“PHOTOGRAPHY CAME OUT OF PAINTING AND IS NOW GOING BACK TO IT”
~ DAVID HOCKNEY
Sometimes realisation can lurk back in the shadows, back beyond the light of recognition, waiting for the opportune moment to emerge and pounce.
We had gone out for the day, when an overweight and overdue epiphany rolled out and dropped heavily on my foot.
An old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for some years contacted me. I am on holiday in the Hokianga. It would be great to catch up. Awesome. Let me take you out for the day and show you the secret places. Bring your camera. It will be fun.
We began, just after daybreak, in the mist, in the wanderings of grey, rolling obscurity that appear from this time of the year onwards and pour down from the upper harbour, slithering out past the Narrows and across to Rawene. Days like this open in silence, cold, motionless and star-bestrewn, holding their hands out, begging to be photographed and then, when you turn your back to load your vehicle and get ready, the fog suddenly pounces, filling in the shapes and hollows of the river. The heat of the sun leaning down from above tangles and torments its dour demeanour, causing it to writhe and squirm in confusion. And it is in the silent stupor of this closed-in world that corners of truth, that encounters with memory can be found.
We met at the Narrows where the first ferry of the morning arrives, and when she saw me with camera in hand, she liberated hers as well. I brushed the mist’s likeness with my lenses, painting pictures of possibility and invisible conversation, whispering to the guardians and the ancestors, as they whispered back at me. I looked for the breaks between light and non-light; I wandered among the snatches of roiling gossamer cobweb conversation, looking for gaps, for moments of silence and photographing those.
Then the day reached down through the mist with golden fingers and scooped the mystery away. What remained was a chill but intense autumn morning, with warm light, deep shadows and soft dew-encrusted grass, with everything clearly labelled and delineated. After a time, we headed for breakfast, coffee and conversation in a patch of comforting yellow sunlight under a café awning. And, as such conversations do, we wandered among the past, the present (hers and mine), looking for the threads of connection, and considered the purpose of photography. I don’t know what I am looking for in my photography, she said. I haven’t worked that out yet. For a moment I allowed the bitter brown swirl of my latte to spiral upwards as I followed my thoughts. Most people don’t, I replied. Because most people don’t know who they are. Do you? Do you know who you are?
A soft silence fell. No, she replied softly. I guess I don’t. I am still working on that.
The honesty of her answer brushed a soft glove on the shimmering space between us. Our greatest journey, I offered, is coming to know who we are. And, perhaps, that is the fatal attraction of photography. Who am I? We know it can answer that question for us. Indeed, photography is doing just that. Of course, whether we choose to listen or not is another matter altogether. And do we really want to go there? Do we really want to know who we are? Or are we content to let others supply an answer for us, and follow along behind that?
Then we climbed back in the vehicle and moved on across the day. I showed her places few know exist; I went to the furthest corners of my rohe (tribal area) and shared them; I talked of my family’s history in the area, and to my original ancestor who had arrived here sometime around 1300 AD. I talked of ancestors and hopes realised (or not), of the spiral journey of our lives.
We stopped in one of the farthest corners to visit one of the iconic red-and-white colonial churches of Northland, this one in the process of being restored. Around it were graves and headstones, all carefully tended and preserved. As we were leaving I indicated the water containers by the gate, and the necessity of washing one’s hands on exit. This a custom on most urupa (graveyards). It is about removing the tapu and keeping yourself noa (clean). You see, these are not just piles of buried bones. The ancestors still walk with us. And we are the sum of all their hopes and dreams. We carry them in our DNA. I remembered Laurence Overmire’s quote:
“Over the course of the millennia, all these multitudes of ancestors, generation upon generation, have come down to this moment in time—to give birth to you. There has never been, nor will ever be, another like you. You have been given a tremendous responsibility. You carry the hopes and dreams of all those who have gone before. Hopes and dreams for a better world. What will you do with your time on this Earth? How will you contribute to the ongoing story of humankind?”
And, as we stood there in the warming autumn light, in a mysterious and secretive part of the country, I looked out across the harbour, at the plains and the stubby hills and realised that somehow, the labels had come off, somehow, in the wash of my repeated observation, they had been torn away and that only the stitching remained, small protrusions from the woven fabric of reality. What remained was the original fabric, unbleached and unfaded by time and repeated washing.
And then I realised I hadn’t used my camera since the early morning. Somehow there was no urge or need to do so. I couldn’t see a point in photographing labels.
I was more interested in the silent conversations of the mist, when I could communicate directly with my ancestors.