New Ans Westra photographs show a land under threat

Nga Tau ki Muri, Our Future
Ans Westra Suite Publishing
RRP $40.00

Fifty years ago photographer Ans Westra had her book Washday at the Pah banned from use in schools for its apparent negative depiction of rural Maori. The 40,000 print run was destroyed.

Her latest, Nga Tau ki Muri (The Future), is unlikely to face the same fate although, some might question her depiction of a country under threat.

The Christchurch earthquake was a reminder of the way that the forces of nature have shaped the land, particularly through earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Auckland's distinctive landscape is a result of natural forces wreaking havoc. We tend not to pass judgment on nature, however. We don't even rebuke the gods for their interference in our lives.

But when a mere mortal despoils the land we are outraged. We have a strange utopian view about the environment which believes in the quaint notion of preserving land and resources for future generations as though we are running short of things.

There no evidence that this will happen and, anyway, a good population control policy will solve most problems. In the meantime, many people will agonise about the sufferings of the land and its future.

Westra's new book takes this approach showing how the land is being spoiled and scarred by farming, urban development and mining.

She says in her short essay that the arrival of man in New Zealand disturbed the harmony of the natural environment by cutting down forests for farming and building.

Reflected in the photos

She sees a future in which we do not use the resources the country has to offer. This idealistic approach to preserving the natural environment is reflected in the photographs, which show the ravages nature and man have inflicted on the land.

But where some readers will see these images as examples of the violation and destruction of the land, others might view them as images of the land being utilised and husbanded. 

Most books of photographs of New Zealand present the picturesque and dramatic in stunning colour, often with not a person or building in sight, and certainly no developments in progress.

So Westra's work shows a less idealistic view of the land – although she, too, has few people and the buildings are mainly decrepit or possibly picturesque.

Her photographs have always been remarkable examples of the way artists can create images which can mirror political and social concerns. Many of them achieve their power by juxtaposition of images and others focus on single objects in the landscape.

All seem to have a narrative to them as well as a sense of drama. One of the book's problems is that the photographs are so beautiful they disguise the devestating environmental impacts.

Several look like environmental artworks such as those produced by Pauline Rhodes or the interventionist environmental sculptures of Richard Long.

A couple of the views of barren urban development replicate the paintings and drawings of Ruth Cleland and reflect the ambivalent relationship with the land.

One image shows a scarred hillside being prepared for development while in the background nestles Wellington, a city scarred by earthquake and two centuries of developers, but considered one of the world's loveliest cities.

The book is a superbly produced publication with high-quality printing. It is well laid out, with relevant poems and essays by Ans Westra, Russell Norman, Hone Tuwhare, David Lange and BrianTurner.

The one production problem is that the photographs are not  titled .

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