Nga Tau ki Muri/Our Future
Suite Publishing, $40.00,
This is a book of photographs, deliberately uncaptioned and accompanied by very few words. A brief introduction by Ans Westra sets out her political intent. Her desire is to proselytise, not just record aspects of the New Zealand landscape but use images of it to change policies and attitudes. In a recent interview in the New Zealand Herald she stated that she was particularly “spurred on” by what our present government was doing and “how greed is messing with the land”. “Our children and our country,” she writes in her brief introduction to the book, “deserve better”.
Among the host of photographic books about beautiful New Zealand, this one presents Janus’s other face. Here is Westra’s catalogue of our environmental sins. There are clear themes in this collection: the impact of deforestation shown in eroded and scarred hillsides, the scorched earth preparation of the land for new subdivisions, our desire to stamp a graffiti imprint whether it is on the rocks of the foreshore or the bark of a tree, our need to own and exclude others from a piece of this land (signified by the signs For Sale, Sold or Trespassers will be Prosecuted), our propensity to scatter the detritus of our consumer lives about the landscape, and our belief in the onward march of technological progress even if its presence rudely impacts on nature.
The photographs powerfully remind us that we are all too often neither clean nor green. We also could be rightly condemned at times of gross environmental insensitivity. Whatever their political leanings and attitudes to environmental issues, most New Zealanders would recognise Westra’s image on p20 with dismay and wonder why the planners marched two rows of power pylons across the landscape between the traveller on State Highway 1 and the mountains of the Volcanic Plateau. Westra contrasts pre-colonial New Zealand, a largely undisturbed pristine environment with “a harmony grown in isolation”, with what she sees as the dystopian impact of colonisation where “the soil no longer holds together on the hills”. This is a view which occludes the not inconsiderable impact of the country’s first inhabitants but one that does reflect the post-colonialist critique that the colonisers not only subjugated and degraded the cultures they came to dominate but that they had the same effects on the colonial environments.
The written histories of New Zealand of the past 40 years generally seem to support that view. They portray the white settlers as viewing New Zealand as a place to be conquered and transformed. The Story of New Zealand (1985, Judith Bassett with Keith Sinclair and Marcia Stenson) states that the settlers “felt alien from the land, it was strange and forbidding to them”. They were afraid of the forest, called the “bush”, of “its thick undergrowth and the isolation of their settlements”. Keith Sinclair in his earlier A History of New Zealand (1959) writes that to “the British immigrant it was the sombre ‘bush’, its foliage as much brown or ochre as green”, and the settler farmers strove to recreate “the polished, man-made beauty of the English countryside”. They had no emotional ties to the land but saw it simply as potential wealth to be extracted and exploited.
Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) felt the native flora and fauna, like the indigenous population, was subject to “intense colonisation”. He quotes the poet-politician of the 1890s, William Pember Reeves:
We stand where none before have stood
And braving tempest, drought and flood,
Fight Nature for a home.
The language was of fighting nature and breaking in the land. A photographic history of New Zealand published in 1978 (Sinclair and Harrex) claims that a more accurate description would have been to speak of “breaking” the land, as everywhere the Europeans went they left huge scars. To the authors, scenes of desolation dominate the photographic record of the European settlement of New Zealand. Photographs of burnt over forest by photographers such as the peripatetic Alfred Burton or the Tyree brothers of Nelson show settlers’ cottages amidst scenes of devastation as they sought to burn the forests to create farmland. The focus on these images reflects perhaps the growing conservation movement in New Zealand in the 1970s, and they provide resources for a rather uncompromising post-colonialist account of the colonial impact on the environment.
Tim Bonyhady’s The Colonial Earth (2000) offers a different account of the views of Australasian settler writers and artists on the environment. Bonyhady argues that the reality of settlement was very different: “While many colonists were alienated by their new environment, others delighted in it.” There is also little evidence that the colonial photographer brought his camera as a “machine” to capture the alien landscape and assist the colonial project to tame, transform and conquer it. Ron Brownson suggests in John Kinder’s New Zealand (2004) that when the early New Zealand photographer John Kinder transported his camera into the local landscape, he sought to know and understand it. The shape of the land and the indigenous flora intrigued him. His plant studies, it is claimed, demonstrate his “delighted perception” of the beauty of native flora.
Photographs Kinder took around the Waitakere Ranges and the Manukau Harbour near Auckland in 1868 and 1869 show what remains of the indigenous forest after the valuable kauri trees had been hauled away, and the other forest trees burnt. Kinder’s response was the composition of a “before” and “after” image. The photograph is said to prefigure a subject matter common to New Zealand’s landscape art of the 1870s and 1880s, where the “before” and “after” are shown from a position of landscape conservation.
George Valentine was another photographer, like Kinder and Burton, drawn to the bush-clad Waitakere Ranges near Auckland. A member of one of Britain’s more prominent family photography businesses and recognised as one of the best photographers of early New Zealand, it was the qualities of the New Zealand forest that fascinated him. He inscribed some of his images with captions which express his view of the land. An example is the caption that accompanies a photograph of the Waitakere Falls: “18 miles from Auckland – a most delightful picnic reserve”.
And although William Pember Reeves writes of “fight[ing] Nature for a home”, he also mourns the destruction of native forest in “The Passing of the Forest”:
A bitter price to pay
Is this for progress – beauty swept away.
Landscape photography was to play a significant part as a medium that helped the New Zealand white settlers appreciate and preserve their environment. Just as the work of the Californian photographer Carleton Watkins helped to persuade the United States Congress to make Yosemite a state park in 1864, the photographs Alfred Burton and others took in Fiordland lent visual weight to the argument to preserve this area as a national parkland.
This book by Ans Westra is thus part of a tradition where some photographers seek through their images to change public perceptions about our environment or their images are used by others in this quest. Westra could also be viewed as traditional in her technique. The images are taken with the film camera she has used for many years, a twin lens Rolleiflex. Despite the temptations of digital enhancement of images, she maintains that she refuses to manipulate her photographs as her aim is to capture real life, real people.
Nga Tau ki Muri/Our Future prompts reflection as to what is the real Aotearoa/New Zealand. We are presented by photographers with a number of options. These include the images we like to project to the world of beautiful New Zealand, possibly tweaked to make that sunset just a little more luminous; the “land of the quirky” given to us by the idiosyncratic eye of Robin Morrison in books such as The South Island from the Road (1981); and the confrontational images presented in this book by Ans Westra which question what we have done and continue to do to “God’s own country”.
As Russel Norman states in an afterword in the book, early settlers may have tried to recreate the polished beauty of the English countryside but all too often our green grass hills “look like a mangy dog that’s lost its hair”, while remnant patches of native forest are glimpsed here and there “in the nooks and crannies of little gullies. Like pubic hair desperately trying to maintain the modesty of a denuded hillside”.
Westra’s vision may be uncomfortable but is nonetheless a timely jolt to environmental complacency and an antidote to the propaganda effects of the “beautiful New Zealand” image industry. Nga Tau ki Muri/Our Future is an example of one photographer’s positive contribution to environmental debate, awareness and conservation but also, more broadly, part of our ongoing quest to define ourselves as a nation.
Alan Cocker teaches in the School of Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology.