Thelma Rene Kent was born in Christchurch on 21 October 1899, the younger of two children of Catherine Maude Hales and her husband, John Robert Kent, a bootmaker. She was educated at Addington School and the Christchurch Technical College. In 1914 Thelma was given a box camera by her uncle and she won a newspaper photographic competition. She used the prize money to buy a newer camera. Her first photographs were of school friends, but as her interest in photography grew she concentrated more on pictorial work.
Thelma Kent had an affinity for the New Zealand landscape and the outdoors. She spent several months of the year touring New Zealand to look for photographic subjects, travelling by car, on horseback and on foot. She had a particular interest in the high country of the South Island and made frequent tramping trips through the area. About 1937 she flew with J. C. (Bert) Mercer, pioneer West Coast aviator, into the Arawata River area, where she met up with the legendary Arawata Bill (William O’Leary). Kent took several photographs of the old man, which have been reproduced regularly ever since.
Kent was a resourceful and independent traveller. During a trip alone to Mavora Lakes, she met up with a fly fisherman and offered him a ride to the next lake, insisting that he ride on the running board. Later, she discovered that the man was her brother Leslie's employer, the Christchurch grain merchant John Montgomery. Montgomery remarked that Thelma Kent was ‘a sensible woman’. On another occasion, when driving from Taupo to Napier alone at night, Kent was stopped at the Tarawera hotel by a man who had been shot in the leg. She rushed him to hospital in Napier over what was then a tortuous unsealed road, but the man later died.
Usually she took a woman companion with her on her trips to help with equipment and, quite frequently, to appear in her photographs – a solitary figure set against spectacular scenery. On other occasions a group of friends or relations would travel on camping or tramping trips.
Like those of her contemporary and friend, photographer George Chance, Kent’s photographs were often pictorialist, a genre which stressed artistic qualities and was popular at the time. However, many of her portraits and studies of nature show an independent and distinctive view. She would often take several photographs of the same scene but with different framing, and in her darkroom experiment with different printing papers, tones and cropping.
Thelma Kent’s photographs were exhibited and published internationally, and won many awards. They appeared in overseas titles such as the English annual Photograms of the Year 1939, which referred to a photograph she had taken of gannets at Cape Kidnappers as ‘a wonderful rendering of the tones not only of the plumage of the birds, but also of the sea and sky’. A French critic, quoted in the Monocle, remarked about another of her gannet studies: ‘in company with the élite of the whole world Miss Kent fully justifies her reputation as an artist’. Her own articles and illustrations appeared in the Auckland Weekly News and the New Zealand Railways Magazine. In one that she wrote after crossing the Copland Pass, she commented: ‘Far away thoughts will visit a lover of the mountains, these thoughts gradually form themselves into a picture, then plans formulate and the picture eventually becomes a reality'.
Her interest in natural history and scientific work was stimulated by her photographic work for the Cawthron Institute, Nelson, and for the Canterbury Museum. After much experimentation in the laboratory at her home using a microscope lent to her by Professor Robert Speight, curator at the Canterbury Museum, Kent became proficient at microphotography. Similar work for Christchurch Hospital and Canterbury University College followed. From shots taken in her garden she created a detailed photographic series showing the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, photographed on colour slides as well as in black and white. She had an extensive aviary (for a time this included a pet kiwi) and also looked after birds for Robert Falla, director of the Canterbury Museum. The birds and other domestic and farm animals became regular subjects for her pictures.
Kent was a well-known and enthusiastic member of the Christchurch Photographic Society, was made an associate member of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and, in 1939, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London. Through articles and lectures she promoted photography. In 1939 and 1941 she gave a series of radio talks on subjects such as ‘Hiking with the camera’ and ‘Photographing the unusual’.
Thelma Kent never married, and lived at home with her parents. She died from cancer at the age of 46 at Christchurch Hospital, on 23 June 1946. Her mother donated a collection of her negatives and prints to the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, in 1948.