“That’s a Robin Morrison shot”
Robin Morrison reset New Zealand’s view of itself with his 1981 photography book The South Island of New Zealand—From the Road. The print run of 2000 quickly sold out, and it won the New Zealand Book Awards for non-fiction, but arguments over unpaid bills with the Japanese printer sank any hope of a second edition. Thirty years after Morrison’s death, the book has just been republished by Massey University Press.
Best approach this masterpiece sidelong. Pick it up. Put it down again. It sits heavy on the table—an oblong hub, big enough to prowl around. As with the original book, the From the Road part of the title and Morrison’s name glint silver in the corner of my eye. I know he’d be pleased. The new book has the same production values the original publisher, Alister Taylor, lavished on the 1981 version. They proclaim a landmark book, but its actual success, then and now, rests entirely on Morrison’s ability to tell the kind of story in pictures that people respond to. People who might share also the photographer’s fundamental vision—that something important was being rescued here, from the madness.
But what if we were to open these big board covers—tentatively, in a sidelong way—and find that what was rescued from the madness was itself a kind of madness? The original book had some severe critics, after all. Where were the mountains? The mobs of sheep? The big hydro-electric dams? The signs of progress? And why did we think, back then, we needed something more?
It comes back, probably, to trust in the photographer. Morrison was talented, but he was also an entrepreneur who developed his particular vision of New Zealand in very practical ways. From the Road didn’t spring fully formed out of the ether, and it’s worth tracing how he did it.
He spent his teenage years in Palmerston North and was propelled from there by what he called his generation’s “sense of urgency and claustrophobia” to London. By the mid-1960s, he had a job as a writer-cum-general dogsbody for the fledgling International Times, known more concisely as ‘IT’ (eye tee), a radical fortnightly chronicle of the swinging 1960s counter-culture. Under instruction to get a camera and photograph a demonstration, Morrison shot his first pictures for the newspaper. They weren’t published, but the magic of working within an alternative newspaper, one that insisted also on its own point of view, rubbed off. And besides, he now had a camera.
On the slow journey back towards New Zealand, he taught himself further photographic skills amidst the mules and panniers, the shawls and deeply creased faces of the Greeks, and by the time he arrived back home in the early 1970s, he was good enough to set up as a commercial photographer, and to become the go-to Auckland photographer for the New Zealand Listener. The Listener was in no way revolutionary, but it was influential. It had enormous reach, with a circulation at times more than 10 per cent of the entire population. Its broadsheet pages offered a photographer a wider audience and better display than any other popular magazine, and also name recognition and the chance under the relaxed regime of the editor, Ian Cross, to hone a
Morrison understood thirds. From my memory of his early work, he might place his subject on the right-hand third of a long park bench, the other two-thirds empty save for an interesting wrought-iron stanchion as a vertical at the far left, then blank horizontal slats that took your eye back to the actual subject waiting at the right-hand end. Such pictures were simple, and striking, but in retrospect, it was Morrison’s venture into photojournalism that mattered. The first of them, I think, appeared in the issue of April 25, 1975, after I as the writer and Morrison as the lensman covered the diamond jubilee reunion of New Zealand’s Gallipoli veterans. The side shot of the felt hat, the gaunt face below, the cavernous suck on a rollie. The old soldier in a wheelchair, his mate above, leaning in on each other to hear. And straight to camera this time, the rack of medals below and the shy and wrinkled stare of the old soldier. The ear lobe, trimmed away by a bullet. In an interview later, Morrison would mention the jubilee as a significant influence. We went on to do the professional wrestlers, baches for the Listener’s summer edition, horse races . . .
Straight dark hair that might flop across his forehead and be brushed away, a soft face, a chunky laugh, brown eyes that seemed slightly to bulge, and an other-worldly attention. If the photo essay involved any kind of a social gathering, you’d be walking with him and he’d be suddenly gone in directions as fluid and unpredictable as a mechanic’s trolley. We planned a photo essay at a Kumeū racecourse, and separated, writer and photographer, each to his own, at the gate. A horse broke a leg that day and the vet euthanised it on the spot. The heavy animal was hauled backwards off the course by a Land Rover, against the grain of its pelt. I knew what the day’s story was, and caught up with Morrison later.
“Did you get the horse?”
He shook his head. Looking back on that incident, I can see that he already knew what he wanted to do. It was New Zealand culture in the round. He’d seen it with the three-dimensional clarity you get upon returning from a long overseas posting, and he was seeing it fondly. It wasn’t dead horses.
In 1975, he teamed with journalist Louise Callan to report from Cromwell, a town threatened by the proposed Clyde hydro-electric dam. Thursday magazine published the story, but three years later, Morrison returned. He’d already done two calendars (Thorndon Houses, 1976 and Ponsonby Businesses, 1977). He already had a style sorted. Exteriors: details of people and buildings together, perhaps just a passer-by, but usually an owner standing proud in front. Interiors: even shooting with available light, he’d stop the aperture right down, for sufficient depth of field to capture every detail in a room, and so they sit, or stand, and around them are the details of their lives and their treasures. Photos you can get lost in.
Morrison made Cromwell the subject of his third calendar. He photographed the town’s main buildings, often with a townsperson or a group in front, and a defiant quote. The dam was going ahead. Cromwell lay at the junction of the broad Clutha on one side and the precipitous gorge of the Kawarau River on the other. Much of the old town centre would soon vanish underwater.
In 1978, he made the jump, too, from photo essays and themed calendars to a book. He’d persuaded Alister Taylor to take on Images of a House (1978), 39 elegant pages of black-and-white images that explored Tauroa, the two-storey modernist house built in Hawke’s Bay in 1916 to a design by the architect William Gummer.
So there it is. Applied talent, packing very social stories, big and small, into a visual frame. A significant body of work. To the point where one young guy, in his mid-30s, can command backing from a publisher, and a grant from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, for six months of freedom in 1979 to chase whatever catches his eye. To play his rock and roll or Brian Eno on his stereo, and just drive.
In 1981, he described the three-step process of nailing a memorable photograph. Get the light right, then shoot the image in such a way that it opens up whatever drama that lies within it. Clinical stuff, but also something more, he said—“something perhaps of the photographer in it”.
How do we interpret that statement? The photographic subject is illuminated not just by the sun or some night-time lamp, but lit by the eyes of the photographer himself. Impossible, perhaps, but something needs saying here to suggest the power of his vision because, once identified, it had an almost gravitational pull ongoing, through years.
The many people who’d now glimpse along the roadside some manicured hedge, some bedecked front yard or a caravan painted in sympathy to its adjoining shack, turn and point—“That’s a Robin Morrison shot.”
In 1991, in his introduction to Robin Morrison—At Home and Abroad, he wrote, “Above all, this is a book to be enjoyed; it is an entertainment of life and places.” The South Island of New Zealand—From the Road is the same. Captured within it is a quiet humour of New Zealanders going about their life and leisure, occasionally messy in their ways, but making out. Laughing alongside all of them more than a little.
So to a last tour of the Far North with his friend and fellow photographer Laurence Aberhart. In 1992, Morrison knew his cancer was terminal and it was his own mortality this time that lit up the interiors of its churches, the blessings of plaster saints, the odd juxtapositions that came so easily to his gaze—farm gates across the front of a church yard, or animals grazing on holy soil. The photographs featured in Morrison’s last book, A Journey, published posthumously in 1994. At Ahipara, he’d turned off Roma Road after sighting the big marble angel in the urupā there. He pulled it into focus from the back but on an oblique angle that caught the wings encrusted with lichen, but also the face, turned three-quarters away. Beyond the sharp focus on the angel, there’s Morrison’s usual attention to a quintessential New Zealand landscape, the dirt road heading away, the power lines looping into the distance, a bush-clad hill behind. The Ahipara angel is one of the few Morrison pictures with a deliberately shallow depth of field, sharp on the angel, but beyond that a loss of focus that softens for the second time a landscape already softened by mist.
He couldn’t quite picture what was coming, but writing in Margaret Clark’s edited collection, Godwits Return, in 1992, near the end he knew what he’d done.
“This is my country. Exploring it visually, and sharing my explorations with others, is my life’s work. I have no other country and no other task.”