Born at Tumai in Otago, New Zealand, on 9 May 1878, Jessie Lillian Buckland was one of seven children of Caroline Fairburn and her husband, John Channing Buckland. Her father was a farmer, and from 1884 to 1887 the member of Parliament for Waikouaiti. By 1890 the Bucklands had moved to Taieri Lake station, midway between Middlemarch and Hyde. It was here that the family began their collective involvement with photography.
Photography for the Bucklands was a fascinating pastime and a wonderful outlet for the creativity of each individual. From the studies that have survived and the initials which appear alongside each print in the family albums, it is clear that cameras were passed from hand to hand. Sometimes a member of the family might be involved merely in pressing the release button for a staged arrangement of costumed figures, perhaps illustrating a line from a well-known poem or ballad. It is thought that Jessie flourished in this capacity, directing the family into a number of the tableaux that were so favoured in amateur camera circles at the time. Day-to-day farm and leisure activities also fill the pages of the albums with rare glimpses into life in rural New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth century.
What makes this collection all the more remarkable is the high technical quality and standard of composition. Jessie's father had been educated at the Church of England Grammar School in Auckland by John Kinder, an artist and photographer; and her eldest sister, Caroline Marianne, was a member of the Dunedin Photographic Society in 1899. Little is known of their accomplishments in this direction but they would have passed on what they knew to other members of the family. This sharing of skills and knowledge and the availability of uncomplicated equipment, combined with instinct, commitment and refinement of vision, produced photography of exceptionally high standard.
By the late 1890s Jessie Buckland was sending work across the Tasman for judging in competitions run by a Melbourne publication, the Australasian. Here she gained her first successes, winning a number of awards. In 1899 the family sold Taieri Lake station and in 1902 moved to Akaroa. Jessie Buckland never married, and it was usual for single daughters to care for their ageing parents. Jessie was fortunate in that her sister Caroline was also unmarried, and because of this shared responsibility she was able to buy a small commercial photographic business in Akaroa. This she operated successfully for about 30 years.
Apart from serving the needs of the small Banks Peninsula community, which would have included taking formal portraits and photographing weddings and seasonal farming activities, she was on hand to capture 'scoop' pictures of Robert Falcon Scott's vessel, the Terra Nova, when it made Akaroa its first port of call out of Antarctica in April 1912. These and other submissions were printed in the Auckland Weekly News. She also produced and sold a number of picturesque views of Akaroa, which show a similarity of style to her earlier work in Central Otago.
Jessie Buckland's achievements are all the more notable because women were rarely taken seriously in amateur photographic circles until well into the twentieth century. Her best work was her brilliant genre series of 1895–98, and her accomplished professional photography which was in evidence from 1905 to the 1920s.
Jessie Buckland died on 8 June 1939 on board the Tamaroa in the south Pacific Ocean when returning to New Zealand from England, where she had been living with a friend in London. She was buried at sea. The Hocken Library, Dunedin, holds the Buckland family albums.