It’s early morning at Moke Lake.
In the still waters, the triangles of steep-sided hills extend into diamonds – a continuation of mountain and sky so seamless that it casts doubt on normal perspective.
What is up or down when the mirror image is so perfectly presented?
Yep. It’s true. I certainly have the same massive and rapidly growing library of reflection shots and of sunsets – endless variations of the changing play of colour over sea, islands, lake, mountains.….
A cliché maybe. But for me these rampantly extravagant light shows still evoke a sense of excitement, awe and, from somewhere, a huge inner contentment that seems to help justify human existence. Here, at the reflective end of evolution’s abundant experimentation, we can at least bear witness to the wonder of it all.
It makes all this snapping away seem something more than an exercise in aesthetics – the creation of a satisfying shot. It feels like capturing a little essence of wonder that can be pulled out again and again, when needed. A sort of reassurance.
I don’t remember ever talking to Dad about the nature of his own obsession with the capture of light – though there were times when we found ourselves happily clicking away at a sunset, side by side. But I don’t doubt a lifetime of exposure – so to speak – rubbed off.
It could easily have happened during the many slideshows he stage managed for our immediate family, for visitors and, later, for his grandkids and even great grandkids.
These shows were a family tradition. A ritual.
His old single slide projector would be hauled from its box and put on a fold-out table. With fan loudly whirring and white screen pulled up, right-sized books were found to centre the bright white light to best effect while whichever kids were present inevitably experimented with crooked fingers, making rabbit ears or yapping dogs to chase across the screen until dad got the focus sorted. Then the signal to whoever was stationed by the switch – lights out.
The room would fill with images. Family. My sister aged about 10 and apparently (well, according to my father) testing thought transference forehead to forehead with a gentle, bell-hung Swiss cow; me balancing on a log crossing a rushing alpine stream; both of us dressed in matching duffel coats and knitted hats standing proudly by a lumpy snowman; my mum, bright against a snowy slope or carefully placed in a shot of mountains caught in a still lake.
Scenery. There were always mountains, lakes and, yes, reflections. Lots of them. Not to mention sunsets, sunrises….
I was doomed, really.
Not only was there the magic of slide evenings but the equally exciting and ritualistic magic of the darkroom. I remember how Dad could turn the bathroom of our Talgarth home into his photo processing lab. The addition of a few planks of wood across the bath provided space for developing trays. The bath itself held water for the final wash.
I loved being allowed to watch quietly in the dim red light as images miraculously appeared on blank paper. Later when I found a flat in Auckland that actually had its own darkroom, I shared similar sessions with my son. I don’t know if he is still hooked on the smell of photographic chemicals. I am – though there’s no longer much excuse for a darkroom.
I suspect my Dad would have loved Photoshop if he could have brought himself to engage in the computer age. Despite the lack of time left after tending to a busy rural practice, big garden and young family, he managed to experiment a bit with photographic printing and he certainly had the patience to play.
Before the advent of colour print film, he used to print in black and white and then hand colour his portraits of family members – eyes bluer, lips redder than reality. All done with the same painstaking care he applied to the detailed marquetry pictures he made.
Here, in the South Island, I am very much aware of following in his footsteps. I’ve photographed reflections at some of his favourite haunts – Lakes Alexandrina, Ruataniwha, Pukaki and Moke. I’ve watched the sun sink over mountain ranges whose names he knew by heart.
I can still hear his voice over the projector’s whirr identifying specific peaks as they slid across the screen – a rollcall of respect for the places that gave him such pleasure. I still envy his amazing memory – something I failed to inherit.
And just recently, I walked the gentle track up through Mt Peel Forest to the “Big Tree”.
It was one of my parents’ well-worn rambles.
Just a few months before he died, aged 92, I’d got a letter from Dad. He and mum had made it to the Big Tree and there was a photo of mum posed against its massive trunk to prove it. She’s warmly dressed in a camouflage coloured jacket and matching hat gazing straight into the camera, hand firmly on her stick. It’s one of my favourite photos.
As I walked, I could picture them. Mum leaning forward slightly, stick pushing her determinedly up the gravel path – and as usual a few steps ahead of Dad. His progress slower but steady. Sometimes stopping to catch breath. What was once barely an incline to my two fit, alpine tramping parents had become a challenge of gravity for the aging bodies that contain their willing minds.
For Dad, the uphill bits had become a real hurdle. Mum’s uncertain balance made downhills tougher. But they did it. I could see Dad sitting on the bench near the tree, reaching in his jacket pocket for something to celebrate the achievement – a muesli bar, an apple. He always had something to share.
He was so proud that they made it.
I was thinking of him again the other evening as I sat on “snail’s” steps, clicking away at the Southern sun’s long twilight tumble through every shade of yellow, orange and red toward the purple hills above Lake Pukaki. Sometimes I think he is helping stage manage the show.
I am so grateful for his heritage, so grateful to be here, to see this. I hope to never cease wondering at the magic cast by the changing play of light.