Catching it on the run, Don Aimer

Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Township
David Cook
Craig Potton Publishing and Ramp Press, $49.99,
ISBN 1877333522

Once upon a time, under the fluffy Waikato clouds out west of the unlovely Huntly, was a place called Rotowaro (Roto = lake, waro = coal ). It was a village of happy people. Each day the men went to work down in the coal mine. They were mining underneath the village, and when there was a thump, Tom’s wife knew he had detonated a charge. The night cart man emptied their privies each night. Then, one day in 1979, the manager of the mine left a pile of notices on the Post Office counter. They said there were more than three million tonnes of coal beneath the village “and it is State Coal Mines intention to mine it” by stripping off the earth. The families would be progressively rehoused in the unlovely Huntly. The letter did not need to say “so stuff you” because the meaning was clear anyway.

This was not a good start and there was some distress at being uprooted, but in the end miners and officialdom reached an accommodation, and by 1987 all the families were rehoused.

Lake of Coal is one of the outcomes of an activist decision by the Waikato Museum of Art and History to record selected events of social history as they happened. David Cook worked under the museum photographer to produce “a visual ethnography of the place from the beginning of the upheaval to when Rotowaro as a town ceased to exist.” The museum holds 8000 images taken during the process. Some of those included in the book first appeared in 1985 in an interim publication on the events, and there has been a more recent museum exhibition.

American photographer Diane Arbus insisted that “a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely is visible because it is seen.”  This sums up Lake of Coal. Who had heard of the place, much less known that a settlement of 375 people had been bulldozed? David Cook has seen it and made it visible to us. A key issue is deciding what, precisely, David Cook has made visible. The book jacket says it is “a multi-layered work of social history that tells the story of Rotowaro from the point of view of the tangata whenua, the workers, their families, management and the photographer himself.”

In fact, I don’t think the book does that. I think it does two things. First, it is a kaleidoscopic glimpse of people and bits of their lives, the sparse interiors, the coal ranges. This is ethnological data of a passing sort, but – and perhaps this is inherent in a documentary visual study – it is allusive rather than precise or in depth. It invokes a scrapbook, with old photos taken by families, and children’s drawings on the theme of the removal. As to the demolition of the township, there are genuinely startling images, showing houses, fences, people, while shots of the same scenes two years later expose empty fields, all trace of occupation deleted.

Secondly, the book treats the events as a façade or backdrop for a themed book of documentary photographic art. Among the high points are some fine portraits. Marti Friedlander and Ans Westra are perhaps our supreme exponents of photography of people on the street. They win a rapport between photographer and subjects who gaze back at us with a strong presence. David Cook was on a mission which probably made him part of the furniture, and several of his portraits have a similar quality. As people inside their homes stared back at my voyeuristic peering, I wanted to say “excuse my intruding, my name is ….”

There are also brilliant photographs in the industrial wreckage genre. The Carbonisation Factory stands, a stark complex of brick and corrugated iron, partly submerged in a green pond, an inexplicable construct in a smiling landscape. A shot inside shows an anarchic mix of girders and pulley wheels, like an etching by the 18th century Italian Piranesi in his nightmarish evocations of huge lofted prisons. It makes the constructions of et al look like Lego. The finale of the book is a veritable fireworks display with six colour spreads of the open cast mine at night, a blazing chiaroscuro of dark and light, a celebration of the glorious triumph of advanced technology over the old.

The book mimics a documentary movie made with a hand-held camera. The design conveys an air of the technical and of measurement, of the actual, the industrial. Maps add atmosphere rather than information. Many images have no margin. Others have the edge of the film included – features which emphasise a divorce from what Gregory O’Brien has called “the manicured conventions of the studio”. It says “here is what it is like – we have caught it on the run”.

When we seek the “multi-layered social history” promised by the jacket, we do not find it. It is true that the author does specifically link some of the portraits to interviews with the subjects, the technique perfected in New Zealand by Glenn Busch in his Working Men and perhaps passed on to David Cook whom he tutored at Canterbury University. One image in Lake of Coal is pure Busch. In “The Rupaperes on night cart duty”, two workers gaze at us with diffident embarrassment, in overalls, with elbow-length rubber gloves, standing outside a privy and each with one hand holding a container on a shoulder.

Paradoxically, however, the interviews are subverted and reduced to ghostly murmurs, a sort of sotto voce accompaniment to the images. This is achieved by the design and typeface, eight point sans serif, not much bigger than the fine print of insurance policies. Authors who actually want people to read their damned text use a serif typeface because the eye gets lost in sans serif. But that is not all – the responses of the participants are in white print on a grey background and the eye, mine at any rate, is reduced to dipping in and out, gaining a sense of the voices as a counterpoint to the imagery.

The book is, therefore, largely the product of its images. If we wish to put it in context, we must look elsewhere. Transitory towns such as hydro construction villages are embedded in our history. Demolishing a township was probably more benign as a managed event than the parallel depopulation of small settlements that followed the concentration of dairy factories into giant plants like oil refineries, and by similar trends with banks, schools and health services. With strip mining being adopted worldwide, Rotowaro was a part of the broad move to technological updating.

This does not diminish the human impact of the changes imposed, but what we see is a panoply of people who seem busy and cheerful and who carry on, as we all do when our lives change in one way or another. The book affirms our common humanity through the mundane and daily round, while some photographs are assuredly destined for immortality.  Nevertheless, I began to find it like looking politely through someone’s photo album and hoping the cake would be nice. As an art object, it is handsome, cleverly presented with a fast pace, a piece of visual spin which succeeds in making it more seductive than the sum of its parts. In the end, I concluded that it would have been enhanced by an editorial policy of “less is more”.


Don Aimer is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 



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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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