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Joseph Divis was born in 1885 in the town of Orlik, now
in the Czech Republic. We know little of his early life,
but he had worked as a miner, and had also gained some
experience as a photographer.
Aged 24, he arrived in New Zealand in 1909, and travelled
to Blackball, where he started work in the Blackball Mine. He
must have brought a camera with him because he started taking
photographs which he turned into postcards, then popular
because they were cheaper to post than letters.
A distinctive feature of the photographs that Divis took is
that he often appears in them — some of the earliest ‘selfies’,
a century before they became popular. He used a mechanical
shutter release, and to the amazement of local children, he
would dart out from behind the camera to provide a human
scale or join a group.
One of his earliest postcards shows him at the settlement
of Soldiers Creek (also known as Braeton) in the hills above
Blackball, where there was a single-men’s camp for the nearby
By 1912 Divis had moved to Waiuta where he started work
in the deep, underground Blackwater Mine where he was to
work intermittently for almost 30 years.
Divis was always at hand to take photographs of children
and family events such as weddings. Many of the photo albums
of Waiuta families included photos he took.
Working as a goldminer, with modest tastes and no family
responsibilities, allowed Divis to save money. Between 1926 and
1929 he undertook an extensive overseas trip, visiting China,
Japan, the United States and several countries in Europe as well
as visiting his family in the old Czeckoslovakia.
He returned to Waiuta in 1930, again working as a miner
in the Blackwater Mine. This marked a new stage in his
photographic career as he was regularly selling photographs to
the Auckland Weekly News, and was always on the lookout for
newsworthy items to photograph.
After 25 years in New Zealand, Divis decided to apply
for naturalisation. In his application he stated, with some
satisfaction, “I own my own house at Waiuta, it is a four-roomed
wooden cottage. I am a shareholder in a goldmining enterprise
on the West Coast and I am in comfortable circumstances
A rockfall in the Blackwater Mine in 1939 brought a sad
end to his career, both as a miner and as a photographer. He
lived on at Waiuta for many years, and after the mine closed in
1951 he was one of the few remaining inhabitants. His cottage
is still standing.
In 1965 he became unable to look after himself, and moved
to Ziman House, in Reefton. He was moved to the Greymouth
Hospital in early October 1967 and died a few days later. He is
buried in the Reefton Cemetery.
Joseph Divis photographed life in mining towns on the West Coast
where he lived and worked, especially the now-abandoned town
of Waiuta. It is just 50 years since he died on October 10, 1967 at
Greymouth Hospital. This article by Wellington geologist and author
SIMON NATHAN is a memorial of his remarkable skills, as much
of our knowledge of past mining communities comes from Divis’s
A group at the single-men’s camp at Soldiers Creek near Blackball about 1910
— Jack Molloy, left, Jack Wilson, Jimmy Watt and Joseph Divis (with bicycle).
A group of miners waiting to go underground at the Blackwater Mine, Waiuta,
about 1912–13. Joseph Divis is on the left (marked with a cross).
Self-portrait of Joseph Divis ready to start goldpanning in a Reefton creek
McKane’s donkey, Toddles, was a favourite with children. In this photo it is
carrying Cliff McDonnell, front, Jack McDonnell and Joe Cooper.
Like most visitors to Los Angeles, Divis visited Hollywood. There was no
Disneyland in 1926, but Hollywoodland was one of its predecessors.
Bill Houghton and Joseph Divis deep in the Blackwater Mine, about 1931.
Divis is holding a Waugh hammer drill used for drilling holes in the white quartz
A recent book by Simon Nathan, Through the Eyes
of a Miner: the photography of Joseph Divis, includes a
selection of his photographs. Some of his photographs
are on display at Waiuta, providing a reminder of what
the ghost town was like in the 1930s.
Display boards and signposts around Waiuta
indicate many of the features of the ghost town.
Some of the display boards feature images taken
by Divis from the same viewpoints, showing
Waiuta in the 1930s as a busy mining town.
Jos Divis, right, and unnamed companion overlooking the Blackwater
Mine poppet head and surrounding mine buildings in 1931. Tailings from
the mine had been flattened out to form a bowling green.
Waiuta celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1931 — an important milestone that suggested that the town had a future as well
as a past. Children dressed in their best clothes wait for the grand parade to start outside the hotel.
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landed his plane Southern Cross in Prendergast’s paddock, at Ikamatua, on March 14, 1934,
and Divis was there to capture the event. The group from Waiuta, dressed in their Sunday best, are Avis Ramsden, left, Mrs
Anderson, Mrs Rose, Tina Beckwith, Syd Ramsden and Mrs Bowie.
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