But where are the people? Tom Brooking

Have you ever wondered why there are so many picture books of beautiful New Zealand cluttering the shelves of our bookshops? Obviously publishers think there is a market for them both amongst tourists and locals — but probably the proliferation of such books tells us quite a lot about ourselves.

As I am currently engaged in writing a book about the changing New Zealand landscape, New Zealand Books asked me to don my detective’s cap and try and find the answer as to why there are quite so many books, long on pictures and short on words. My other brief is to make a few guesses as to what these 18 books suggest about this place and the people who inhabit it.

1 The books

The most obvious thing is the exceptionally high standard of photography, which is usually matched by high quality production. We can take pride in our ability to produce handsome books as well as skilful rugby teams, tasty food and fine wines.

The other universal feature is the absence of rain and cloud in the pictures which adorn these books. Perhaps living in Dunedin has darkened my perspective but even in my youth growing up in Auckland I seem to remember lots of rainy days and extraordinary kaleidoscopes of clouds. The relentless blue skies of most of these books distorts the reality of living in a fickle, sometimes capricious, but usually interesting maritime climate; compared with say southern California we have weather rather than climate. Similarly there are few references to troubles and problems in paradise; the ugly is kept well away from view.

Stephen Barnett’s Magnificent New Zealand: A Journey Through the Country in Words and Pictures is the smallest and cheapest of the group. This is what the Americans call a “portable” book of postcard-size pictures depicting the range of scenery from sandy beach to snow-clad mountains. It is a kind of brag book with which tourists returning home or young Kiwis setting out on their OE could bore vaguely curious onlookers. There are few words but the introduction quotes John Mulgan to the effect that this is a “good country” but also “hard and sinewy” and liable to “outlast many of those who try to alter it”. This is about the only feature of the book liable to stimulate thought and, as wine writers would say, it represents reasonable value given the price but is rather too predictable.

John King’s On the Road: A Journey Down State Highway 1 follows a good idea but even though the strong photos do show an occasional cloud the text doesn’t quite match the pictures. King is a solid journalist but not enough happened to make for a convincing travel narrative. Overall this book can’t touch that marvellous classic, Diane and Jeremy Pope’s Mobil Guide for charm, fascinating anecdote, value and usefulness. Also written by King, Wings Over New Zealand: A Pictorial Guide of New Zealand Aviation contains some stunning aerial shots but is definitely for the enthusiast.

One would expect Aotearoa New Zealand Faces of the Land, with photos by Holger Leue and text by Witi Ihimaera, to be a more satisfying production, but it disappoints. The colour photos are strong and evocative and there is a convincing Maori presence but even as a fine a writer as Ihimaera, whose Bullybasha is my favourite New Zealand novel, can do little with such sparse text. These photos deserved longer captions and fuller exploration.

Ralph Talmont’s New Zealand the Ultimate Experience and New Zealand The Adventure Playground From Abseiling to Zorbing feature some stunning photographs but are largely printed versions of television-style holiday programmes. They promote a land of hedonism and instant thrills and are directed at the under-30s or trendy grandparents with a head for heights and a love of speed.

John McDermott’s Auckland: Our City and David Kerr’s and Kirsten Warner’s Islands of the Gulf present themselves as photo essays. McDermott’s book is liable to cause an uprising in the deep south because Colin Hogg’s introduction borders on the kind of racism which Scottish Highlanders complain emanates from London. Invercargill and Southlanders simply aren’t that bad, just as the Highlands are nowhere near as boring as swinging visitors from the metropolis claim. The fact that Hogg hails from Invercargill is no excuse. McDermott’s lively and sometimes quirky photos counter this unnecessarily false start but fail to convince that Auckland really is a more interesting city than Sydney, Melbourne or a host of other concentrations of swarming humanity. I preferred Kerr’s and Warner’s book despite their lifting the title of Shirley Maddock’s earlier book, because the Gulf is magic place. The photos have a relaxed charm and evoked warm childhood memories. This mix of islands and sea and the sight of people fooling around in boats with all the enthusiasm of Ratty in Wind in the Willows is what makes Auckland special, not the Sky Tower, hopeless traffic jams and dead downtown area.

Mark Pickering’s Wild Walks Sixty Short North Island Walks, Brian Parkinson’s Impressions of New Zealand, Nic Bishop’s New Zealand Wild: The Greenest Place on Earth, Rod Morris’s and Peter Hayden’s Wild South’s Living Treasures of New Zealand and Kennedy Warne’s New Zealand Geographic constitute a handsome quintet of nature books. All feature evocative and technically perfect photos and Bishop’s animal pictures take your breath away. Yet none satisfy as books and the higher priced ones represent poor value for New Zealand families even if they do appeal to tourists. New Zealand Geographic has been a most successful magazine but lumping articles into book form does not work especially well. Dunedin’s “Wild South” television programmes deserve their exalted status as national taonga but this transposition does not make for a really satisfying book. Similarly, Bishop fails to complement his stunning images with exciting text and he never bothers to question why New Zealand is quite so green. Pickering’s guide book is more obviously useful for lovers of the great outdoors as well as lazier types of walker. Parkinson’s more modest photo essay is the most satisfying of this set because his text does complement the photos, even if he overdoes the “maritime nation” theme. One of the most fascinating features of our history is the fact that the great majority of both Polynesian and British settlers turned their backs on our dangerous sea and concentrated on gardening and farming rather than fishing.

Phillip Holden’s Station Country Returning to the New Zealand Back Country is a more orthodox combination of travelogue and history book. It builds on an earlier volume and once again features strong photographs and a tough sinewy prose which evokes a strong sense of place. I enjoyed this informative and lively volume but a little more questioning about the reasons for and consequences of farming such marginal country in this traditional manner would have made for an even livelier book.

Ted Reynolds’s My Side of the River Tales From A Marlborough Vineyard and Gary McCormick’s and Sam Hunt’s Roaring Forties are more self-consciously literary efforts and held more appeal to this mainstream reader as a result. Reynolds is tough, crusty old journalist who got seduced by the romance of wine making only to discover it was bloody hard work. He tells the tale of this disjunction between dream and reality with wit but, probably because Marlborough is so new in wine terms, the book lacks the charm of Peter Mayall’s A Year in Provence. Gary’s and Sam’s book, complemented by John McDermott’s compelling black and white photos, is even more fun. It contains some good poems by the two popular troubadours as well as by James K Baxter and Dylan Thomas and reveals lots of fascinating autobiographical titbits. Both have also been engaged in a lifelong love affair with the landscape and its constantly shifting moods. An ideal Christmas present for just about anyone from 10 to 100.

2 What do they tell us about ourselves? 

Quite a lot. One somewhat disconcerting feature is that it seems we are determined to overdo the visual and are just as obsessed with outward appearance as our supposedly more puritanical ancestors of the interwar years. Apart from the poets, these books disavow a love of language and seem almost frightened of words and word power. Where is that great passion of the Irish for language? (After all they made up 18% of nineteenth century immigrants and New Zealand’s white settlers were the most literate anywhere). Something is going wrong in our English teaching at school (as it probably has for a very long time) with kids being turned off literature and reading in droves despite the efforts of our wonderful children’s authors. Somehow we have to switch off the television and lure our next generation away from eye busting computer screens and CD-roms and lead them back to the delights of good books.

Why is that most of these books have been written by men, or women journalists sharing their male gaze? Do women really view land in the same way as men? These books will not help in unravelling how gender impacts on our relationship with and understanding of the land.

Although several books allude to Maori ways of viewing none searches very deep to really discover if this gaze is as different from that of the pakeha as some radicals claim.

It seems that many of these authors also do not like the human species very much. Instead their photographs show a land of plants, animals, mountains, lakes and sea, largely free of people. We appear to like our large, empty spaces. This reminds me of my mother’s response to pictures I once took of the South Island when I fancied myself as a physical geographer: “But where are the people?”

These books also suggest that we still like to view our country as problem free, light, and clean. Difficult, awkward, ugly or contradictory elements are simply ignored. Noone here has taken up the challenge of Lee Tamahori at the start of Once Were Warriors and juxtaposed the beauties of mountain scenery on a billboard with the squalor of parts of south Auckland. Noone has photographed with the honesty and perception of Robin Morrison. Clearly the myth of “God’s own country” is alive and well.

3 What do they tell us about our 

relationship with this land?

I’m fooling around with the title Arcadia Lost for my next book on the changing New Zealand landscape. The idea is that first Maori, and then pakeha settlers, imagined an unspoilt paradise, only to discover that it needed modifying to sustain human life. Yet it seems that the idea of unspoilt pristine beauty and potential bountifulness survives to the present despite the massive modifications wrought by both Polynesian and British settlers. Few of these books pay heed to the attempt of the British to remake New Zealand as a kind of improved version of Britain (what Miles Fairburn calls the pursuit of “utopia” — a place heavily regulated and controlled to squeeze maximum productivity out of the land for the benefit of the citizenry, rather than an untouched land in which nature provides sufficient for all).

These authors seem to have forgotten that Maori burnt about a third of the rain forest and subsequent bush clearing has removed the equivalent of half of the original. The rich, well-stocked, green pastures which counterpoint so much of the raw beauty of mountain, lake and sea conceals extraordinary human effort, massive destruction of verdant rain forest and hefty application of all kinds of chemicals which pollute the waterways while creating an artificial greenness. Even the tussock land of the South Island high country has been changed by human firing on top of changes induced by natural fires, geological processes and the ravages of rabbits. Only Holden’s book catches much sense of this remaking and transformation.

These books suggest that we largely like the results which appear pastoral and tranquil. Our land lies apparently serene, orderly and still like that of nineteenth-century Britain with little hint of the tempestuous history and ongoing conflict which make it look that way. Read George Eliot and Thomas Hardy and that peaceful pastorale explodes into life with an ongoing rural war breaking through the silence. Similarly, land wars, confiscations, shady deals, heavy-handed government duplicity and careless abuse mix with heroic political fights and mighty efforts on the part of farming families as an overlay on our landscape which infuse it with meaning. Viewing landscape without a sense of history and mythology makes it as empty as it would seem after a nuclear holocaust. Perhaps the problem is an absence of castles and picturesque villages? Whatever few of these books actually discern these layers of human contribution revealed so brilliantly in Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory.

I suppose my task is made much easier by this propensity to treat our landscape as if it had always looked like this, or, at best, to suggest that the transformation has been largely for the best and relatively free of problems. Both tacks are misleading and it is up to me to show how much human effort has been involved in producing the landscape which so many of us, myself included, love so dearly. Little in these beautiful books even hints at the way in which international economic forces and the application of science sometimes altered landscapes with remarkable speed. What happened overseas impacted directly on our landscape despite distance and isolation. There is, therefore, a compelling need to provide some depth to a very two-dimensional picture by revealing what is underneath and behind the current look of the country. In doing this I must try to avoid the whiggish faith in the capacity of science to solve problems which mars Kenneth Cumberland’s otherwise excellent Landmarks. One way of avoiding that trap is to think much harder about how we frame the land whether we paint, photograph, film or simply view it. As Schama points out “landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock”.

The challenge is to begin the task of filling in apparently empty spaces by burrowing around in our rich written and photographic archives with the same determination as rabbits are undermining Central Otago and the Mackenzie country. We must never forget that more of “New Zealand’s” history has been caught on camera than that of any other country. So watch out for some fresh images gleaned from the remarkably rich collections hidden away in our excellent, but seriously underutilised, local museums. These photographs will emphasis that the “beautiful” and not so beautiful New Zealand has been forged by a complex and relentless interaction of nature and human endeavour. Comparison with other forms of visual representation, especially painting, woodcuts, posters, magazine covers and movies, will widen the angle of viewing.

Tracing through these changes across a range of media in a good old fashioned chronological manner should also turn freeze-frames into a moving picture. Like every other landscape, ours did not just happen; it has been manufactured by the combined efforts of around 1000 years of human settlement. Add in this dimension and an attractive but rather static, dull and unchallenging geography lesson will come alive and force us to rethink some of our comfortable notions about green and beautiful New Zealand.


Tom Brooking is senior lecturer in history at Otago University. His Lands for the People? The Highland Clearances and the Colonisation of New Zealand. A Biography of John McKenzie was reviewed in New Zealand Books March 1997. He is writing a book on the changing New Zealand landscape. 

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