Amy Merania Harper was born in Paeroa on 23 May 1900, the eldest child of Ada Agnes Nalder and her husband, William Septimus Harper, an engineer. Amy grew up with her family (she had two brothers and two sisters) in Auckland. At 14 she began work in a confectionery shop in Queen Street, and on free Wednesday afternoons took lessons in photographic retouching. Eighteen months later she joined H. J. Schmidt’s studio in Queen Street as a retoucher and finisher. She was soon undertaking piece-work at home for Schmidt and other studios. Encouraged by her mother’s gift of a large Thornton-Pickard camera, Amy taught herself photography and developing. She set up her own studio on the veranda, co-opted her sisters and brothers as assistants, and persuaded friends and neighbours to pose for her.
In 1922 the whole Harper family committed themselves to the photography business when they bought J. C. Morton’s Glenmore Studios in Eden Terrace. Amy’s brothers and sisters all worked in the business. Photographs were taken by daylight, and Amy’s mother monitored the sky for clouds and judged exposure times. In 1928, as business expanded, Amy shifted to a more central site in Queen Street, buying Belwood Studios from H. C. Northwood; she later renamed them the Amy Harper Studios. Around 1930 she was joined by her sister Inez (called Dickie). Now sole owner, Amy remained chief photographer, and taught her staff (who were mostly women) the full range of photographic and developing skills. After Northwood’s death in 1940 she bought his other studio in Civic House, Queen Street, a well-established bridal photography business, and was able to close Glenmore Studios.
The war years brought changes. Dickie left to join the WAAF and then marry, and the government requisitioned Civic House. In 1942 Amy bought studios from St John Biggs in Karangahape Road, and renamed them Belwood Studios. When film was rationed during the war, she concentrated on portraits of soldiers in uniform, and her business flourished with American servicemen wanting photographs to send home. From 1946 the wave of post-war marriages made the studios hectic. Some Saturdays Belwood Studios processed 20 wedding groups, while wedding cars formed a conspicuous line along Karangahape Road.
Amy Harper now became the most reputable bridal photographer in Auckland. She developed efficient systems for processing order forms, developing film quickly and achieving a rapid turn-around of wedding parties. Her work encompassed both famous Aucklanders and ordinary people, for whom she recorded important rites of passage: christenings, débutante balls, weddings and graduations. She also photographed many Chinese, Yugoslav and Samoan families who wanted formal portraits of large family groups.
Although Harper was innovative with technology (she was the first Auckland photographer to use fluorescent lighting), formality was the keynote of her style. She was skilled at draping fabric and placing hands, and had a good eye for group arrangement. The growing popularity of candid photography and colour film in the 1960s gradually undermined her studio business, although she commissioned other photographers to do work on location. In 1958 she bought a studio in Otahuhu, closing the Amy Harper Studios in Queen Street, and in 1969 she bought another studio in Papatoetoe. In 1976 she sold Belwood Studios. Her move from the city marked the end of an era of black and white studio photography.
Dark-haired and attractive, Amy Harper was an extraordinary, energetic woman. For much of her career she worked 16- to 18-hour days, as well as caring for an imperious, invalid mother who discouraged Amy’s suitors. She never married. She was a founding member of the New Zealand Professional Photographers’ Association in 1945, and was honoured as a life member in 1975. Her sister Dickie (Steer) returned to work in the Otahuhu studio, and the two sisters retired from the business together in 1979.
Amy Harper died in Glenfield, Auckland, on 15 September 1998, aged 98. A successful professional photographer and businesswoman, she was distinctive for her skill in formal portraiture, and for the broad range of New Zealand faces she captured. Several hundred thousand of her negatives are held in the Auckland Institute and Museum Library.