Modest Epiphanies: Lakeside morning

Lakeside morning, Mahinapua. 9.55am, 11 April 2018

SEPTEMBER in my 2019 calendar! Lake Mahinapua is the first stop after Hokitika as you head south down the South Island’s West Coast. Surrounded by native forest, the lake’s a total gem left to us by the last glacial retreat ten thousand years ago. On a weekday morning in April there are few camper vans visiting and even fewer watercraft about,  although perhaps a fizzboat and a Nordic waterskier could have added some visual tension here.

As a basically monochromatic study, the textures and horizons neatly summarise the special appeal of the celebrated West Coast landscape. Except in early summer when the flax and rata are in flower, it is not an especially colourful landscape, although it is certainly a green and pleasant one.

The scene has been exposed for its highlights; a high dynamic range image would give a quite different effect. It would show the correct colour for the reeds and distant forest, but without artistry or any emotional appeal.  The very literalness of HDR photography Ieaves me cold, seen at worst when a landscape under broad daylight is absurdly combined with a vivid, overarching sunset.  Really, which planet do these photographers live on?

1/640th sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 250

Memento mori 5: Odd neighbours

Odd neighbours

Odd neighbours at Greymouth. 6.37pm, 10 April 2018

The neighbourhood of New Zealand cemeteries can be quite quirky, especially in the larger cities, but even in Greymouth a cross can have an industrial background. Land bordering cemeteries is less desired for housing, so perhaps becomes more affordable for industry, or other purposes.  The cross is strongly associated with Catholic graves, and it is easy to forget that our cemeteries have traditionally been segregated along religious lines, into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish sections (where the cross is understandably absent).

The cross is not perfectly placed, but close enough, given my frustrations with setting the tripod in a confined situation. The foreground is flash-lit, but the small aperture has subdued the usual effect, while enhancing depth of focus (thus the reasonably sharp background). No skein of cloud was available  for the top left corner but the space is well balanced by a similar empty space at bottom right. In composition, empty spaces can be offset by other blank spaces in the frame. Colour-wise, the golden lichens on the cross have their counterpoint in the lingering sunset reflected in the windows.

Memento mori: Succinct Latin remembrance that we all die, each in our time.

1 sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500



Memento mori 2: Kettle angel child

Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery.
Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery. 6.06pm, 10 April 2018

Rarely have I taken such a strange, otherworldly scene such as this. The funereal gold, grey and alabaster are relieved only by the faint sunset and the industrial background. In using flash I could easily have hand-held the shot; instead I struggled to compose on a tripod (already set up for long exposure possibilities). Flash is ideal for highlighting form over colour, but its great powers of definition involve high contrast, which I have softened here in post-processing. Twilight alone would not have chiselled the angel child nor have gilded the name so remarkably.

Memento mori: Latin for “Remember that we all have to die”, a reflection on our respective entrances and exits from the long-running Stage of Life. Of course “We are born alone … and die alone”, but what really matters is that these existential bookends happen gently, and with loving support.

1/250th sec at f8. 50mm; ISO 250

Memento mori 1: Angel at sunset

Angel at sunset, Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth
Angel at sunset, Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth. 6.21pm, 10 April 2018

I have begun a new project: a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, taken by day and night, styled under the Latin term above. No longer a common phrase, memento mori  translates to “Remember that you have to die”, meant as a reflection on our inevitable mortality. Cemeteries, and particularly older ones, are sanitised theme parks testifying to this hugely inconvenient fact.

They are also places where one can nod to one’s ancestors and their collaterals, witness innumerable past lives (some long; many short) and war casualties, and see unusual sculptural forms. It is generally the only place where Westerners can encounter angels, which are very distinctive forms and ones I rather like.

There are two main challenges here, the main one being to balance the flash with the steadily fading daylight – this requires an effort with aperture selection and distance, owing to flash fall-off. For example I would’ve preferred f8 or f11 (rather than f5.6) for better depth of focus, but these weren’t practicable because the flash was not so strong at that distance. The second consideration is to crop surnames from headstones wherever possible, although occasionally a single distinctive name adds to the effect, as we shall see in due course.

Karoro Cemetery is on Greymouth’s outskirts; it is a large and open setting, on a long, flattish terrace; we walked there in a roundabout way from the holiday park below.  My Thai companions walked through the place  reluctantly, from cultural apprehensions, and did not linger. However I found plenty of interest, as night gradually fell.

1/250th sec at f5.6; Nikon 85mm; ISO 250


222. Foothills from Fox Glacier

Foothills from Fox Glacier. 8.32 pm, 28 April 2012

As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be, you can’t see how it is.   – Ram Dass

28mm; ISO 2000. 94 seconds at f8. Light balance 3030 deg K.


217. Just keep going

Just keep going, Fox Glacier. 10.37pm, 24 April 2012

 Just keep going. No feeling is final.  –  Rainer Maria Rilke

28mm, ISO 2000. 30 secs at f4. Light balance 3030 deg K


47. Moonlit figure at Okarito

Moonlit figure at Okarito. 16 May 1981

NOTE: Please feel free to comment on this or any earlier post – your appreciation (or lack of it) for particular images will assist me in picture selection for future calendars or book projects. I will leave this open unless the flood of comment-spam becomes unbearable. In this regard, any non-specific comment will most likely be deleted.

In the autumns of 1981 and 1982 I did photo tours of the South Island in a fitted-out van, cruising at a leisurely 40 mph (65 km/hr). With two Pentaxes for my own photography, I could enjoy monochrome or colour just as I preferred, as long as I had both cameras in harness – plus the large format gear for the calendar photos we were actually there for. Truth be told, each time I had an obliging assistant to help with the portage.

Arriving mid-May at Okarito, South Westland, just before dark, we parked near the old boathouse (still there today) and soon after, with the moon already up over the lagoon, I set up this self-portrait. That’s our camper in the background, with the highlights predictably burnt out. The real highlight for me though was having the moongleam off my glasses come out exactly as I had intended – two pin-pricks of light. Leaning back against the railing, hands deep in my jacket in the early chill of evening, I tried to guess the angle which would bounce the rays straight at the lens. That this would also be level with the ridge line was happy coincidence.

The translucence shows that I walked into the picture after the shutter was opened; the density of the shot was just as I had visualised it but the cloud movement was not anticipated. After processing Agfa Isopan (100 ISO?) with a reversal kit the slide was sepia toned for further effect. I have no record of actual camera settings but as the widest aperture on my 28mm wide angle was f2.5, shutter time must have been at least 5 minutes, and more likely ten.

46. Bullock Creek moonlight, Punakaiki

Bullock Creek moonlight, Punakaiki. 7 April 1982

Bullock Creek is not far from the pancake rocks at Punakaiki, on the South Island’s West Coast. This 40-minute exposure by moonlight was taken by the side of the gravel road running up the pastoral floor of the canyon to the backcountry of Paparoa National Park. Mist slowly forms in the middle distance; the limestone cliffs have numerous caves  at river level; the trees are all kahikatea, a white pine which doesn’t mind soggy ground – and nor does the flax. The star trails show their curve around the south pole, so we are looking east or southeast here.

The view is wide angle (28mm) and at least a half-hour of open aperture is evident in the length of the star trails, as these take longer with a wide angle. Exposures of this length don’t occur to me very often, as usually I’m weighing up the chance of getting 5 other shots for the same time spent.

Also there are other constraints, even when battery life was irrelevant back in the time of film. Why risk your lens misting up on an autumn evening with a shot lasting an hour? And because with such long exposures you tend to walk away from your gear – to sit in the car, on the porch or best of all, around the campfire – the risk of disturbance is so much the greater from stock, wild animals, walkers and dogs, hunters’ vehicles. We were camped fairly close by, so for this one I returned to comfort and company to wait out the time. No one drove by the entire night.

The monochrome here is Kodak’s fine grain Panatomic-X, 32 ISO. Although this was not a film I used much, the results when reversal-processed with a special kit were impressive. I then sepia-toned the slide for extra contrast. After scanning, however, I decided the more neutral cast given it by “Auto colour correction” was just as appealing, and that’s how you see it.

36. April evening, Woodstock, near Hokitika

April evening at Woodstock. 8 April 1981

We were touring the South Island on a calendar assignment, and had arrived for Easter at Graham’s bucolic pad at Woodstock, south of Hokitika. He and Sue were paying $10 a week for this… everything in sight here had seen better days, including my white Morris van peeping around the corner. However the derelict Wolseley was a spare. The house was just back from the highway; oddly neither house nor highway are there now, the main road south being moved coastways sometime in the 1990s.

This looks wide angle; actual exposure was unrecorded but likely to be f8 for an hour.  Assuming your gear is safe from hazard or interference, long exposures from a garden can be quite comfortable ones for the photographer, as you head back indoors for the duration – while keeping one eye on the clock.

A faint star trail is visible above the roofline although moonlit skies are really too bright to do the stars justice. The breeze has blurred the washing on the line, as well as the trees at the back. The house lights are not direct; even after soaking through the curtains their wattage is stronger than the wan sunlight reflected by the moon (just 1 or 2 watts). The water tank supplied the household; the late tomatoes supplied the salad. Further interest could be added had I got someone to stand for just a few minutes on the path to the right of the tomatoes. A spectral figure would then deliver a compositional third punch.

The film was Kodak’s slowest panchromatic B&W, Panatomic X, rated at 32 ISO as I recall. It was developed by a reversal process and then sepia toned, to add contrast. This procedure was a fraught one as frames were toned singly and I lost a good number to careless handling. However this one survived, to be screened many times as a personal favourite; fortunately I understand the sepia chemicals make it resistant to light-fade.