Page 1: Biography
White, Leo Lemuel
Photographer, photojournalist, aviator, publisher, writer
This biography, written by Ross Macpherson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was updated in October, 2021.
Leo Lemuel White was born at Auckland on 4 July 1906 to May Rae and her husband, Albert Edward White, a carter. He was educated at Ellerslie and Remuera schools. After completing the sixth standard he joined the Post and Telegraph Department as a messenger.
Acquiring a Brownie box camera, White began to freelance as a photographer and shortly secured a position with the Auckland-based New Zealand Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic Review. At 19 he resumed freelance work, contributing photographs to the New Zealand Herald, Auckland Star, Christchurch Weekly Press, and New Zealand Pictorial News. By 1930 he had accepted a permanent position with the Weekly News and Weekly Herald.
Using his 'baby Austin' car, White covered the North Auckland tours of the governor general, Sir Charles Fergusson, and the duke and duchess of York in 1927. After their reception in Rotorua, White drove back to Auckland with his film, scooping photographers who travelled by train. In the pursuit of news and photographs, he was the first person to reach Wairoa from Napier after the 1931 earthquake. He was recorded as having taken motion pictures of the damage.
White was possibly the first to utilise infra-red photography in New Zealand, using Ilford equipment imported by the New Zealand Herald from the United Kingdom. He also filmed yachting and skiing events throughout the country. A keen skier, he won the men's novice slalom at a championship meeting at Mt Cook in July 1933.
In 1921 White had taken some of the first views of Auckland from the air. In 1931 he began learning to fly with the Auckland Aero Club and was issued with his 'A' licence in 1932. This developing association with aviation led him to take a close interest in the trans-Tasman flights of Charles Kingsford Smith. His photographs of the arrival of the Southern Cross in New Plymouth in 1934 were flown to Auckland in a night flight by pilot Ron Kirkup. White was also to accompany the Southern Cross on its flight around the South Island in March 1934. On 5 June he married Irene Elizabeth Blakey at the Pitt Street Methodist Church, Auckland.
White left the New Zealand Herald's permanent staff in 1935 to join forces with Frank Stewart, a pioneer Auckland cinematographer, as Stewart and White Limited. His reputation as an aviation photographer was such that Imperial Airways in the United Kingdom commissioned him to accompany the Short S23 flying boat Centaurus during its survey flight around New Zealand in 1937–38. The partnership with Stewart lasted until wartime shortages of photographic materials forced the firm's closure.
In February 1942 Leo White joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a photographer and became closely associated with its magazine, Contact. He had previously served as a private in the territorials for three years. As a pilot officer and flying officer he compiled an extensive archive of photographs of the RNZAF in New Zealand and the Pacific. (The negatives are held by the RNZAF Museum, Wigram, Christchurch.)
During 1941 White had compiled Wingspread, the story of aviation pioneers in New Zealand; a second edition appeared in 1945. It was the principal work on New Zealand aviation history until 1986. Transferred to the RNZAF reserve in January 1945, White established Whites Aviation Limited in Auckland and launched a number of periodicals including Whites Aviation (1945–71), New Zealand Flying (1947–51) and the annual Whites Air Directory (1947–88). He also wrote and published Fighters, an account of the RNZAF fighter squadrons in the Solomon Islands.
During the early 1950s Leo White covered New Zealand by air, taking photographs for Whites pictorial reference of New Zealand, which was published in 1952 and revised in 1960. This proved a popular venture, and many New Zealand homes displayed hand-coloured photographs of White's aerial views and landscape scenes. He also organised a number of photographic displays, including one with the Auckland Star, 'This changing Auckland', which attracted large numbers of visitors before touring local schools. Similar displays were mounted in Wellington and Christchurch.
Dogged by asthma and emphysema, White developed coronary artery disease in his mid 50s. He spent considerable time at Franz Josef in an attempt to ease his condition. He died at his Mount Eden home in Auckland on 29 December 1967, survived by his wife and two children. Adventurous and enterprising, White had combined his twin interests in flying and photography to produce an important record of New Zealand's early aviation history.
In 2007 the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased White's collection of around 80,000 negatives and 55,000 prints. Written memorabilia and copies of photographic prints are held by the Walsh Memorial Library, Museum of Transport and Technology of New Zealand, Auckland. Copies of prints are also held by the Auckland Museum.