If you’ve befriended a West Aucklander in your time at university, or entered into university as a West Aucklander yourself, it’s likely you have become familiar with the phrase ‘West is best’. I might be known for boasting about washing machine waves at Muriwai, or the salty crumble of a Piha pie. Perhaps due to awe-inducing scenery, like the thundering Karekare waterfall or rolling Te Henga dunes, locals draw a strong regional pride from the cinematic landscapes of West Auckland. Making city friends carsick on a drive to the beach is one of my favourite weekend activities.
In the work of the photographer Olaf Petersen, who spent much of his artistic career scrambling over the sandy mountains of Te Henga, this admiration for the rugged region is clear. Nature Boy features 60 of his best competition images taken between 1930 and 1980. In two cosy rooms on the Museum’s top floor, Petersen’s striking black and white images are complemented by soft, cloudy lighting. The collection catalogues an ever-changing environment, and also calls attention to the relationships between people and the natural world. He’s concerned not only with our blessing to exist within it, but our responsibility to treasure it.
Through his work, Petersen almost always centres the landscape. If people, or people-made objects, are included, it is usually for scale, or as a means of comedy. The photographer seems to enjoy making us seem small and intrusive in the face of defiant natural wonders. In Go Home, Petersen plays with perspective, making a gnarled piece of driftwood tower over a figure in the distance. Similarly, he creates dark contrast between twisting branches and a teeny silhouette in Late Afternoon. In one of his most playful and famous images, a small, wobbly gull chick runs across the sand, assuming a delicate stance.
A couple of the photographs are more overtly political. The 1968 piece Through the Maze shows a man riding his bikes over deep truck tyre tracks buried in the sand. This addresses the issue of over-exploitation of toheroa beds at Muriwai, which was banned in 1976. In a similar focus, Toxic Waste Kills Kids captures a young child next to the titular protest sign during the Waitakere Protection Society Picnic Day at Te Henga. With a child in frame, the strong message of the signage becomes all the more powerful.
Though the various striking photographs would be enough to hold your attention, the exhibition offers a peek into some of Petersen’s field albums, which make you feel much closer to his patient and scrupulous process. A short film also details his experiences with interview clips. Petersen’s care and wonder with the environment becomes obvious with these additions, and provide more context to the taking of these hard earned photographs.
Something that struck me while viewing Nature Boy, and something I couldn’t stop thinking about in my visit to Te Henga later that day, were the efforts of conservation and care that have continued throughout the west coast and Waitākere Ranges since the 1980s. Efforts to protect the biodiversity and native birds of Te Henga wetlands have included community action, with focus on pest control, restoration planting, and various educational and advocacy forms. Rāhui has also been placed over the wider Waitākere forest by Te Kawerau ā Maki, to prevent the spread of kauri dieback. Petersen documented a history of care that continues on today.
It’s bit of a humbling experience for the boasty West Aucklander. Capturing small nuances and changes, and the vulnerability we share with the land, Petersen bows before Te Henga, and encourages the viewer to do the same.
Petersen often represented humans as intrusive beings in the natural environment, and Nature Boy pulls viewer attention to the fragility and beauty of the west coast.