“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
From time to time, in the circular, spiral journey which is Life, people will ask me where home is for me. I often think that what they are doing is asking themselves, via querying me, where their home is.
For a long time, I wondered that for myself. In my long miles on the road, I would pass through a town, and wonder whether that would be my settling place. Please, God, I would sometimes say, not here. Not Kingston, or Taihape, or Waikouaiti. Funnily enough, my Not-Heres were often towns nestled in valleys, with limited horizons, and an interrupted arc of the sun. And, from time to time, when I met people from or living in those places, they would be offended by my disdain.
Some people seem to like the comfort and reassurance of the mountains around them. Some of us, however, need vast spaces around us. We need to live on mountaintops, or by the ocean, where we can look out to the horizon and observe the rim of the world. Once, when in South Africa, my friends asked me what I would like to see. Actually, I replied, I would like to find a place where I can turn through 360 degrees and see only pure, uninterrupted horizon. You see, that is impossible in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. I finally achieved that dream. One day, in Namibia, just south of Mariental, We pulled over, and I got out. I stood in the middle of the road, straddling the white line, and slowly turned through a full circle. There were no trees, no mountains to break the horizon, no nothing. There was Nothing at all. And Everything. It was wonderful. Just a simple line, dividing sky and land. The world as composition.
That is the thing about being a photographer. After a time, sometimes a very long time, you begin to see everything in terms of a photograph. You begin to see like a camera. You begin to be a camera. And, of course, your images start to take on a new significance. Suddenly they have personal significance. They are more than fragments of expression, more than marker posts of your life journey or a means to fame and glory and Instagram Influencer status. Your pictures are companions, wise counsels advising you and sometimes cautioning you. They are both mirrors and windows, allowing you to see into another expression of the reality that you are creating while reflecting back the truth of the unique being that is you.
When that happens, you really don’t give a damn about what others make of your work, because you are finally cracking open the carapace of your own authentic expression. You are making work that only you can create, and now the journey is really beginning.
I wonder more and more if the reason so many of us get into photography is that we are subconsciously aware that it has the potential to explain WHAT.THE. HELL. IT. IS. ALL. ABOUT.
Perhaps the answer to our own journey to authenticity lies in sitting quietly with our own work and allowing it to tell us what it will, rather than looking for external validation by winning awards or becoming a photo guru, or paying a fortune to enter one of those competitions keeping the Serbian economy afloat.
Grahame Sydney, One of New Zealand’s iconic photorealist painters, once said, at a workshop which I was holding:
You know, every day when I go into the studio, I have to face myself.”
I do believe that all of us are doing just that when we look at our own works. Whether we are willing or able to read the tea leaves of our own work is another matter.
Which brings me to this work. Back to the beginning. Again.
As some of you know, for some years, I have been working for Ngaī Tahu, the South Island iwi, working on Kā Huru Manu, their cultural mapping project. My task has been to photograph their land bit by bit, increasingly from the air, and to create images which tell their story. Of course, being born and bred on the same whenua (land), I have been telling my own story. To myself.
This afternoon, we flew across to from Te Anau to Lake Wakatipu to photograph Takerehaka/Kingston, once a vital kāinga or settlement ( you can view it on the atlas). I also wanted to hop over the Hector Mountains (Remarkables) and make some images of the Nevis Valley (see image at right), an essential part of the Nōti Raureka (Greenstone Trails).
We drifted onto station at 7 000 ft ( helicopter pilots measure forward distance in kilometres, vertical in feet), and I slid the door open.
It didn’t take long to make the images needed. Then it happened. I looked up.
Away in the distance, along the rim of the world, I saw the familiar and abrupt upthrust of the Hawkdun Range, a tsunami of stone rising above the fog, seeming to flow towards me. Something wrenched at my heart. A pang of homesickness and belonging. I shot and shot again. Then the feeling passed. I slid the door shut, locked it, and we curled up, away and back towards Whakatipu Waimāori (Lake Wakatipu.) Something had occurred. Some recognition had happened. I wouldn’t be able to unravel it until I was in front of my computer.
I processed the RAW file and then opened it in PhotoShop. The next hour or two was an arm wrestle. This rarely happens unless I am trying to impose my will/ego on a work. I tried different approaches. However, each one was a dead end. I went out for a coffee. This sometimes happens. I have learned that the best thing to do at times like this is to disengage, walk away, and come back with no intentions.
This time things began to flow. The tā moko of history, the cycle and swirl of human journeys imposed itself on the warp and weft of the foreground, and the fog in the mid-ground started to float. So far, so good. The problem, however, lay with the background and the mountains. Should the Hawkduns be sharp or soft? I thought back to seeing them from the helicopter. The hills had raced across like a summoning wave towards me. It was they who were the subject, not the foreground. But why?
Somehow I had a sense of circling back to a/the beginning. The Hawkduns hung there in the distance at the time and place of my birth. They watched me grow. They were there when I returned to live in the Maniototo a half-century later. They were there when I returned the third time. And they were still there. My life journey was connecting me back to my current temporal beginning.
However, beneath my feet were other tupuna, memories of whakapapa veiled by the mists of the past, of Waitaha and Hāwea ancestors who had walked the ancient trail leading through the Nevis. Ko Hāwea te iwi. Ko Rapuwai te iwi. Ko Ngāti Wikitoria te iwi.
I had to make a choice. Beginner photographers try to get everything in focus from front to back, using f22 and/or focus stacking. While that might work for photographs of fungi on the forest floor, where you are up against the laws of optics, doing so with the grand landscape is both unreal and confusing. We have a natural aperture of f3.5, so if we look away in the distance, the foreground will be blurred; if we focus our attention on the near, the reverse happens. Where do we want our viewer to look?
I softened the foreground and sharpened the Hawkduns, for that was where the heart of this narrative lay.
Whenever I drive, I seem to see a lot of kahu (hawks). They will drift in over the road and slide above me, then peel away. At other times they will stay their ground, their claws locked into the roadkill, and glare stonily, while I slow down and edge around them. Some days there are dozens. On days when I am driving and see many of them, I take that as a tohu (sign). They are, after all, one of my kaitiaki.
I think I know now why I need to be able to see far and why villages in valleys will never work for me.