In early March I spent a week walking Wellington, New Zealand as well as photographing in the city, whilst Suzanne walked the Grand Traverse, Queenstown way with her Adelaide walking friends. I had studio apartment in the Aro Valley courtesy of Air bnb, and I spent about 8 hours a day walking the city in a Situationist mode. I drifted through central Wellington with two camera bags on my shoulders: one containing a Rolleiflex (TLR) a Leica M4-P rangefinder whilst the other held my newly acquired Sony Alpha A7r111, which I was slowly learning how to use.
I loved Wellington. It’s a funky, vibrant cultured city. I was so at home being there. Even though Wellington is a much smaller city than Adelaide in population terms, it is so much more alive in an urban sense. Despite the revitalisation since 2013 of the central city and the liquor-licensing reforms Adelaide remains a doughnut city. Wellington was much more alive than it was when I worked there in the 1970s as an economist in the public service. Then it was empty of life at the centre with little in the way of depth of character. The central city is a much better place these days.
Wellington also has a strong art photography culture which, unlike Australia, is connected to, and a part of, a literay culture. There is also a vibrant café culture with excellent coffee scattered amongst the Wellington ‘walkability’. The funky changes in the urban culture happened in the 1990s apparently, but I am not sure what the driving forces for the city’s transformation were, given that Wellington is largely a public service town. Was the emergence of a lively urban culture caused by the acceleration of diverse migration flows?
The photography that I was making whilst in Wellington was a part of a modest psychogeography that was centred around re-connecting with my past. I had picked up a camera in whilst living in Wellington in the 19970s not to add to the family album but with aspirations to make art, only I didn’t know how to make art. Picking up a camera to make art in the 1970s was a world-wide phenomenon and it was pretty much American-inspired and in the sphere of art world aspirations the New York was the only place on the planet in the ‘70s and ‘80s – worshiped as much as New Zealand was maligned.
At the time New York provided the only credible models of art photography and New Zealand, like Australia, was enwrapped in a cultural cringe. As Peter Ireland observes in his review of Aberhart’s America this cultural cringe meant:
the automatic assumption being that anything done here would be lesser than stuff from elsewhere. Anyone with something to prove had to leave. Remaining in the dock of New Zealand culture could only end in a verdict of “guilty”. The blind, flightless kiwi was the perfect symbol for a nation of losers, and the occasional trumpeting of “overseas success” might bring comfort but could do nothing to alleviate our condition “out here”. Now the world’s our oyster, and the feed’s neither here nor there.
I fled New Zealand in the 1970s after a a couple of years in Auckland because I found it claustrophobic and profoundly provincial. I was unhappy, bored and depressed living there. So some of the photos that I was making when walking central Wellington expressed this feeling of being trapped. Maybe I should have walked through, and photographed in, the Mt Victoria tunnel? That underground with its noise and car fumes would have represented the claustrophobia that I felt.
Te Aro, with its rectilinear order, marks the beginning of the city proper. The old Wellington Urban Motorway, which eventually became part of State Highway 1, with its ceaseless movement of cars and commerce, separated Te Aro from Memorial Park with its shrines of remembrance that recalled those who died in distant lands fighting on behalf of the British and American empires. I noticed that State Highway 1 became jammed up with traffic where it entered the city at Vivian St, and that it was disconnected from the road leading to the airport via the Mt Victoria tunnel.