Jowitt, who died at the end of July, loved to
discover and document secret societies and secluded worlds. Jowitt is justly
famous for the photographs he took during his travels through the tropical
Pacific in the 1980s and ‘90s, but I wanted to praise two images that he made
very early in his career.
While he was
a student at Ilam Art School in the late 1970s, Jowitt became preoccupied with
horse racing, and began to travel with his camera to courses around Canterbury.
With its elaborate rules, bizarrely named animals, erudite, laconic tipsters, and conspiratorial
trainers and jockeys, the racing industry was and remains a society within New
portrait of a Canterbury jockey appeared in Jowitt’s first book, Racing Day. With his youth, his pallor,
and his dirty face, the jockey might remind us, at first sight, of the
chimneysweeps or underage coal miners preserved in nineteenth century daguerreotypes.
But where those victims of Victorian commerce offered aimed weary and
embarrassed gazes at their pitying photographers, Jowitt’s jockey looks
haughtily down at the camera. He is proud of his role in the world Jowitt has
entered, and he needs nothing from the photographer or the photographer’s
audience. He wears the fresh racetrack mud in the same way that a young man in
another culture might wear war paint.
graduating from Ilam, Jowitt began to photograph another secret society. He
spent months drifting across Canterbury with members and associates of Black
Power, which had become, by the beginning of the 1980s, New Zealand’s biggest gang.
An astonishing series of photographs shows gang members journeying out of
Christchurch and into the empty spaces of the Canterbury Plains.
countryside of Canterbury has often posed problems for the Pakeha imagination.
Even before the arrival of pyromaniacal European settlers, the Plains had lost their
forests to fire. As they looked westward from the tight little colonial town of
Christchurch, colonists were troubled by the emptiness that separated them from
the Southern Alps. The peaks and glaciers and valleys of the Alps could be
safely praised, in Wordsworthian language, for their Sublimity, and happily
sketched and painted by weekend excursionists. The formless flatlands, though,
were harder to assimilate. Colonial diarists deplored their ‘desolation’.
psychological and well as economic needs, imperial planners drew straight lines
across maps of Canterbury. Crops and stock were raised on rectangular and
triangular farm blocks; hedges and gothic churches were planted, as guardians
against the tormenting emptiness.
By the time
John O’Shea made his road movie Runaway
in 1964, Pakeha audiences could consider the Canterbury Plains a cosy, calm
place. Taking a stolen car across the lush, flat twilit farms of Canterbury on
his way to the Southern Alps, the protagonist of Runaway enters a sort of trance, and believes that he is flying
rather than driving his machine.
culture’s paradise can be another’s desert. For their former owners, the Plains
had become, by the second half of the twentieth century, an alien landscape.
Ancestral rivers had been straightened into drains; lamprey weirs had been
replaced by pumphouses; willows had usurped flax bushes; NO TRESPASSING signs
frustrated old pathways. For Black Power members habituated to the boozy
solidarity of Christchurch’s seedier clubs and pubs, the Plains must have seemed
empty and exposed.
photograph is called Devil and Baldie,
after its protagonists. Running out of road, the two gang members have driven
across an expanse of grass. Have they stopped deliberately or broken down, at
this apparently random spot in the middle of a paddock? The Southern Alps are a
line of low hills on the horizon. The sky might have turned grey with age.
reluctant to leave the safety of the car. He hunches by one of its open doors,
hiding under his Afro. It is left to Baldie, who has been identified by other
photographs as a senior member of Black Power in Canterbury, to walk into the
a cowboy hat, but he has arrived in this landscape too late: the frontier has
been closed, the title deeds have been drawn up, hedges and fences and police
stations have been raised, and an outlaw can hope to find neither refuge nor
jockey exists safely inside his alternate society; Devil and Baldie, by
contrast, have been separated from the sanctuaries and rituals of their world,
and given to a strange and malicious landscape.
began as yet another attempt to write something for hashtag500words, the website
set up last year by the artists and curators Louisa Afoa and Lana Lopesi. As
its name suggests, Afoa’s and Lopesi’s site limit its contributors to five
hundred words. I’ve now run hopelessly over that word limit three times; as a
failed student of the haiku, I should have known that I’d lack the concision
that Afoa and Lopesi require. Take a look at hashtag500words anyway.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]