A Gentle Lens ⏤ In Conversation with New Zealand Photographer Derek Henderson
As a child growing up in Auckland, my parents would often take my brother, sister and I on annual road trips south of the city to New Zealand’s smaller towns. Each time, a ritual would occur. Once we reached Waikato, an hour or so out of Auckland, my parents would prompt us to look out of the window, and say, “Look - there’s Huntley power Station!”. Its red and grey chimneys emitting smoky plumes was a signal that our road trip was in full swing.
There is an image of the Huntly Power Station in Mercy Mercer (2009), a publication by New Zealand photographer, Derek Henderson, that could’ve been lifted from my memory of these road trips. It fills me at once with nostalgia, safety, and the excitement of impending adventures.
And yet Henderson’s photograph of this well-known landmark is rendered new to me by his lens; the beauty of the power station’s brutalism set amongst the grassy banks of the Waikato River’s native fauna.
It seems Henderson too had similar road trips throughout New Zealand growing up. Regarding his first book, The Terrible Boredom of Paradise (2005) Henderson says, “I was trying to recapture what I saw as a child in the backseat of my parents’ car when we went on holidays. Even though the car was moving fast the car window seemed to frame, isolate and freeze these moments which have stayed with me more as emotions rather than an image.” The body of work that resulted in The Terrible Boredom of Paradise began with a 13,000-km road trip he took around New Zealand in 2004, over four and a half months, armed with a view camera and some colour film.
Henderson’s latest body of work, entitled Circadian Rhythm sees him come full circle. This year he returned with his camera to capture the daily life in the small towns he visited in for The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. Ahead of the unveiling of his new works at Wellington Gallery, Precinct 35, we talk to Henderson about finding beauty in the over-looked, the continuing pulse of life and how much has changed since he first photographed the far-reaching corners of New Zealand.
SC: Looking over your works, your lens is equally at home in international fashion shoots as much as it is in rural parts of New Zealand or Patagonia. Although your subject matter differs, what is it about the way you approach each of your subjects that is the same?
DH: Probably just that, that I give it equal value. The subject matter, is no less or more important than anything else. I think they’re all of equal value, whatever it is I’m photographing. It’s having a democratic approach. I give them equal value, whoever they are and wherever I am.
SC: I feel like you have a very unique signature to your images. No matter what landscape or space you’re photographing, you can tell that it’s one of your images. I was wondering if you see yourself as having a signature, and if so, how you would you describe it in any way?
DH: It’s hard for me to see that, but it’s probably driven by the emotional, and partly intellectual and how you see the world and how you see the human condition. It’s about making observations of people and things. I try to simplify things. I take things away, I don’t like things looking overly complicated. I don’t want them to be obvious, I think I’m quite gentle in my approach to things. I don’t want to shove them in people’s faces. Some people call it photographing things that are the ‘mundane’ or something that’s quite obvious that you overlook every day, but I think they’re quite beautiful.
SC: I think that’s what I really like about your canon of work, you’ve got this juxtaposition of some very vast landscapes, but alongside them you’ve got these very focused details of that area.
DH: When you’re looking to take pictures and you have a rough idea of the working title of what you’re thinking about, you have a notepad of things that might interest you with the research that you’ve done. I keep it quite broad, so that I don’t cut myself off. But simply it comes down to observations of things that interest me.
In this exhibition [for Circadian Rhythm], when I was in Mohaka someone had kept what I think is a cow, and hung the skins over a rails on the side of the road. That to me is interesting, that somebody had done that and left it there. Why would they leave it there? Were they leaving it there to dry them? Or did they not want them? So often there’s this kind of message of - why are we here, what’s going on, what are we doing? There’s always a question in my images, that wonder. I just wonder what happened before I got there.
I think also you don’t have to take a portrait of someone to tell someone about that person, you can take a picture of the interior of their house and you might get more of an idea of who they are. I’m curious to see how people live and what makes the tick. I like to see other people’s perspectives on what it’s like to be a human being. If I go to a restaurant, I listen in to what people are talking about, I’m just nosy. And being a photographer, it’s kind of perfect.
SC: Tell me a bit about the background to your images for Circadian Rhythm...
DH: I called it Circadian Rhythm because I am interested in that rhythm of life. Circadian Rhythm is in plant, animals, fungi, phytobacteria, pretty much every single organism. It’s been around for a long time and it governs the way we live our lives. For human beings, in the morning, it gets us up and at night it makes us go to sleep. It makes us alert to things or less alert to things. It’s really got to do with a rhythm and a continuation of life. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not too specific about my observations. As far as concepts go, I keep them quite broad for that reason. I just make observations as I go somewhere and I like to re-visit places too. This was a re-visit I did to some of the places in a book, The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. I wanted to re-visit some of those places and see what was going on.
SC: And what were your observations – how have these places changed?
DH: In 2004 and 2005 when I did The Terrible Boredom of Paradise, the small towns that I visited, the economy wasn’t as good, they might have been a little more depressed possibly. Whereas now, I’ve noticed they’re a lot more vibrant, there are things happening in small towns. I think it’s because tourism is getting bigger, even in those areas. I noticed that in the East Cape and obviously, industries such as dairy, produce, beef and wool – people are wanting those things now and it’s supplying people. It’s a pretty basic thing, people have work, they can support themselves, they feel independent.
Obviously, there’s still things that need sorting out, but at the same time, I travel around the world a lot and think New Zealand isn’t too bad a place to live and I think it’s only going to get better and better.
SC: That’s quite a unique perspective to have, to be able to go through to these more remote parts of New Zealand and really document them with your camera and then to go back and do it again.
DH: Yes, it is. I do it because I’m genuinely interested in those places, and I grew up in those places. That’s part of my practice as well, it’s about memory. I spent a large part of my childhood going to those places as well.
SC: Where did you grow up in New Zealand, and how did it inform your photography?
DH: I grew up in Hawkes Bay. A bit of my childhood was spent on an orchard my parents had, in-between Hastings and Havelock North. I suppose I am a romantic at heart, I pretty much idolised that growing up in those places and that’s probably what I go back to. A lot of my work is about memory and remembering those things that make you feel good. Most of the things I photograph I think are positive things, but they’re also questioning things as well.
SC: Whenever I’m not in New Zealand and I feel homesick, I always go to your images and they bring me so much comfort. Looking at them there is such a specific culture we have there and that you manage to capture in your photographs, that I can’t put into words, and I’m not sure if it should be put into words. Can you describe it in any way?
DH: I suppose it is hard to describe those pictures. It’s a comforting thing. A lot of the time it’s looking at life and form and taking something that is the mundane, and a thing that people don’t look at or appreciate. I guess that’s what you do as a painter or photographer, or a sculptor, is take something that’s ordinary, or everyday things, and just by using light and form you can make people take notice of them. It may begin to have a different value to people and maybe their appreciation of those things is understood.
There is a picture I took for Circadian Rhythm of two baches [New Zealand beach-houses] at Ngawai which is on the way to Palliser Bay, a fairly remote part of New Zealand. It’s just a pink and a green bach. All it is is those fibreglass baches. But it is actually really beautiful because they’re self-contained. You don’t need much more; you have the beach close by, you can get seafood out of the ocean, you can come back, cook it on your barbeque, you’re in a nice place. You don’t need a hell of a lot really, to be fulfilled.
It’s also escaping the materialistic world and the direction of consumerism that we head to and we look for pleasure in those areas when maybe we’ve missed the point that less is more. A walk along the beach is very cathartic. Looking at the natural world is a not a bad thing for human beings, I think it’s good for you. I like to tell a story about how we relate to that natural world or don’t relate to that natural world, and it’s a vernacular that I’ve developed through the natural world of New Zealand. Hopefully it talks to people who don’t just live in New Zealand.
SC: Apart from New Zealand you’ve photographed the South Pacific, Patagonia and Friesland, are there other places you’d like to photograph?
DH: There’s so many places I’d love to go and explore. I think it’s part of our Circadian Rhythm, as hunter/gatherers. For me and I think for a lot of human beings, staying in one place is stagnating. That’s why humans travel a lot, it’s part of our psyche.
Circadian Rhythm is showing at Precinct 35 in Wellington New Zealand until December 27th 2017.
All images by Derek Henderson