In September of 2017 Auckland based photographer and publisher, Haruhiko Sameshima was invited to undertake a short, 3 week teaching and artist residency within the photography studio at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury. With financial help from a U.C. Harkness Fund grant, Sameshima was asked to mentor and work alongside a group of second year students as they undertook a collaborative documentary project photographing Christchurch’s central city rebuild.
In order to try grasp what he was getting himself into, Sameshima visited Christchurch before starting his residency and spent the best part of a week exploring the central city streets; the first time he’d ever stayed more than a few hours within the four avenues. During this time, he tried to reconcile for himself what he’d read and seen on television about the scale of the disaster and recovery, with what he could see with his own eyes.
During the course of these initial explorations, Sameshima and I spoke at length about what he felt was a situation impossible for any outsider to comprehend, let alone depict in a way that communicated any great insight into the realities the city and its people faced in the wake of disaster. He asserted –with characteristic modesty – that while the best he could hope for would be to somehow make images that hinted at elements of history and / or proposed futures, someone in his position could really only ever address the here and now; reproduce views of a city seen through the eyes of someone unburdened by personal memories or politics associated with place, and unfamiliar with what has been or is in the process of being changed forever.
Alongside this kind of preparatory ‘field research’, Sameshima was also able to draw inspiration from his knowledge and appreciation of the work of 19thand early 20thCentury photography. He spent a lot of time looking at images contained within the Canterbury Museum and Alexander Turnbull Library collections, including work by Christchurch photographer, Dr. Alfred Barker, who travelled to Christchurch as a surgeon on the Charlotte Jane in the year 1850. Using wet plate photographic processes and documenting with great proficiency the early settlement and development of Christchurch, Dr. Barker’s photographs often depicted sightlines that until widescale post-earthquake demolition work had not been seen since the turn of the 19thCentury. Conscious of Dr. Barker’s images and significance to Christchurch – but never trying to replicate or parody his work – Sameshima chose to embark on his residency using a Deardorff 8x10” plate camera, a case of dusty, vintage lenses and several boxes of long-expired colour and black and white sheet film. As is typical with Sameshima’s diverse practice, the processes he chose to employ were of fundamental service to his thoughts and vision. Often standing for hours on end in one location, I’d fetch him cups of coffee – short black with a touch of extra hot water – while he pondered whatever it was his lens was pointing towards. “It’s like I’ve joined the priesthood,” he said one evening while waiting for the wind to drop and the clouds to part. “Every sheet of film is precious. Only one shot. It’s a real test of patience, discipline and commitment.”
At the end of each day, Sameshima would return to the School of Fine Arts to use the darkrooms and process his images. The expired film in conjunction with the changeable nature of the chemistry he used to develop it produced remarkable effects. Subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle colour shifts pushed things into unpredictable territory; mottling caused by oxidised Kodak D-76 developer resulted in an effect akin to the look of Dr. Barker’s iconic wet plate images. In a seemingly effortless way and in exceptionally short time, Sameshima produced what could be considered a supplementary chapter to his iconic book, Bold Centuries; a body of work that questions the language of photography and its history of use in New Zealand – perhaps more than how it is utilised as a means of representing the world through the presentation of a series of visual cues, facts and codes. The images that make up this concise portfolio certainly depict the here and now; the views that will surely disappear as new buildings are developed to obstruct sightlines and more “old dungers” go “under the hammer” (thanks, Gerry Brownlee), but they also serve as potent reminders of the extraordinary power of photography to not only memorialise and describe aspects of the world around us, but also hint at things felt and not necessarily seen.
To Haruhiko Sameshima, I say put modesty aside. You’ve easily exceeded your own expectations. More importantly however, you’ve produced a body of work that can teach us all a thing or two about the difference between seeing and looking.
– Tim J. Veling
I happened on the ruin of Dresden Frauenkirche and photographed it in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin wall. It was left as an outdoor museum to remind of the destruction bestowed upon the city in 1945. Like the atomic dome in Hiroshima, the memorial is made more pertinent for the wilful destruction by hands of humans.
A natural disaster, on the other hand, carries a different sentiment attached to the ruins and to its re-build.
When invited by Tim J. Veling to photograph the re-build of the CBD area of Christchurch in the aftermath of the earthquakes, I was unsure of how I would approach such a project. I had only made short visits to the city in the early 1980s when I lived in Dunedin, and sporadic day visits thereafter, before the earthquake. I didn’t realise the extent of destruction over and beyond what was portrayed in the media, the Cathedral and CTV building – the wholesale clearing of rest of the city, until I spent a couple of weeks there in 2016 mounting an exhibition in the newly built BNZ Centre on Hereford Street at the invitation of In Situ Photo Project.
Returning in 2017 to photograph the partial rebuild of the CBD, I realised I’d seen something akin before; the destruction of a city and its subsequent rebuild in the mid-1980s in Auckland, leading up to the 1987 stock-market crash . During that time in Auckland, there was an obsession with mirror faced edifices and watered down post-modern accessories, all designed to fill the gaps created by the criminal and wilful destruction of existing buildings by developers determined to reinvent the city, according to their values. Car parks abound…
What I did not know in 1992 in Germany, is that citizens of Dresden had numbered the rocks from the rubble of Frauenkirche in anticipation of its rebuild, which started in 1994. By 2005 it was restored faithfully to its former glory, 60 years after its destruction by Anglo-American allied forces.
The re-build in Christchurch of course assumed quite a different meaning while I was photographing in September 2017 – despite divided opinion, the Anglican Church decided to restore the badly damaged ChristChurch Cathedral while I was there. When completed, it will be a welcoming landmark that ties the city to its past, among the sea of a reinvented city-of-mirrors.
These photographs were made in a very short burst of time in 2017 during the months of September and October – a re-build snapshot. Using a camera technology more embedded in the 19th century, I have slowed down the seeing. Walking through the rubble and temporary car parks as a modern-day flaneur, I witnessed a new city emerging. People were returning into the CBD in record post-earthquake numbers when H&M opened its doors with the promise to Cantabrians of a world-class shopping experience. I am not sure however what value these photographs serve as a record of transformation; many of the buildings depicted are due for demolition, jostling shoulders with newly built edifices; monuments to commerce and egos. Such juxtapositions will never repeat themselves - it is a suspended animation of the rapid transition. The modernity and city of mirrors Walter Benjamin envisioned in the 19th century Paris Arcades - the epitome of consumer-dream-culture – is alive and well in 21st century Christchurch.