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The South Island of New Zealand From The Road

This beautiful book is a new edition of Robin Morrison’s The South Island Of New Zealand From The Road, which was first published more than 40 years ago in 1981.

By that time, he was already a highly acclaimed and popular photojournalist and documentary photographer. In 1982 it was the first photographic book to win a New Zealand Book Award (now the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards).

In the winter of 1979, he set off on a six-month road trip of the South Island with his young family. His aim was to document a slice of the real New Zealand through his portraits of ordinary people in their homes and workplaces and the rural landscape they inhabited.

I met Robin just once at a friend’s house in Ponsonby at a party. With his impish grin, he lit up the room with his charm. I could so imagine how the people he approached for his book would have been happy to welcome him into their homes and workplaces to be photographed.

His portraits are carefully composed, so his subjects look comfortable and at ease. One of my personal favourites is Jane and Ted Lawrence in Bannockburn, an elderly couple sitting in their best room, each with a cat on their knees. Jane is seated behind her ironing board on which a freshly ironed hand-embroidered tablecloth has been draped. In the background, a kettle sits on a wood-burning stove. A cabinet is filled with their best china. Ornaments and an old clock are arranged on top of the mantelpiece. A framed family photograph hangs on the wall. These treasured possessions provide tantalizing glimpses into their lives.

Another is his photograph taken at Lubrow Tailors in Lyttelton, where he captured one of the last cross-legged tailors sitting in his workroom sewing uniforms for the merchant navy.

Such photographs are a very precious record of our social history,

Happenstance led to some of his most iconic and memorable photographs. Who could forget Fred Flutey in his paua shell living room in Bluff. For the rest of his life, Fred’s home became a tourist attraction.

Stucco cladded Art deco houses and buildings, which first made their appearance in the 1930s, often caught his photographer’s eyes. He chose to record many public buildings like local halls and churches. But he was also drawn to rustic vernacular architecture using found and local materials which were readily at hand. Beside his photograph of a red hut in Canterbury, he wrote:

‘I enjoy the buildings in beach areas where people build and design their own huts without the heavy hands of the building inspector being evident.’

It was the era for classic teardrop caravans. Another personal favourite is a photograph of a pink caravan in Harwood, parked in front of its matching pink crib. The wheels are off, so it is most likely a sleepout.

Although the first edition of his book was very popular and quickly sold out it also attracted criticism, especially from South Islanders. Why did he choose to include makeshift, crumbling buildings? Why were so many of his portraits of old timers with weathered faces? Where were the signs of progress and affluence? Was he poking fun at them? But Robin’s intention was never to laugh at people but to laugh with them, and he intended no disrespect. The mischievous grin on Norm Smith's face when Robin immortalized him and his pet sheep Pebbles said it all.

As a fellow Aucklander, I was rather bemused by the criticisms. I viewed Robin Morrison as a man of his time who, on this journey, had simply embraced the mid-20th century social history approach, which sought to document the lives of ordinary people, how they worked and lived, and was a reaction against traditional history, which focused on elites.

His stunning, dramatic landscape photographs, using natural light, are masterfully composed to draw viewers in and entice them to linger and savour their beauty. His favourite part of New Zealand was Central Otago, where he loved the light, the space and the isolation of the landscape. Here he painted beautiful pictures with his camera, adding considerable weight to the debate, which was still ongoing then, as to whether photography could be classed as an art form.

Technically Robin Morrison’s photographs are brilliant examples of photographs taken before the digital photography age and before image-editing software became available. He took all the photographs for this book with his Nikon film cameras, using available light, and no filters.

The old people in his photographs are long gone, and many of the buildings will have crumbled away, been modernized or repurposed. We are fortunate indeed to have this photographic record of a bygone era which connects us to our past.

Tragically Robin Morrison died after a battle with cancer when he was only 48 years old. But his photographs live on. This book is precious part of his legacy which will be greatly treasured.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press


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