River-Road: Journeys Through Ecology

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Photographer David Cook’s follow-up to his magnum opus, ‘Lake of Coal’.

There are a good number of photographers in New Zealand who aren’t really in the public eye, and consequently aren’t considered in the top echelon, but who work quietly away at producing decent material. David Cook is one of those photographers. A few years ago he published his magnum opus, Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Town (2006), in my view one of the best photography books produced here. Lake of Coal was the culmination of a 20-year project. Since then he has set his sights on smaller projects, even if they still have big ideas.

River-Road: Journeys Through Ecology (Rim Books, NZ$40) is, as a conceit, a simple idea, and it could be argued, a companion piece to Derek Henderson’s Mercy Mercer. Cook’s simple idea was to choose a section of the Waikato River and every 600 metres or so take a pair of images, one of the river, one of the road/land. With this as his starting point, Cook set out to examine the environment, the history, and the ecology of the area. These are no mere snapshots along the chosen path; they are very deliberate, well-researched choices.

In his introduction, Cook states that, “We travel through this world at great speed. But what happens when we slow down to take a closer look at our environment?”, and that slowing down drove this project. But one could argue that slowing down is preciesly what photography has always done—it freezes the subject, the environment, to enable us to take a closer look. But here Cook isn’t just enabling us, he’s forcing us.

Each pair of images are presented over a double page, 29 pairs in all, with each photo titled and captioned. There is often a specific thematic connection in each diptych, e.g. ‘Replanting’ and ‘Forest’, or ‘Kaeo’ and ‘Pukeko’. This pairing isn’t just thematic but often visual too. There are elements connecting the photos—a maimai and a treehouse, a yellow cable and yellow headlights. The nature of the project means that the captions are as important as the images. The subtly of the message is lost when only looking at the photos but the text, like the photos, are unfussy, unjudging, and get straight to the point.

Pairing text and photography is often a tricky beast, especially if the text is more than merely descriptive or explanatory captions. It’s a difficult balance to get right. In the case of River-Road, Cook’s captions are perfect but I’m not entirely sure the balance in Wiremu Puke’s text is right. Some of the best writing I’ve read in photography books doesn’t even mention photography, let alone the photos the text accompanies, and yet manages to speak about the subject of the photos.

This seems to be what Puke was aiming for. It speaks to the theme, but it doesn’t speak directly to the photos, but for reasons I can’t really explain, it didn’t quite sit with Cook’s photography. It may be because he is writing in the first person, making it about himself as much as the river itself when the photographer is almost incidental to the photos; the creator but not the subject. In one of his closing paragraphs, Puke asks if someone were to pick this book up in 300 years. “Will the stories written here still reflect the spirituality and the history of these landmarks?” His poem and five pieces of prose do reflect on the spirituality and the history of the parcel of the Waikato examined in this book, and on his family’s relationship with the area, but for me there was a lack of connect with the rest of the book.

In his introduction, Cook makes it clear that this book is a combing of three voices: his own, Puke’s, and designer Jonty Valentine. I feel that Valentine is one of our best book designers at present. His design on Lake of Coal was stunning, and his work here is both smart and simple.

River-Road is an example of an academic approach to documentary photography, but Cook never lets the academic obscure the documenting. The work suits the book format more than it did the gallery wall, if only because you can spend time with the photos and not be distracted by neighbouring images/audiences.

After completing a long term project like Lake of Coal, anything smaller isn’t going to have the same gravitas or sense of scale or history, but River-Road delivers a strong message, full of stories and histories, and beautiful photographs.