Photographing the dark heart

Photographing the dark heart

Drunk woman and friend, Colombo Street

Poised on the pin hinging this millennium to the last, perhaps a little before, perhaps a little after, I began to photograph the city where I have spent most of my life.

For most of us, the place where we live becomes as familiar as the back of our hand…and as foreign. It becomes comfortable and known, and therefore able to be ignored. As a result we begin to clothe it in nostalgia and memories, layers as many and thick as clothing on a winter’s day. The city’s true self becomes buried beneath preconception and illusion. We begin to ignore it and see what we choose to see.

So it was for me.  I walked blithely and blindly about the city for several decades, happy to participate in a shared sense of England relocated, a piece of the Old Country rooted in the swamps of another Canterbury on the other side of the world. I was helped by the orderly layout, along with the infrequent neoGothic and occasional neoclassical architecture in the central city. A strong Anglican upbringing helped, as did attendance as a  school whose motto was “good tradition, well-maintained”, which organised us into houses, and sent us home each night with ’prep’ rather than homework. Avon, Oxford, Worcester, Hereford and Manchester were all names I grew up with, reinforcing a transplanted, self-conscious sense of place to which we clung at the time. Visitors to the country were

asked what they thought of New Zealand. Superlatives were expected as a matter of course, denigration taken personally.

The illusion persisted for decades, helped by municipal authorities who realised that our English heritage was the key to attracting tourism and encouraged the establishment of activities like trams and punting within the central city. Christchurch’s sleepy self-satisfaction continued for decades. I bought into the myth, choosing to ignore the ugly modernism and Post-modernism which appeared and began to open cracks in the Englishness of the city. I chose to ignore the temporary architecture, the bland dourness of Blenheim Road, the built-to-a-price impermanence of the light industrial areas, where function overwhelmed form. I shuddered and looked away.

Then the millennium came and my curiosity aroused, I began to look closer, to see who this city really was. Why don’t you photograph the Strip, one of my photography pupils suggested? The what? I replied.  You know, Friday night, on Oxford Terrace. She was speaking a foreign language. Tell me about that, I suggested. For the next 20 minutes, with her classmates chipping in here and there, she painted me a picture of the party scene, of all that happened, of the energy and light and music. I was fascinated.

Cities evolve organically and parasitically, initially planned to accommodate the needs of their inhabitants and, like all institutions, end up being served by them.  Curiosity and my camera sent me on a journey to explore and understand this relationship.  For nearly a year I went downtown on Friday nights, hunting for photographs, scratching beneath the surface in search of the truth. This didn’t seem to be the sleepy hollow of my youth, where New Zealand shut up shop at 9 pm on Friday night and only reopened at 9 am on Monday. It had become an all-night party. There was light and laughter and music, as the dogs were let out for the night. There were mating rituals to be observed. There were fights to be skirted around. There was the continual dance between chaos and conservatism, between the natural rebelliousness of the young and the serious stolidity of the police as they moved around. There was the young, cruising Colombo Street in their blinged-out Japanese imports, doing just enough to be noticed by the Law, but not enough to be arrested. It was a game which played out each week.

I began to see that the city was a Jekyll and Hyde. By day Christchurch was sleepy and almost village-like, sensible and conservative, the pillar of a provincial and essentially rural community. Good tradition was carefully fostered and well-maintained. I could sense W.C. Fendall and the founding fathers of this city-on-a-swamp looking approvingly on.  Hagley Park provided the green axle for the reasonableness of Christchurch by day. Moderation.  Everything in its time and nothing to excess.

By night however, the city’s dark heart showed itself.  Standing in the shadows observing, as documentary photographers do, I would note the sensible secretaries of the day arrive with their dark hats on, eager for excitement and (just a little) danger. I would watch the youths begin to filter into the area around 9:30, buoyed by collective bravado, keen to make an impression and find a girl. The early ones would arrive dressed for the skateboard park, dishevelled and scruffy. They almost never succeeded.  Then the girls would appear in swarms and, mature beyond their years, climb chattering and giggling out of taxis and shuttles. They would flit by, gilded moths under the streetlight, and completely ignore the dazed, unkempt boys, who would resort to option two; get drunk and fight. The darkness would descend, the dark heart would take over, and by 2: 30 am I would slide away before my camera drew violence down upon me.

But I was a moth myself, drawn to the light and the colour and the dark charm of Life Unleashed. For nearly a year I lived in the artificial, transient glamour of the city centre by night, protected by the fact that I was old enough to be everybody’s father and therefore no threat to anybody’s ego, but young enough to be able to enjoy what I was seeing and to understand it. While I had no wish to get involved with the angst of teenage mating and turf rituals, I could participate vicariously.

Then one night, standing outside KFC in Colombo Street, it came to an end  Older people had begun to participate in the dance and new bars were springing up on the fringes to cater for the teenagers’ disgust. . A car pulled up and several women in their thirties got out, eager to satiate a bad case of the munchies. One of the members of this Girls Night Out group saw my camera and asked what I was doing. I shared my project. I then happened to notice that one of them was fast asleep, her head leaning on the car window. I pointed to her and asked. She explained that their friend had made one bar and then nodded off. She threw her head back, laughed joyfully and then went to join her friends inside.

It was done. The journey was over, the project complete. Reason was beginning to infect the Night. Dr Jekyll was reasserting himself. I went home without finishing the roll of film.

From time to time however I would walk the streets, in case there was any energy, but there wasn’t.  Dour anti-cruising laws and the recession had killed off any remaining youthful enthusiasm. The kids had given up in disgust and gone elsewhere.

Then September 4 came and the city’s heart suffered a massive coronary. February 22 put it in intensive care and June 13 finished the patient off. The city centre went dark and all life ceased.

I needed to see, I needed to compare.

With a few hours to myself I drove into town, following a route I travelled often while working on my project. I parked in Salisbury Street behind the Convention Centre, got out my camera and walked to the corner, confronting the first of the black, blank spaces in front of me. There should have been light and movement and life from the Thai restaurant which had sprung up from the memory of a home appliance shop. A blank, carefully-cleaned…space was all that remained. There were no cars, no people, and no streetlights. Somehow I had become an actor in some post-apocalyptic movie.

As I stood there, a man came along. He was dressed in dark clothing with a beanie pulled down around his ears. He stopped in the middle of the street, saw me in the darkness and began to talk.

It is horrifying, isn’t it? They usually use that word or something similar. True, I said.

He went on. I have family down here, he said, and I wanted to see it for myself.

O, where are you from?

Auckland. I have a small company with reps all over the South Island. I had time off, he continued, and I came in to see.

We walked around the corner.

He gestured to a slightly lighter shadow, a gap in the gloom. That used to be Valentinos, he said. We had some wonderful nights there.

True, I said. I can remember some great times as well.

There used to be this wonderful grocer’s shop down there (he gestured down the street), with rickety shelves and all sorts of wonderful things.

Johnson’s, I replied. The bicycle and the white apron. And the amazing smells. I vaguely remember tins of turtle soup in the window. You used to be able to buy genuine Stilton there.

The silence hung, dark and lifeless, clinging frozen-faced to the dead structures.

We introduced ourselves (Simon: Tony) and he walked away, heading back up Colombo Street to his motel.

I stood for a moment, wrapped in the silence, peering into the oppressive, murky silence. In the shadows across the road, parked behind the ubiquitous wire fences, whose temporary placement made them metaphors for what had happened, were two huge diggers at rest, their saw-toothed trunks resting on the stony soil.

I wandered down to the corner and pressed my face to the fence. The traffic lights flashed, slow and desultory, a flickering remnant of energy in a lifeless gloom.

There before was something I had never seen. Darkness, shadow, an absence of Life. No streetlights, no neons, no people. Shadow built upon shadow, darkness layered upon darkness. The minimal sickle of the moon had no hope of piercing the dead, cold heart of the city. A subtle shift in the shadow allowed me to see an outline of one corner of the Price Waterhouse building against the sky, but no more.

I turned the corner and walked along in front of the Town Hall, a watcher in the shadows, looking for life.  Newspaper blew across the footpath and wrapped it self around my ankles. Yesterday’s news. Across the street, behind the fences, the Park Royal (whatever it had become) hung lifeless in the dull air above me, curtains mostly drawn back. Were rats beginning to make themselves at home here, to make nests in the king-size beds, I wondered. I ambled on, around the corner and past the casino, as bright and garish as ever. You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

I shuddered and walked back to my car. On the way back, I stopped to look at the Guardian Trust building. Its quirky, lopsided angles, reminiscent of the Ettamogah pub, and the presence of a green rubbish skip in front struck me as highly ironic. But ennui and a certain grief had gripped me and I chose not to photograph it.

Did you get any photographs? she asked.

No, not really, I replied.

I prefer to remember it as it was.

Then I remember.

As I drove around the cordon perimeter earlier, away in the distance, somewhere along Tuam Street, the orange glow of  a few street lights offers hope. There is still life in the dark centre.

And the wonderful document released by the city council. I remember its breathtaking vision for a green city, its plan for a  new heart, a new era for Christchurch.

The light, the colour, the energy will return.

The city will arise again, the phoenix will renew itself.

2 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    I read your evocative description of Christchurch in two parts and see a Yin-Yang symbol. First the Yang, the brightness that held within its own heart the dark seeds of destruction.

    Then the Yin, the darkness, which culminates in the dark heart you speak of. But within the Yin are the seeds of Yang, new light.

    For me the new light is spoken of so powerfully in the draft plan for the revival of Christchurch, available at:

    It’s a great document to page through – filled with a sense of new possibilities.

  2. garry says:

    Knowing when to let go is a skill we all need to use at times but….

    With a photography project you get so wrapped in making the best images possible, how to exhibit them etc that you forget that one day the project will be at an end. It will be time to move on. There WILL be something else that will consume our creative juices. But when the time comes to say “to hell with this I’ve had enough” it becomes blindingly obvious & the final images are not as good as earlier ones.

    After the Christchurch earthquakes there has been a lot of talk about saving the past. Some time one when you look at some of the old buildings that were deemed to be “heritage” in fact they were only old shi**ers. Yes there were a few lovely old buildings that I hope get saved but for the rest….their heritage value was limited at best. It’s time to move on. Let’s get on with building a new, cutting edge, green city.

    We can look back on past projects but we need to move forward.

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