Reviews, News and Commentary

Revisiting Robin Morrison’s “The South Island of New Zealand”

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The South Island of New Zealand From the Road

By Robin Morrison

Massey University Press

RRP $75

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples.

Many years ago a group of friends including Robin Morrison spent a long weekend Up North in a large old rambling house  sitting around talking eating and drinking. The house and the views were amazing and we all had cameras but no one was taking pictures. We all waited for Robin, as though we didn’t really know what to photograph or how to do it. Somehow, we thought Robin had a special talent which we just didn’t have in taking photograph.

Its that talent and way of seeing which is evident in his newly republished “The South Island of New Zealand  From the Road”. His images of places, people and objects has an enigmatic or unexpected individuality to them,  as though he has seen something about the image which makes it meaningful, transcending the everyday.

The book, published by Alister Taylor in 1981  was the result of Robin Morrison and his family spending  seven months travelling in the South Island in 1979 and was one of the best-selling photographic books at the time..

With this new edition Morrison’s original Kodachrome slides have been digitised using the latest technology, and his friend and fellow journalist Louise Callan has written a major essay on the book and its legacy, including assessments and recollections by a range of artists, writers and photographers – Robin White, Laurence Aberhart, Grahame Sydney, Owen Marshall and Dick Frizzell,.

Callan says of the book that “Without exception fellow photographers as well as artists, writers and publishers recalled a book that was exceptional and ground-breaking in the New Zealand book landscape: an amazingly beautiful production, a totally new format in terms of the book’s dimensions, printing of exceptional quality, a layout which put images before text, and then in the subjects, a particular way of looking at provincial South Island. It created a style that would influence a following generation of professional and amateur photographers.”

“It captured a very New Zealand way of living in and on the land that was once typical and so familiar to be unremarkable and so almost invisible. When Robin photographed it, that built landscape was already beginning to disappear. It’s a pictorial record of the provincial South at a defined time in our history.”

As with all his photographs Morrison took an almost idiosyncratic approach to his subjects. While the collection of photographs are of the South Island from the road, this is not the main road but rather a collection of side road, dead ends and tracks which he has followed.

The South has some remarkable examples of nineteenth and twentieth century architecture but apart from the two impressive classical bank buildings in Oamura the buildings he has immortalised are the quaint, the unusual and the temporary.

Pink Caravan, Harwood

There are no mansions in his world and he seemed to particularly like houses with exotic (for the South Island) paint jobs and quirky designs such as the Pink House with its colour coordinated house and caravan as well as the “Yellow House”. Similar notions are seen in the matching green car and Naseby Hotel.

There are in fact a lot of hotels and a lot of caravans in Morrison’s world, highlighting the impact of the pub and the caravan on the Sothern psyche

He also delights in the attempts at imposing civilization on the raw land. There are several images where the facade  is important such as the  marvellous classical one  fronting the “Masonic Lodge at Rakaia” and there is the Tudor styled facade of the cinema in Geraldine. In contrast there are the many buildings which appears to have been randomly dumped on the land – strangers to the landscape.

While the buildings he has portrayed appear to be temporary in contrast the land has a permanence. There are  slumbering hills of “The Road to Mahinerangi” and the drama of the lake and telegraph poles of “Lake  Mahinerangi”.

Lake  Mahinerangi

Some of his landscapes are like abstract paintings with the elements of the land reduced to simple forms and colours as with “Cloud at Pakawau, Golden Bay” and “Earthworks for hydro development, Lake Pukaki”.

There it a wry wit and curious aesthetic to many of his photographs such as the colour coordinated buildings. Then there is the  “Blue Sheep Kaitangata” where some magical event has occurred with the paint from the blue car seemingly transferred to a dyed sheep. There is also the witty pairing of two Christchurch views. On one page the Edmonds building with its Sure To Rise sign and on the facing page a tower bearing the words “Jesus”

In some of the photographs there is a sense of  narrative linking the land and the people such as  “Birdlings Flat, Burning rubbish” where a distant man stands like a mythological figure working in the ruined and crumbling landscape.

His portraits also have a disconcerting edge and eccentricity to them, possibly because the subjects are eccentric, in the nicest possible way.

Fred Flutey in his paua shell living room

So, there is Fred Flutey in his Paua Shell House and there  are several photographs of   couples in front of their houses in his variation on Grant Wood’s painting, “American Gothic.

This is a brilliantly produced book offering a very different South Island to the one normally presented in books  and tourist calendars.  While there is some  stunning scenery and picturesque landscapes it is mainly an alternative view but one which is an equally familiar South Island

The Auckland Museum will be mounting the exhibition “Road Trip” which will feature many of Morrison’s photographs from the book. The exhibition opens on March 3rd.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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