05 August 2023

Robin’s South Island

Kei te Koraha. Off the Beaten Track.

writer & photographer: Robin Morrison

One of New Zealand’s most notable documentary photographers, Robin Morrison (1944-1993) spent seven months documenting his travels to the tiny towns and villages across the South Island. His photographs were ultimately collected into an award-winning book, which has long been out of print. From the recently compiled new edition of From the Road, featuring guest essays by Robin’s friends and contemporaries, Shepherdess picks some favourite photos out of his expressive depictions of the splendour and people of the South Island.

An Art Deco house in Bluff

Top image. Mrs Ferguson and her father, Mr Adams, Millers Flat. Above. House, Bluff, a town famous for oysters. “Bluff turned out to have a number of treats in it,” Robin recalls. “There’s the house that looks like an oyster. An extraordinary stucco house standing on the hill above Bluff with a woman sitting in the window painting the scene. She came out to ask what I was doing, and stood in front of the house for me to photograph her.”

From the Road is a personal photographic view of the South Island of New Zealand. I have loved the South Island for many years, and in 1979 I was able to express that feeling by spending six months photographing the land, its people and the mark they have left on the country.

This island is usually photographed by and for those whose only visual reality is the scenic and the picturesque. The photographs in this book present an alternative view.

Top. Christina and Bert Lewis and his brothers Shack and Bob, Deborah Bay. The men are fishermen. There was the warm aroma of midday roast mutton from the door. Above. Bainham Post Office. “The Bainham Post Office is the last outpost of any civilisation before the Heaphy Track
– that long walk to the West Coast,” Robin writes. “The Post Office has a Victoria Regina letterbox and the old Frosty Jack ice-cream sign. The whole place looks really well used. I fancy collecting my mail from one of these postboxes.”

I travelled 18,000 miles with my family into most corners of the South Island, but concentrated more on the areas that held my eye – in particular, Central Otago. We stayed in the holiday houses of friends and enjoyed the space and sense of being on the edge that we so rarely have in the closeness of a city.

While the title From the Road cannot be taken too literally, it does convey the found, unplanned way in which the photographs were taken. With the help of a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant, I was able to work without the usual restrictions of time to evolve a view of the South Island that was finally edited into this book.

The view shown reflects to some extent the analytical eye of a visitor, but this apparent detachment belies my deep feeling for the landscape and the people who live in it.

Top. Rachael and Fanny Short, Bannockburn. The two sisters, now in their nineties, have lived in this old gold mining town all their lives. Above. Funeral Directors, Kaiapoi.

Top. Jane and Ted Lawrence, Bannockburn. Above. Community Centre, Kaiapoi. Robin writes, “I enjoyed noticing how people parked their cars and trucks outside buildings of similar colours – it seemed to work quite often. Like here at the Kaiapoi Community Centre, which must have been an old cinema at some stage.”

Cover of Robin Morrison's The South Island of New Zealand: From the Road book.

Extracted from The South Island of New Zealand: From the Road by Robin Morrison with an introduction by Louise Callan. Published by Massey University Press, 2023. Hardcover, $75. Road Trip, an exhibition at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, runs until late August. 

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