Eileen Olive Leach was born in Croydon, Surrey, England, on 16 June 1909, the daughter of Mary Olivia Rumball and her husband, commercial clerk Alfred Leach. Alfred lost his money when the bank he worked in collapsed when Eileen was five. Eileen did not get on well with her father and left home before she was 20 with the aim of becoming a photographer. Her first job was with Cartier’s in London, photographing jewellery. It may have been at this time that she adopted the professional name Deste. Known to her friends as ‘Dusty Deste’, she lived in digs in Bloomsbury.
About 1930 she left for New Zealand and lived briefly in Dunedin; there she ran a photography business. By 1933 she had settled in Wellington and established a studio on Lambton Quay, specialising in wedding and portrait photography. Between 1934 and 1940 her studio was in Willis Street, and from 1941 it was once again on Lambton Quay. She lived in a flat in Clifton Terrace and mixed socially with a group of university students who had artistic and literary aspirations and espoused left-wing political ideals. Deste, whose speech, mannerisms and style of dress seemed exotic in pre-war Wellington, was welcomed by this circle of would-be bohemians and radicals, who sometimes used her studio for meetings.
In February 1938 tenders were invited for the position of official photographer to the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition to be held in Wellington in 1939 and 1940. Deste’s submission included a testimonial from John A. Lee, under-secretary for housing in the Labour government, relating to her photography for a housing exhibition in the Kirkcaldie and Stains gallery in 1937. She won the contract, which gave her the sole right to photograph exhibits or any other object in the exhibition buildings or grounds. A percentage of the gross takings from the sale of the photographs was to go to the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company. She was to document all aspects of the exhibition, from construction to its closing on 4 May 1940. She flew above the site in a small plane to take aerial shots, an experience she later remembered as terrifying but exciting.
Deste had an agreement with Coulls Somerville Wilkie Limited to supply photographs for publications and general souvenir material, and her photographs illustrate its Pictorial souvenir of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, 1939–1940. She also had a stall in the General Exhibits Building, where visitors could buy photographs and postcards in black and white and colour. However, much of the photography at the exhibition was not carried out by her but by an employee, Neville d’Eresby (Des) Aickin, while she did the processing and printing at her studio. There was considerable dissatisfaction with the quality and style of the photographs she supplied, and the exhibition company agreed to allow other photographers to work on specific projects. Deste complained and requested compensation, but was unsuccessful.
In 1943 she returned to England, and towards the end of the Second World War established a studio in London. There she maintained friendships with expatriate New Zealanders, such as Dan Davin. Her photographs of Davin appeared on the dust jackets of his books and she was the basis for a character in his novel The sullen bell. Much of her work was portraiture, although she also photographed art works for London galleries.
In 1948 a book of Deste’s photographs was published, London day: a glance at a city , with text by Stuart Smith. In addition to portrait photography, she specialised in photographing art works for a number of London galleries. The National Trust for Places of Historical Interest or National Beauty commissioned her to photograph the contents of many of its houses. Her photographs of industrial chimneys were published in the Observer. Other documentary projects included prison doors – before they were replaced by electronic doors – and Staffordshire pottery kilns. She also made three overseas trips to take photographs: first to the United States, then to India, where she photographed Indira Gandhi, and then across the Sahara, from Algeria to Nigeria.
Eileen Deste gave up photography in about 1980 because of failing health. She died on 2 March 1986 in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London. She had never married and is remembered as an eccentric with many friends, and as never having large sums of money as she preferred to spend it or give it away. After her death the negatives of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition were sent to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.