Arthur George William Sparrow (Bill to his colleagues and friends) was a large, heavily built man of friendly, boisterous disposition. One of five children, he was born in Caversham, Dunedin, on 27 January 1896. His parents, Arthur William Sparrow and his wife, Jewel Beatrice Green, had immigrated from Tasmania, settling first in Dunedin, then Christchurch. His father was a carpenter who later became a joinery manufacturer and builder. Bill attended St Albans School, Christchurch, and studied at Canterbury College School of Art. In 1913 he was indentured to the Auckland advertising firm of Chandler and Company to train as a commercial artist. That same year he won a competition for the best photograph of the visiting warship New Zealand , beating amateur and professional photographers throughout the country.
In August 1915 Sparrow enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served as gunner in the New Zealand Field Artillery in Egypt and Europe (where he contracted rheumatism), and later as a camouflage expert. After his discharge in October 1917 he worked as a staff artist at the Smith and Julius Art Studios in Sydney, and as sales promotions manager for the Sydney Evening News and a Brisbane newspaper company. Returning to Auckland in 1930, he worked as a sales executive for New Zealand Newspapers.
After becoming increasingly involved in photography, Sparrow set up a business in 1939. He was initially engaged to produce educational film strips for the Auckland Education Board, and employed Betty Brookes (who later became the display artist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum) to create the art work. About this time Sparrow became an official civilian photographer for the Defence Department and by the end of the Second World War his company, Sparrow Industrial Pictures (SIP), was firmly established.
Sparrow had married Marjorie Joyce Ormiston in Auckland on 22 January 1930. Known as Marnie, she became a director of her husband’s firm and worked in its office. In contrast to Bill’s cheerful, extrovert personality, she was diminutive and retiring. They had no children.
SIP was a busy commercial firm attracting a wide range of clients and work. Although advertising agencies formed a large part of its clientele, civil engineering and architectural firms, department stores, manufacturers, building contractors and oil companies were also important clients. Regular assignments included monthly progress pictures of construction sites, the photographic documentation of licence applications for service stations, and photographing window displays for the Auckland retail stores Smith and Caughey, and Milne and Choyce.
By the 1960s SIP had become one of the largest commercial and industrial photographic firms in New Zealand, employing about 12 staff at its premises in Courthouse Lane, Auckland; one year it expanded to 26. Bill Sparrow usually did the out-of-town assignments, although in later years he did little actual photography. G. D. Kelsey became the principal photographer and remained at SIP most of his working life. The firm retained the faithful service of some other excellent staff, including Geoffrey Harcourt and Douglas Vahry; many other fine photographers later moved on to establish their own businesses. A subsidiary company, Sparrow Audio Visual, was formed to specialise in the production of motion pictures, film strips, slide shows and television advertisements. Work was done for the Auckland Education Board, the Decimal Currency Board and the Workers’ Compensation Board.
Bill Sparrow was a successful businessman who excelled as a salesman, combining his talents as an artist and photographer with his background in newspapers and advertising. His firm belief in the power of images to impart information and his intuitive understanding of the client’s needs, coupled with his energy and enthusiasm, resulted in a creative and productive relationship between photographer and client.
His efforts on behalf of the photographic industry as a whole were of equal importance to his own business. He set up the New Zealand Institute of Commercial Photographers in opposition to the New Zealand Professional Photographers’ Association (NZPPA), as he believed that the latter organisation did not adequately represent the interests of commercial photographers; the two bodies amalgamated in 1953. He was later president of the NZPPA for several years, and formed a qualification board to judge applicants for associateships and fellowships.
Sparrow consistently sought to improve the status of commercial photography in New Zealand and contributed articles to periodicals such as Home and Building and New Zealand Manufacturer. He was the first fellow of the NZPPA and a licentiate member of the Institute of British Photographers. He also served as president and patron of the Auckland Advertising Club. In 1961–62 he conducted a workshop seminar in New Delhi for UNESCO on audio-visual education.
The father of commercial photography in New Zealand, Bill Sparrow strove tirelessly on behalf of his fellow professionals, lobbying the government in protest against wartime sales tax and, later, import licensing cuts. His business was a market leader and he was partly responsible for the graphic printing industry’s move away from drawn illustrations to a greater reliance on photographs. When Sparrow retired in 1966 the company merged with Barry McKay Industrial Photography. He died suddenly at his home in Alberon Street, Parnell, on 29 July 1967, survived by his wife. Both firms’ photographic negative collections have since been donated to the Auckland War Memorial Museum.