Books: Two Robins

Editor Connie Brown reviews two new titles, Robin White: Something is Happening Here and The South Island of New Zealand: From the Road, a reissue of the famous book from photographer Robin Morrison.

When it was first published in 1981, Robin Morrison’s (1944–1993) The South Island of New Zealand: From the Road was celebrated as an instant classic. Taken during a six-month-long road trip around the South Island in 1979, Morrison’s photographs are a vital document of lifestyles that still bore the tint of early-settler stoicism and the unlikely aesthetic sensibility that had arisen within this culture of hardy making-do at the bottom of the world. The images are peppered with Red Bands, Aran sweaters, truncated caravans hardly larger than double beds, homes cobbled together from peeling weatherboards and corrugated iron (free from “the heavy hand of the building inspector,” Morrison writes). These were a cold people. They were also, as Hamish Keith observes in his introduction to the volume, “a people who are on the land, but not yet of it.” 

Are they of the land now, more than forty years later? Newly reprinted in March by Massey University Press—for the first time ever since its original publication—From the Road is a chance to consider this question and others about the Pākēha rural identity that Morrison sought out in his travels. Over 150 images scanned from the original Kodachrome slides are accompanied by an extended essay by Louise Callan and the artist’s own commentary throughout. For many who have trawled tirelessly for a second-hand copy, this new edition is also a welcome opportunity to appreciate the always sharp and often tender eye of one of Aotearoa’s preeminent documentary photographers. 

From the Road makes an excellent (unofficial) companion publication to Robin White: Something is Happening Here, a title released last year by Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery. Taking account of Dame Robin White’s career—the first major text to do so since 1981—the book is as expansive as its subject’s practice. Like the Morrison volume, it is organised geographically, following White from her early days in Paremata, to Ōtepoti, to Kiribati and finally to Whakaoriori Masterton, tracing in each locale the key developments of her work. Early works echo Morrison’s photographs, focused on vernacular architecture and portraits of everyday people outside of their homes. However, as the book’s title suggests, something is happening here; change is afoot, and White’s work is a mirror of the ways that Aotearoa’s national identity has been drafted and redrafted over the past half century: namely, in the image of a more Pacific nation. Comprising interviews, extended biographical essays, and responses to individual works by a cohort of contributors, as well as books, drawings, prints, paintings, weavings and photographs, Robin White: Something is Happening Here is an essential text on the artist and the varied environments from which she drew constant inspiration.  

Header image: Robin White, Fish and Chips, Maketu, 1975, oil on canvas, 60.9 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

More Reading

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Strangely Beautiful

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The Museum of Without

Dane Mitchell frames absence in his current exhibition Unknown Affinities at Two Rooms in Tāmaki Makaurau.

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