David Cook: Jellicoe & Bledisloe: Hamilton in the 90s

Lucinda Bennett reviews the exhibition at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, toured by New Zealand Portrait Gallery, 5 October 2022–14 May 2023.
David Cook ‘Jellicoe & Bledisloe’ series

Two little girls up a tree, limbs wrapped casually around slim branches like koalas. Behind them, the sloping front lawns of state houses, each one the same but different, cream-coloured weatherboards atop solid cement foundations. The sky is blue, the street is wide enough to play in. The tree branches are tipped with tiny red flowers.

This is Hamilton East in the 1990s, a state-housing precinct captured by documentary photographer David Cook while living and raising his young family there. His exhibition, titled Jellicoe & Bledisloe after the streets he photographed around, presents a selection of forty-four vibrant images culled from thousands taken at this place and time. The photographs chosen are full colour, medium format, taken with the flash on regardless of night or day, softening the shadows to lend the images a dreamlike quality.

To viewers in 2023, there is something dreamlike in the subject matter, too—quality, affordable housing, either to rent or to own, having become a fantasy. While state houses from the era Cook has captured still line the streets of formerly working-class suburbs, they have become increasingly lauded private assets, their sturdy construction and generous proportions now representing a gold standard in suburban housing. A quick scroll through Trade Me Property or even a walk around my own Tāmaki neighbourhood reveals real-estate listings extolling their virtues, from their iconic 1940s look to their native timber flooring and large ‘Kiwi’ backyards (subdivision possible).

Cook and his wife bought their ex-state house on Bledisloe Terrace in the era of Jim Bolger’s National Government, when many state houses were being sold off in a bid to discourage reliance on state welfare as the Government continued its march towards a free-market economy. Cook explains in his photobook (which goes by the same name as the exhibition) how the real-estate agent sang praises—“What a smart location for your first home!”—while also conceding that it was “a bit rough in places, with all these state rentals.”[01] Indeed, many of the people who populate Cook’s images were state-housing tenants, including his immediate neighbours, Bob and Georgie.

Far from revealing roughness, Cook’s candid photographs portray a dynamic energy I haven’t felt in a neighbourhood since my own childhood in the 1990s. Here are people utilising their front yards to fix their cars, kids tumbling on the grass, bottles of Waikato Draught being drunk on the front steps, picnic blankets spread on lawns and strollers parked in the shade. People are visiting each other’s homes, chatting on the landline, lighting birthday candles, rolling durries, breed- ing budgies, watching the news, roasting chunks of meat until tender, brown and burnished. Down at the river, the sky is a perfect blue and kids are doing manus out of trees, babies are swimming without nappies, wet bodies are lying prone in the hot sun. These photographs are of ordinary people living ordinary lives, captured in full colour and close enough that you can see rivulets of water dribbling down a skinny brown leg, the red rushing into the cheeks of an overall-clad child upside down on the sofa.

Looking back, it’s easy to romanticise these images, to feel nostalgic for this time and place. The beauty of the photographs themselves, their luminous colours and the soft grain of film, seems to encourage such readings. While there is certainly beauty there, especially in the undeniable feeling of community the photographs convey, it’s likely that many of the people pictured were already feeling the squeeze from the 1991 introduction of the ‘Mother of All Budgets’, which saw benefits slashed and market rents introduced for state homes.[2]

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, cultural theorist Svetlana Boym draws a distinction between two different types of nostalgia. There is reflective nostalgia, which thrives on the feeling of longing itself, for a time or place acknowledged as irrevocably past. On the other hand, restorative nostalgia struggles to even recognise itself as being nostalgic at all and desires the reconstruction of past monuments with a goal of restoring truth and tradition.[03] When writing about Cook’s photographs, it is easy to fall in line with the latter flavour of nostalgia, forgetting or ignoring that the place captured existed before the state houses were built and the streets named after British Governors-General. Cook explores this great- er history in the essays at the end of his photobook, recounting a drive with his friend Wiremu Puke (Ngāti Wairere), who recounts the Indigenous histories of the area, how it used to be a place of “deep gullies, freshwater springs and streams, fed by the surrounding wetlands” and how the Wellington Street Beach where so many of Cook’s photos were taken was one of first waka landing-sites in the area.[04] Even before connecting with Puke and contextualising his series within this wider history, Cook’s photographs belonged to the former type of nostalgia, the reflective. In showing this small suburban enclave at this specific point in history, these photographs temporalise space, showing detailed fragments of what was then and allowing for all manner of relationships to those memories. As Boym writes, “the focus here is not on the recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth, but on the meditation on history and the passage of time.”[05]

[1] David Cook, Jellicoe & Bledisloe (Auckland: Rim Books and PhotoForum Inc., 2022), n.p.
[2] ‘The State Steps In and Out’, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 21 July 2014, nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/we-call-it-home/the-state-steps-in-and-out
[03] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 41.
[4] Cook, Jellicoe & Bledisloe, n.p.
[5] Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 49.

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