Images from

On 19 September 1893, after submitting a petition with nearly 32,000 signatures, New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant women the vote. In most other democracies – including Britain and the United States – women did not get that right until after the First World War. New Zealand women voted for the first time in a general election on 28 November 1893.

These two women photographers were out there creating their own careers prior to women getting the vote in 1893. Just an interesting foot note ….

Please add comments to the comment box.

2 thoughts on “First Women Photographers in NZ

  1. Very interesting. I have photographic connections going back to Victorian times too. Minna Keene became an FRPS in the early 1900s and was a founder member of the London Salon. I definitely think that photography is “in the blood”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s