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Struan MacGibbon in training camp,
Papakura, New Zealand, 1941

Struan MacGibbon (1910-1991), grew up in Mataura in New Zealand's deep south, and after matriculating from Gore High School, began a lifelong career with the Bank of New Zealand. Taking up photography as a hobby, he joined the Dunedin Photographic Society, where he was tutored by well-known local photographer George Chance.
    The camera he took to war was a folding Welta 6x9 plate model, originally produced in 1934. The camera had an extra back which took 120 roll film. It had a Compur shutter, probably 1–1/200 second. The lens was f4.5, probably uncoated Rodenstock Trinar or Valtar. Lens filters could be fitted, and Struan evidently used them. The camera could correct for parallax distortion.
    As with keeping diaries, photography by ordinary soldiers was not permitted, though this rule was often honoured in the breach. Struan was lucky to have sometimes been designated official or semi-official photographer for the units he served with. He supplied photographs to other soldiers, collecting as many as 528 prints a time from labs in Cairo. Being an artillery soldier with a truck, he was more able to carry photographic equipment in the field than many soldiers, particularly those in the infantry.
    Though he frequently set out to take ‘good’ photographs, often there was only time for quick grab-shots, of varying quality. He periodically posted photographs home, and by using the camera’s self-timing shutter release or getting someone else to use his camera, he included himself in many shots to show he was still ‘OK’. He captioned every print, and his captions have been retained, ‘Wogs’ and all! (The term was universally used by Kiwi troops, not usually in a derogatory sense.)
    Not all the photographs survived. Some were burned in action, while the army censor intercepted others (including, curiously, photographs of Maadi Camp life taken after the North African war had ended). Sometimes, as when he was in action at Alamein, photography was not possible at all.
    During a long spell at Maadi Camp before moving to Italy, Struan was an active committee member of the Maadi Camera Club, which met in Lowry Hut on Tuesday evenings. Members had technical sessions and lectures, watched cine films, went on photographic outings and produced enlargements for an exhibition. (In 1946, when Maadi Camp was finally closed down, surplus funds from the camera club were repatriated and invested in the Maadi Cup, a challenge cup still competed for by New Zealand photographic societies.)
    The 168 photographs in the Struan’s War book were selected from over 300 contact prints preserved in family albums and scanned on a Hewlett Packard Scanjet 4C. The quality of these small prints varied and some needed considerable digital editing in Photoshop to remove the effects of time, handling and rough processing in wartime photo labs. Some photos, such as those of the outskirts of Tobruk, could not be fully redeemed but were included in the book because they still have a powerful story to tell.

RETURNING TO NEW ZEALAND
After his return from England in December 1945, Struan MacGibbon resumed his career with the Bank of New Zealand, in Wellington. He transferred to BNZ Alexandra in 1950 and retired from that branch in 1970.
    He married Mavis Delich in 1951, and they had two children, Shona and Leith. The trusty Welta camera stayed in its case for several years while the children were young, but the photography interest was eventually rekindled. Struan became a founding member of the Alexandra Photographic Society, which often met at his house in Royal Terrace, where there was a darkroom. His photographs of Central Otago scenery were exhibited and appeared in newspapers and calendars.
    The Welta camera went into retirement in the 1960s when Struan moved to 35mm colour slide photography with a Canon FTB. In 1976 he bought his final camera, a Canon EF. The Welta is no longer in the family — it was lost in a house burglary.
    Struan MacGibbon was an active (and life) member of the Alexandra-Clyde branch of the New Zealand Returned Services Association. He died in 1991, aged 81 years.

 

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