"My work definitely responds to New Zealand histories and places, and to some of the ideas and myths we have about ourselves as a country.”
Poet and writer, Kerry Hines, published her book Young Country in 2014, a beautiful collection of nineteenth century photography paired with her responsive contemporary poetry. The imagery is taken by immigrant and amateur photographer William Williams and portrays a snapshot of a time and place in New Zealand’s history. Over the coming months the book’s content is touring as a public exhibition and we thought it would be the perfect time to chat with Kerry about how Young Country came about, uncover how her encounter with the historical photography of her home country led to a new journey of making and understand what it means to live and work on a relatively isolated island.
Extracts from Young Country (Auckland University Press, 2014).
Junko: Your book, Young Country, brings together nineteenth century photography by William Williams and contemporary poetry to offer an interesting perspective on New Zealand's history. How did you come across Williams' images and what made you decide to pull his photographs together to create a book?
Kerry: I came across Williams’s work by chance, when a group of his photographs turned up on eBay. The prints had nothing on them to identify the photographer, so that was a mystery at first. But they immediately captured my attention. They were very striking images of landscapes and people in a place with some unusual features – for example, one image was of a group travelling over swampy ground on a sled, and there was another of an incredibly round island (which I found out later was a floating island) in a small lake. They were also unusual in their depiction of Pākehā (Europeans) and Māori in apparently parallel and overlapping worlds. I immediately wanted to find out more about them and to try to preserve the connections between them. My partner and I bid on all of the ones that were still available, and also acquired a handwritten list that had been preserved with them. Though this didn’t name the photographer, it did give us a couple of place names to search for. As a result, we were able to track down some of ‘our’ photographs in the Alexander Turnbull Library collection, in an archive of work by amateur photographer William Williams.
Williams had been active as a photographer from 1881 – within months of immigrating to New Zealand as a young man – until shortly before he died in 1949. Right from the start, his work included landscapes and urban views on a par with those being produced by the best professional photographers, along with images relating to personal interests, family and friends, sometimes with a slightly quirky edge. But while some of his images had been shown or published at various times, he and his work were not well known. I was immediately interested in researching them, particularly the early work from the 1880s and 1890s, and in exploring how I might find a way to work with them as a poet. This was the starting point for what became my PhD in creative writing, and subsequently Young Country.
J: What was the most surprising elements of Williams' images and the history of your country?
K: Apart from the range and quality of the images themselves, I think people are often taken aback by some of the content. It’s rare, for example, to see photographs of a young man’s bedroom in late 19th-century New Zealand, or an ordinary household kitchen. Viewers find these quite intriguing, especially in the amount of detail they contain and the way in which they unexpectedly blend urban and ‘frontier’ elements. There’s also an expectation that people in the photographs from this period will be stiff and sombre, reflecting the hardship and slog of colonial life. Williams’s photographs document some of this effort, but they also present people enjoying the world. In particular, the way in which he and his friends got into hiking, canoeing, camping and cycling takes many viewers by surprise. Until they see the work, they’ve no idea that this kind of recreational activity was enjoyed here in the 1880s and 1890s.
The initial attraction of the images that were on eBay also still holds. Williams took the photographs in 1889 around a sheep station called Whakaki and a neighbouring Māori village.
"They raise interesting questions about the complexities of the relationships between Māori and Pākehā at the time, and the ways in which their worlds interacted, intersected, overlapped, and remained quite separate. Photographs are often used to illustrate historical arguments, rather than as a starting point for exploration, and I think images like these make a compelling case for the value of using them to generate enquiry."
Less related to the images themselves but more to my research on them, I was amazed by the level of information available about people in newspapers at the end of the 19th century. I was able to find all sorts of unexpected detail about some of the people I was researching, including their movements as ship passengers, their activities in community groups, even the names of one guy’s dogs. I was able to learn how someone had had a difficult time as a teacher, getting into a public dispute over seniority with another staff member and having a pay increase turned down – employment matters that would be considered confidential today – and that another had responded to being disappointed in a promised administrative position by turning to a career as an actor, in which he was very successful.
"From newspapers, letters and other written resources, a picture emerged of a society in which people were curious, opinionated, engaged and often very funny about themselves and each other – multi-faceted and complex, full of contradictions and interest."
J: The poetry in Young Country is all your own, were the poems already written or were they responsive to the photographs? How did you go about pairing the words with the images?
K: I wrote all of the poems with the intention of presenting them with Williams’s images. I wanted to develop what I conceived of as a ‘co-medial’ work, where poems and photographs were presented as equals, the integrity and autonomy of photographs and poems as works in their own right were maintained, and the resulting work offered more than the constituent parts on their own.
"I especially wanted to foster a dynamic between photograph and poem that would act as a productive tension, promoting re-looking, re-reading, re-thinking and re-imagining – a ‘this and this’, as opposed to a ‘this versus that’, which is how discussion about text and image is often framed."
I wrote poems as I researched groupings of the photographs, incorporating an imaginative response to them as well as responding to their potential meanings and context. Some poems have a direct connection in terms of their content and the content of the photograph they accompany – for example, ‘Tom awake’ imagines an insomniac Tom Wyatt in the bedroom he shared with two housemates, alongside a photograph of that room. Others are much more associative.
Originally I’d envisaged each poem as having a one-to-one relationship with a particular photograph. However, as I grew more familiar with the archive and context I was working with, I found myself thinking about more than one image as I wrote. Consequently many of the ‘pairs’ relate to other poems and photographs within their section of the book as well as to each other, particularly in the sections that refer to specific places and communities, so they’re part of a network of connections.
J: Are there any challenges to living and working where you do in New Zealand? Is there anything about your locality that supports your practice?
K: At the moment, one of the key challenges is the impact of the major earthquakes we’ve had in New Zealand over the past few years, which have been unsettling literally and psychologically. But then again it feels as though everyone is living in precarious times at the moment…
Sometimes our geographical isolation and size give us a sense of not being in the thick of things, and missing out on opportunities available elsewhere. I felt this last year, when I travelled for a few weeks in London and cities in the eastern USA, and saw some amazing exhibitions of 19th- and 20th-century photography which would never tour here.
"But I was reminded of how subjective experience of the centre/periphery
and inside/outside can be when I sat in on a panel discussion of emerging writers at a university in New York, and heard them talking about their experience of being at the margins of the writing world. It felt momentarily ludicrous – this was Manhattan! – but there is no centre, everywhere is a
centre, everywhere is on the margins."
Poetry is strong in New Zealand, with an interesting range of work and voices on offer. There’s also a core of people interested in New Zealand’s photographic history, from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, which has led to some interesting discussions and publications in recent years.
Living in the capital city has particular advantages in that nationally significant collections are housed here – and even though material is increasingly being digitised, a lot of the images and primary sources I’ve consulted have only been accessible through visits to the archives in person.
J: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline? Has it spurred you on to work more with historical content?
K: I’ve researched and written about other late Victorian-era photographs, and I’m interested in history wherever I am. A few years ago I spent several months based in Torquay in England, and learned that it had served as a transit depot for New Zealand soldiers returning home from WWI. I started working on a series of poems associated with that, but the unfortunate coincidence with the WWI centennial – which has been commemorated to the point of exhaustion here – has meant I’ve set it aside for the time being. I’m in the early stages of another project blending fact and imagination, which incorporates contemporary photographic images in a different way from Young Country, and am interested to see where that takes me.
The Young Country exhibition is currently touring public galleries in New Zealand. Forthcoming venues include:
* Taupo Museum, 17 December 2016 – 6 February 2017
* Forrester Gallery, Oamaru, 18 February – 26 March 2017
* Whangarei Art Museum, 29 May – 20 August 2017
* Ashburton Art Gallery, from 8 September 2017
Poem: ‘Iuniores ad Labores’, Image: Group in the backyard of The Old Shebang, c.1884
Poem: ‘British Eden’, Image: ‘Scene in a paddock at Matamau’, 1880s
Extract from the ‘Settlement’ sequence, Image: ‘Ngauranga Gorge in Wellington’, 1880s
J: You are touring with an exhibition of the photographs and poems. Is there a difference in how the images and words are read or received in the context of an exhibition space, rather than in a book? Have there been any extra challenges in creating an exhibition?
K: I wanted the exhibition to complement the book rather than be a kind of subset of it on the wall, so there are several differences between them. In terms of content, for example, about a quarter of the works aren’t in the book, but relate to photographs Williams made into the early 1900s which I felt helped add to the sense of his range.
Another key feature of the exhibition is that it uses albumen prints that were specifically made for the show. Most of Williams’s archive consists of negatives, so his work would normally have to be exhibited in the form of digital prints derived from those. However, I was keen for viewers to experience the kind of material and visual feel of the albumen prints that Williams and his contemporaries would have made. Albumen printing yields beautiful tones and details, but it’s extremely complex, painstaking and time-consuming and is hardly ever done today. Luckily for me, my partner, Wayne Barrar, is a photographer with experience in 19th-century processes and he made a set of beautiful albumen prints using much the same process as Williams – with a few necessary 21st-century innovations. For example, Williams was able to buy commercially manufactured albumen paper, but Wayne had to make his own, a marathon effort requiring the careful separation of dozens of eggs for the coating alone.
Something else I did specifically for the exhibition was to make an audiovisual work, enabling visitors to look at projected images while listening to me read the associated poems. It’s a different dynamic – without the looking/re-looking and re-reading that’s possible with the material in printed form, but more immersive – allowing you to give your full visual attention to the image while simultaneously experiencing the poem.
J: Do you feel that living and working in New Zealand has directed the work you have made? How would you say your local environment affects your creative practice and lifestyle?
K: My work definitely responds to New Zealand histories and places, and to some of the ideas and myths we have about ourselves as a country. I’ve lived in Wellington for a number of years, but in other towns and cities in both islands too, so my local environment feels more ‘central New Zealand’ than Wellington per se. There are lots of things about the region that I love, and love to write about, but it feels as though my work is coloured more by being a New Zealander than by this specific area.
Installation shot from MTG Hawke’s Bay, Napier (May 2016)
Written by Amy Moffat
Dec 13th 2016