Small Town

Text by Christopher Young

Epilogue

June 14, 2012

My sleepless plane landed just before six in the morning. It was pitch black and extremely cold outside so I stayed in the airport, had breakfast and nervously drank a few coffees waiting for the sun to rise.

Driving out in the dim light, the fog on the clear day revealed itself. I got onto the Southern Motorway and settled in for the drive, not expecting to pack out my gear until I reached my bed for the night.

The scale of the fog going down the Bombay Hills was striking so I exited hoping to make some images across the valley into the sun.

No interesting angles were to be found but I made half a dozen shots, two of which open this book.

I drove further south and stopped again not much later to make images on a notorious stretch of road.

Shot across paddocks to various houses, trees and horses. A woman taking her kids somewhere glared at me but relaxed when I smiled, showed her the camera and pointed to the landscape.

A few days later, a honeymooning couple died close to there when a campervan and their car had an accident.

Mohamed Suhaimi called his mother the day before the accident to let them know he was having a 'fantastic time and not to worry'. (1)

As I came closer to small town, the beauty of the fog with the early light was very appealing so I slowed down and explored a bit.

I stopped in a near-by village and made some images of the simple stadium at the local sporting ground. The time in the cold was refreshing and I stood there watching a group of Swifts flitting about.

I hadn't intended to visit the town that morning but couldn't resist driving parallel to the numerous canals and scoping out a few locations around the fringe.

It wasn't long before the smoke stacks came into sight so I decided to look around a little before too many of the residents stirred.

I had expected some form of shock when driving through yet it still felt remarkably familiar. Various landmarks from my childhood stood out and I was disappointed to see some in a state of disrepair with others no longer there.

I made a few images then finally made the 20 minute drive to the motel.

After settling, I organised some food and wet weather gear for the next morning. I made some calls to various people and one told me that he was very sick. Instead of meeting me later on in the week, he said I should visit the Lawn Bowls Club after 4pm as someone would be there to let me in to have a look.

I returned to the village later that afternoon to find Jason (2), a local farmer, was already there setting up for the evening. I hadn't expected to see him until that following morning so he invited me in and we talked a little about the next day.

He let me into the larger back room and I made some tired, clumsy shots with the flash as it was already too dark.

Giving up, we sat down and had a beer together as I showed him some of my books.

Slowly people started to drip in and Jason introduced me to each with a gruff, booming "This is Chris" as they arrived.

I told them about the project, my history and what I had planned over the coming days.

After an hour or two, I was losing steam so I decided to head back to the motel to get something to eat and to have an early night.

 

Introduction

For the last few years I have begun my artist statements with the following:

As young children growing up in small-town New Zealand, my brother, a friend and I used to play in a large abandoned building. The rooms were in varying states of disrepair, but often contained objects that appealed to us. We gathered these trinkets and put them together into the cleanest of the rooms, essentially creating a hideout.

As artists we can be either dismissive, or alternatively, overly precious with geography, whether it be where we work or where we came from.

The word based attached to the place name of an artist’s location suggests impermanence, that the artist is on the move to better things and may soon be off to become New York-, or Paris-based. This claim to mobility implies authenticity, earnestness of practice. He doesn’t actually live here.

I highlight small town in my statements as I am acutely aware how that environment affects my practice. I often tell people that if they experienced my small town, especially the village of my youth, then they would have much greater access to my work.

Made within a few square kilometres in the New Zealand winter of 2012, small town looks at this particular village.

I didn’t attempt to illustrate the place itself but instead transcribed both my experience then – 27 years prior – and now (2012). By revisiting places and motifs as well as engaging sections of the community, I hoped to replicate the sensations, colours and smells I experienced at the time.

I was very much an outsider, given that I no longer had any personal connections to the place. Whilst the protagonists and interactions were inevitably different than those from my childhood, access was critical for the project.

The groups I contacted were welcoming and supportive of the project. I was given free rein and the process was rather fluid. While I had preconceived ideas about what I wished to photograph, I was accepting of the opportunities that arose. This abbreviated comradeship with strangers through social experience allowed an intimacy in photography that can be lost through the process of putting a camera between a subject and myself.

I was not a passive observer but rather engaged with the subjects in a camera-less fashion for long periods of time. In general I tried not to make judgements in scenes or events but rather absorb that which occurred there.

The physical characteristics of my adult experience varied greatly from my childhood experience yet there was an energy that was revitalising and stimulating.

This seems almost paradoxical given the seriousness of many of our discussions. It wasn’t jovial and lighthearted, although there were those moments, but rather earnest for a lot of the time.

Death and entropy were recurring themes and it was surprising how candid and forthcoming those I met were about their lot in life.

The town itself is anonymous for a number of reasons. Like many communities, it has had its fair share of problems and committing those to film potentially opened it to accusations of political posturing. Despite the problems, a sense of community was still to be found and the experience was often very moving.

Its anonymity also allows it, for the viewer at least, to be universal and less abstract. The otherness of the experience is minimised with the familiar potentially coming to the fore.

I am grateful to one person in particular who wholeheartedly embraced the project and facilitated access to many opportunities otherwise difficult to arrange. This support was invaluable and his gruff “This is Chris” introductions made the experience a rewarding and refreshing one.

 

The Pond

The motel room was very cold with only a tiny, ineffective heater and a large gap under the door to the outside. I fell asleep buried under as many blankets as I could find.

The next morning I woke to –3°C outside and stumbled through shaving and breakfast while shaking almost uncontrollably.

I boiled a jug of water and loaded my gear into the car before de-icing the front and rear windscreens.

Driving back to town on the unfamiliar roads I made slow progress in the thick fog. When I got to Jason’s farm and packed out my gear, he offered me a coffee and we sat down at his kitchen table.

A large TV was playing an American news broadcast; the simple house was otherwise very quiet.

We stepped out into the cold where he filled a large water container with a garden hose and we put our things into the back of his ute. He warned me to be careful as I sat in the dark vehicle. I had a rifle resting next to my thigh.

The majority of the farms in the area are dairy and Jason has one of the biggest, his presence looming large in many different ways.

In better times, those who weren’t farmers typically worked at the local dairy factory. This has long since closed and the community is fractured because of it.

During the duck hunting season, Jason repeats this early morning routine daily for six weeks. He rises early, then either takes some people out or meets others at his large man-made pond. He normally returns to his farm around noon and then goes down to the Lawn Bowls Club in the afternoon to exchange stories.

The opening weekend of the duck season is especially busy – some 40,000 are shooting throughout the country – and people come from far and wide to spend time on Jason’s pond. Later that day, he proudly showed me a hunting magazine that had an article about his pond. It included a portrait of one of his dogs.

It didn’t take long before we reached the end of the road and subsequently the end of a track.

Jason pointed out a seemingly innocuous fence post just a bit off the track and told me that his grandfather used to tie his barge up to it.

From thereon it was on foot. Jason put the water plus a few other things in a wheelbarrow before leading me down the muddy path lit only by our torches.

We came around a bend and the scene opened up to reveal a stunning vista in early morning light.

A narrow wooden walkway stretched out to the main hut with more walkways running around the circumference of the pond. These were three boards wide and set on stumps, sitting only a centimetre or two above the water line. Each of the huts on the lake had varying amenities. At the peak of the season, all would be occupied by two or three people plus their dogs. These were used to retrieve any ducks that had been shot.

We entered the main hut and I met Stephen, a local, for the first time. The hut was a simple wooden framework with corrugated iron walls and a viewing aperture to the front. A series of shelves and bench tops were fitted and it was remarkably well stocked with a pair of gas hobs, a beer keg and quite a bit of food.

This hut, like the others, was covered on the outside with brush to disguise it.

The main hut had a complex system of pulleys that were connected to decoy ducks floating on the water. The decoys could then be made to move by pulling on various ropes. There was also a battery-powered decoy which sat atop a small pole. This had rotating wings that simulated a duck just about to land on the pond.

It was only a few days before the end of the duck hunting season and, as it was now a fogless day, they didn’t expect to see many birds.

Jason started to prepare breakfast and once the light picked up I went out to make first images around the fringes of the pond.

The narrow walkways were green with algae but not too slippery. There was only a small breeze and the pond was very quiet apart from the sound of small waves lapping at the walkway. I made my way slowly around the circumference making images as I went.

It was still very cold so loading film and adjusting the tripod on such a narrow pathway was challenging. As well as images of the huts and pond, I shot out into the surrounding swamp as the various trees and reeds were an extraordinary collection of odd shapes and colours.

After an hour or so, I got back to the hut and we ate a warming breakfast together. Jason had prepared a full meal, including beef from one of his cows, potatoes and curried cabbage. We had this with the seemingly ubiquitous beer in old coffee mugs.

We talked about many things over the course of the morning. The different species of ducks were identified often from very far away; how breeding pairs were not to be shot; how hawks were protected; how many ducks were taken each year on the pond; how they were frozen or given away; and how they needed a trailer to carry all the ammunition that was purchased each year.

Throughout the morning both men expertly called to the few ducks that came our way. As it was approaching the end of the season, the ducks were wary so it was a quiet morning.

I had been meaning to ask Jason if he would allow me to make an image of him standing near his hut. Only shortly before we were due to go did I get up the courage and he happily agreed.

We went out the back and after composing the shot and checking the light, I got him to close his eyes, relax and to only open them on my prompt.

I only got to make the single exposure before he turned and headed back into the hut.

 

Brass

Earlier that day I was to met Robert outside the Brass Band’s beautifully preserved hall. He lived in a house abutting the property and slowly made his way across the grass to where I was.

After letting me in, he showed me around the sheet music archive and proudly boasted the value of the collection and how many years of work was in it.

Together we looked through framed photos hanging on the wall and I could point out one of my old friends. Tom’s bright, shiny instrument had seemed so exotic and foreign to us as children. It was preciously guarded by him and he had played, together with other siblings, in the same band.

Robert has been in the band since it started in 1946. Now in his seventies, he still manages their extensive sheet music collection, has taught many to play over the years and regularly performs when the band struggles to get the numbers together.

After making some images inside, including one of the archive, I asked him if I might make his portrait. He stood quietly in front of the front door with his battered silver Tuba.

Later that evening I met five other members of the band as they rehearsed for a few hours on a cold, wet Wednesday night. They were, as every week, slowly working their way through the Salvation Army Hymn Book.

Akin to some strange code, they exchanged notes about this or that bar and what tempo a piece should be played. Instruments clashed and stumbled at times but they persevered to get what they could out of the small group.

A few members of the band regularly performed at funerals with the refrains of the Last Post being sadly familiar.

Shortly before the end of the night, a spouse came by and we were both asked to call out random numbers. The band then played those hymns from the book.

At the end of the evening we stepped out in the dark and got into our cars in the drizzling rain. Robert and I exchanged thank yous and he walked quietly across the grass towards home.

Seven #21

Christopher Young, Installation of Small Town at Heathcote Museum & Gallery, 2016

 

“If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.”

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Notes

(1) NZ Herald. Honeymooners killed in crash, June 17, 2012.

(2) All names throughout the text have been changed.


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