Mercy Mercer

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

New Zealand-born photographer Derek Henderson made his name internationally as a fashion photographer. He is now Sydney-based and shooting the good-looking and famous all over the world. Alongside his fashion work, he is immersing himself in the art world. A few years ago he exhibited and published The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. It was his exploration of New Zealand, clearly indebted to the work of 1970s American road-tripping photographers Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, while in some way claiming to be a reaction to Robin Morrison’s famous New Zealand works from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Beyond the awfully patronising title, Henderson was still finding the ‘real NZ’ in the same small towns that Morrison did 20 years earlier, and aside from utilising different camera gear and film format, to my mind the work only built on the Kiwi cliché rather than examining or rebutting it in any great detail. That said, I truly enjoyed a number of the images in the show. (Morrison friend and art writer Peter Ireland wrote a worthwhile examination of the book in Art New Zealand, Issue 121, 2006, ‘Making a Case: Derek Henderson’s Terrible Boredom of Paradise’.)

With Mercy Mercer (Michael Lett Publishing, NZ$125), Henderson has turned his attention to the Waikato River. A year or so after the Terrible Boredom shows I saw a small number of early images from this series at McNamara Gallery in Wanganui. My immediate impression was that these were much more interesting—and personal—works, and have been awaiting the publication of the book ever since.

This time around Henderson is clearly indebted to the 2004 book Sleeping by the Mississippi by American photographer Alec Soth. Mercy Mercer similarly follows the length of a mighty river, discovering the nooks and crannies, rooms, people, and places along the way. Shot between 2006 and 2008, Henderson begins at Reid’s Farm above Huka Falls and follows the Waikato all the way to the Tasman Sea.

Mercy Mercer is a much warmer book than Terrible Boredom. I get the feeling that it’s a bit of a love story, whereas his previous book was really a declaration after-the-fact of why he had left New Zealand years earlier. There are a couple of images here which verge on the cliché, and a few more which I don’t feel add anything to the story, but the ones that really work are the more intimate ones, where he is examining the detail rather than the view.

Interestingly, it doesn’t really feel like an investigation of the Waikato River, unlike David Cook’s recent show River/Road at the Waikato Museum. There are glimpses of the river throughout, but there’s nothing that overtly locates all the images in/on the Waikato. However, there is something definitely, even defiantly, local about the images.

Flicking through Mercy Mercer, there are a good number of images which too closely resemble photos in Sleeping by the Mississippi. The thing with wearing your influences on your sleeve is that it may be seen as homage, but more often than not it just seems like you don’t possess a strong vision of your own. Still, Henderson’s work is quite beautiful (in many different ways) and, quite obviously, if you don’t know Soth’s work you are not going to be burdened by the comparisons.

Jan Bryant’s enjoyable, succinct introductory text doesn’t focus much on the location either. Though there is mention, she seems more interested in the photographic process and style, suggesting links with the photographers August Sander, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and the aforementioned Stephen Shore.

Considering that Henderson seems to be devoting himself to the slow process of large format film photography, it will be interesting to see what his next project is. Will he continue with contemporary (landscape) documentary or find some other avenue to explore? Based on the portraits here I can imagine him attempting a version of Ross T. Smith’s late 1990s series Hokianga which consisted of portraits of (mainly young, mainly male) Hokianga locals, though this may verge too close to Henderson’s commercial work.

After my misgivings over The Terrible Boredom of Paradise, I was quite prepared to be underwhelmed by this book. Yet despite a few qualms, I have been truly won over by the sheer beauty of Mercy Mercer.