When Ronald Woolf unexpectedly died in 1987, the lights of the city he had spent a celebrated career photographing, were shut off. What had begun as a routine morning’s aerial photography work turned to tragedy after the helicopter he and two others—pilot Peter Button and developer Dion Savage—were travelling in clipped the lower cable of a high-tension powerline. The fatal accident caused the city’s power to be cut; the lights eventually came back on, but Wellington’s sense of mourning went on much longer.
Woolf had been at the height of his career. Only the year before he and his Photography by Woolf team had taken the official New Zealand photographs of the Queen (and the Duke of Edinburgh), the image from which is still used on the New Zealand $20 note. In the same year, his company also accepted a commission to photograph Pope John Paul II. In Israel, he did a session with prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
The Wellington-born son of Anglo-Romanian parents, Woolf’s career received its first major lift when the family purchased a photography business in 1960. The venture thrived on the watch of him and his wife, Inge, with whom he had two children, Deborah and Simon. Among his earliest scoops: snapping a late-career Louis Armstrong at a post-concert bash at the Grand Hotel in Willis St.
Many of the negatives from those shoots are now held by Te Papa. The business remains active, and highly visible, in Wellington, too, having since recorded New Zealand’s 150th celebrations in 1990, working at Government House, and covering investitures and state visits.
During his eventful life Woolf was also known for his teaching skills, a reputation that was later preserved in the family decision to establish the Ronald Woolf Memorial Trust. The trust gives grants to young photographers, promotes selected exhibitions and helps clubs and organisations working in the area Ronald Woolf dedicated his working life to. He is survived by his wife and children.
Image header (above): Ronald Woolf photographer, 1929-1987, photograph by Ronald Woolf. Reproduced with permission.