There’s something surreal about this David Cook image. There’s a jolt of nostalgia for childhood in the 1990s, but an uneasy kind of light, caused by the use of the camera flash in daylight.
Te Papa curator Athol McCredie first saw David Cook’s photography in the 1980s.
According to McCredie, the photographer and his partner bought a house in a low-income, state housing area in Hamilton, an area which was a mixture of privately owned and rental houses.
The feel of the community was what captured Cook’s imagination. Kids played on the streets and down at the river, people worked on cars in their front yards, and neighbours knew each other well.
“David decided to just document the community around him,” McCredie said.
He was cycling home from work one day in 1993, without his camera. On seeing the girls up the tree, he asked their mum for permission to photograph them, and rushed home to get his camera.
Te Papa curator Athol McCredie with 'Plunket Terrace', 1993. From the series, 'Jellicoe and Bledisloe', 1993–1997, by David Cook.
The resulting photo was called Plunket Terrace, part of Cook’s series, Jellicoe and Bledisloe, 1993–1997.
“Most of these photos, they’re taken with flash in daylight, and it produces a kind of surreal effect,” McCredie said.
The angle and proximity were surreal too. “It’s like the girls are isolated, hovering in the sky. You lose the context, because you don’t see the tree is connected to the ground.”
Cook was inspired by British photographers, Martin Parr being the best known. Their style represented a break from traditional documentary photography.
“I’ve not seen anything like this in NZ before,” McCredie said.
It was important to collect items like this “to document a community which has now changed”.
The neighbourhood was now a heritage area, thoroughly gentrified. “It documented a moment in time.”
It is unknown who the subjects of the photograph are, but for McCredie, who had two girls in the 90s himself, it was hugely nostalgic.
“It tells us as a nation, as a people, who we are and where we’ve been.”
Cook, now based in Wellington, is known for his documentation of Christchurch, and then later Hamilton, where he did a series on the Hamilton river, and a “significant and striking” series on a small coal mining town, Rotowaro.
The town was obliterated when the mine underneath subsided; people were moved away, and the town was demolished.
This photograph is not on display at Te Papa, rather part of the behind-the-scenes collection, of which there are more than 200,000 catalogued items – many negatives and transparencies – about 70,000 prints, and a “fair number” of uncatalogued items too.
“Photography is a medium which we use every day, on our cellphones and in magazines, but a lot of photographs aren’t thoughtful, or documentary in the sense that David's are, deliberately.”
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