Page 1: Biography
Firth, Reginald Clifton
Graphic designer, photographer
This biography, written by Jennifer Gillam, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Reginald Clifton Firth was born at Auckland on 12 April 1904, the eldest son of Edward Thompson Clifton Firth, a manufacturer and inventor, and his wife, Blanch Emily Banks. His grandfather, Josiah Clifton Firth, was an ambitious pioneering pastoralist and businessman who at one stage owned an enormous estate where Matamata now stands.
Clifton attended King’s College, Auckland, from 1911 to 1919, followed by a year in Christchurch at Christ’s College. At King’s he made friends with Merton Hodge, who later became a doctor and an internationally acclaimed playwright. On leaving school the two attended an Auckland commercial art school for a short period, and Firth also attended night classes at Elam School of Art.
The family lived in Epsom until a fire destroyed their home in 1927, when they moved to Rangiriri, where Firth’s father and younger brothers had established the Firth Concrete Company. Clifton was also employed in the family business, as a graphic designer: he designed the company logo and many advertisements.
In 1925 Firth met poets A. R. D. Fairburn and R. A. K. Mason. They became firm friends sharing an active interest in left-wing politics (Firth belonged to the Communist Party of New Zealand), philosophy and art. While their friendship was lifelong, that between Fairburn and the other two men cooled somewhat in the 1930s due to his rejection of Marxism.
On 16 September 1933 Clifton Firth married Joyce Patricia Fitzherbert, a journalist, at Auckland. In the late 1930s Patricia studied photography at a portrait studio in Queen Street, while Clifton continued with freelance graphic design. They established their own commercial photography studio, which had several Auckland addresses before settling at 110 Queen Street in 1938, where it remained until Clifton’s retirement in 1974.
Firth’s innovative arrangement of type and its relationship to the image was fashioned on European design – Bauhaus in particular. His photographs, however, influenced more by Hollywood glamour portraits, created a dramatic blend of light and dark to enhance and flatter the subject’s features. Firth described the practice of making portraits by using ‘light and shade … [as] an instrument for penetrating surface appearances and revealing the true and proper character of the subject’; he believed that a good photograph ‘should present several aspects of a person’s psychological make up simultaneously’.
Clifton and Patricia Firth divorced in 1940, and on 16 September 1940 at Auckland he married Melva Martin, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.
The war years led to a demand for portraiture and Firth Photography became a highly successful business, employing seven staff. Apart from New Zealand and American servicemen, many Aucklanders commissioned portraits. During the 1930s and 1940s his portraits were regularly printed in journals such as Action and the Mirror , while his architectural photography was often published in Home and Building magazine. Clifton’s friend, musician and photographer Frank Hofmann, joined the studio in 1942, leaving some years later to establish Christopher Bede Studios. In the mid 1940s Firth opened a second photographic studio in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, run by Natalie Swann. The family continued living in Auckland and Firth would travel to Christchurch every few weeks.
Firth was a slim man who dressed with flair, wore glasses, smoked a pipe and usually sported a moustache. Described as a ‘post war dandy’, self-opinionated and humorous, he made his home and studio meeting places for a large group of artists and academics. Firth read and wrote poetry (although nothing was published), and was an enthusiastic painter, exhibiting his and other artists’ work in the ground level of his Queen Street studio. He wrote articles on photography and art, and exhibited and lectured regularly at the Auckland Photographic Society during the 1940s and 1950s.
Clifton Firth died on 31 August 1980, at Milford, Auckland, survived by his wife, daughter and one son. Auckland City Libraries holds a collection of over 100,000 Firth photographic negatives.