The little boxes of New Zealand life

Mary Macpherson on the boring paradise of New Zealand life

We know these houses – stucco or weatherboard, modestly attractive, net covered windows, clipped lawns, roses, orderly flowerbeds. They’re the ones that line the streets of the provincial suburbs and the further-flung city suburbs. I grew up in one, brick and tile with an enormous lawn and immaculate garden, except that being in Dunedin it wouldn’t have qualified for Derek Henderson’s Milk Run project of revisiting the Hastings houses and streets where he delivered milk in the 1970s.

Henderson, an Auckland and Sydney-based photographer, works across the genres of fashion, portraiture, architecture and landscape. In his personal work he’s a strong contributor to the New Zealand tradition of photographing small rural towns, begun by Robin Morrison’s classic 1981 The South Island From the Road. Henderson is less sentimental than Morrison in his view of the provinces, perhaps a result of growing up there. His first book The Terrible Boredom of Paradise mixed ennui and beauty as he recaptured the feeling of a child’s eye view of small towns seen from the backseat of his parents’ car. Mercy Mercer, a study of the small Waikato town of Mercer where his mother grew up, draws on more lyrical photographic traditions.

Unlike the hardcover books of those projects, Milk Run is published as outsize zine by Wellington’s Bad News Books, a nod to the post-lockdown economy. While the zine’s photocopy reproduction doesn’t glow with printer’s ink, it does chime in a low-key way with the neutral stance of the images.

To revisit the Hastings streets where he pushed his milk crate trolley around in the early morning, Henderson photographed the houses front on, without people, pets or signs of life. With the choice of overcast light as backdrop and uniformly curtained windows, the houses and their yards are open for intense study by the viewer, as if we were in the shoes of that milk boy, learning to look.

Henderson has chosen his subjects carefully. Each yard reveals something different, the two sentinel cypresses of 616 Grove Road, the gapped fence and well-spaced flowers of 522a Fenwick St and the delicacy of the iron fence of 516 Fenwick St, which somehow links to the turquoise outlines and bronze frames on the front windows. My favourite was the outlier pink 706 Tamatea St where a cottage type garden has been allowed to grow beside and beyond the fence.  The houses reminded me of the era of china figurines that once sat in china cabinets or on special shelves, the curlicues of shepherdesses out of reach of little girls.

Although the houses have a nostalgic appeal, with a sense that perhaps not much has changed since they were built, and some may be ex-state houses, we know they’re the site of real and continuing lives. But by choosing a cool stance to photograph, Henderson has lifted them almost to being types, a modest New Zealand we know and are grateful to be shown. That the images come from a region that hypes Art Deco architecture as a tourist drawcard makes them all the more enjoyable.   

708 Tamatea St, Hastings, January 20 at 7:19am
522a Fenwick Street, Hastings, January 22 at 7:04am
616 Grove Road, Hastings, January 17 at 6:30am

 Milk Run by Derek Henderson (Bad News Books, $25) is available from the publisher. 

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

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