Born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 11, 1827, John Nicol Crombie was the son of John and Margaret McKellar Crombie. After a working-class upbringing, the junior Crombie received his training as an engineer before relocating to Melbourne, Australia during the height of the 1852 gold rush. When he was unsuccessful both as a miner and engineer, he became a photographer apprentice for the Meade Brothers, an American-based firm that had recently opened a studio in Melbourne. Within three years, Mr. Crombie felt confident enough to go out on his own, moving to Auckland, New Zealand, where he opened a gallery on Shortland Street.
The charismatic Mr. Crombie expertly marketed his business through print advertisements and as a highly visible member of the Auckland elite social circle. He sold stereographs (described in his ads as ‘stereoscopic pictures’), portraits, and camera equipment, successfully appealing to a middle-class consumer base by promising artistic portraits attractively mounted in either cases or frames that were “calculated to deck a cottage or adorn a palace.” Mr. Crombie boasted that he made more than 1,000 portraits during his first 15 months in business. His friendship with Governor Thomas Grey Browne earned Mr. Crombie the title of ‘Photographer to His Excellency,’ a designation he publicized heavily in the major newspapers throughout the region. Mr. Crombie’s political affiliations gave him unprecedented access to government officials, and he was granted the rare privilege of photographing the 12 Maori Chiefs who participated in the Kohimarama Conference of 1860. He traveled frequently to Australia to receive additional instruction in ambrotypes (glass positives) and later to learn how to produce paper positives from wet-collodion glass plates.
Moving his base of operations from Shortland Street to Queen Street, Mr. Crombie boldly declared his was “a most perfect studio of photographic art,’ comparable in style and technique to any of his European contemporaries. His outdoor photographs were often featured in the London Illustrated News, and his panoramic views of Point Britomart, New Zealand were awarded a prestigious medal at London’s International Exhibition in 1862. To make good on his boasts, Mr. Crombie frequently returned to Scotland to educate himself on the latest European photographic developments. In a lecture he delivered to the Glasgow Photographic Association, he stated that his exposure times in New Zealand were between 5 and 15 seconds outdoors as opposed to 20 to 30 seconds indoors. Portions of this lecture, entitled “On the Rise and Progress of Photography in New Zealand,” were later published in The British Journal of Photography in 1863. He married British-born Harriet Barry on May 23, 1864, and returned to Auckland to capitalize on the carte-de-visite craze. He invested in real estate and mining, and in 1871 was elected chairman of the Caledonian Gold Mining Company.
However, inexplicably, Mr. Crombie sold his studio and camera equipment in 1872, and moved his family to England. Six years’ later, on a trip to Auckland to check his on his property investments, he contracted tuberculosis. John Nicol Crombie died in Melbourne, Australia on December 15, 1878 at the age of 51. Despite the popularity of his portraits and panoramic views among consumers, Mr. Crombie never sacrificed artistic integrity for crass commercialism. Contemporary historians regard his output as the standard by which future generations of New Zealand photographers continue to be judged.
2008 Cemetery Conversations: The Newsletter of the Friends of St. Kilda Cemetery, No. XXXI. (Victoria, Australia: Friends of St. Kilda Cemetery Inc.)
2019 Crombie, John Nicol (URL: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c30/crombie-john-nicol).
2010 Crombie to Burton by John Gow and Michael Graham-Stewart (Auckland, NZ: John Leech Gallery).
2011 Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, 1839-1918. (Dunedin, NZ: Otago University Press).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 349.
2016 The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 by Vincent O'Malley (Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams Books [BWB] Limited eBook), p. 65.
2004 An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange (Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams Books [BWB] Limited eBook), p. 65.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera