From the vantage point of dry land, the tributaries of the Piako awa can appear as glassy, opaque bodies of water with minimal signs of movement. The surface current gently pulls the face of the water in various directions; the reflected sky distorted by soft ripples disappearing into riverbank grasses. Close to this bank a lightproof case is partially suspended underwater; its oscillating movements belie the force of the currents below where freshwater microorganisms drift through organic detritus, algae and farm run-off. Within this case lives a 4x5” negative film sheet, protected from the light but exposed to the pollutants and life of the site–a small object capable of making visible the Hauraki Plains’ vulnerable freshwater ecology.
After two to four weeks of comingling with cyanobacteria, agricultural waste products, salt- and freshwater currents, each field recording is transported in its sediment-covered container back to the darkroom. Here the intangible and the toxic is translated by Kate van der Drift’s hand from negative film to contact print, exposed to light, enlarged and transformed into a dazzling chromatic image. Notice the colour gradients; translucent folds and diaphanous layers against areas of deep, vivid blue or purple, imbued with a sense of three-dimensional depth as if the water has left a phantom imprint of its life-force. The bright hues of these large-format prints are determined primarily by exposure times–they help us to “listen” to the awa as van der Drift suggests, our usual tendency to overlook what is out of sight countered with the auratic presence of these larger-than-life images.
Early photographic technology arrived in Aotearoa shortly after colonisation. ‘Promotional landscapes’ by photographers were used to demonstrate how industrious tracts of land could be if converted to settlements. In places like the Hauraki Plains–the setting for these river exposures–this illusion has caused ongoing strife as the land attempts to return to its former wetland state. Local farmers expend large amounts of capital to prevent flooding or exceeding run-off limits in wet seasons, despite Joseph Banks' early claims that “Swamps might doubtless easily be drained” to establish a colony in the region. In contrast to this colonial legacy of photography in areas like the Plains, van der Drift’s cameraless approach enables chance, indeterminacy and co-authorship with the non-human at each site; a restorative method which resists a more possessive gaze over the landscape.
For the larger part of its history photography was thought to be, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “distinguished by its immediacy, its authenticity, and the remarkable fact that its eye sees more than the human eye. The camera shows everything.” The potentially distorting effects of photographic media has now been known for decades, its claim to mechanical accuracy replaced by a belief that, as much as painting or literature, the medium is also subject to the artist and viewer’s personal biases, omissions and projections. Contemporary artists like van der Drift acknowledge this room for creative license in their practice while retaining photography’s unique evidentiary qualities, testing the medium’s inherent tensions.
While van der Drift’s practice extends to moving image and field interviews, the medium at the centre of her practice is the contact print, a method of cameraless analogue photography. Experiments with contact prints appealed to 19th and early 20th century scientists for their ability to capture previously invisible phenomena at a distinct time and place. The titles of each print here nods to this slippage between art and science: Waxing Gibbous to Waxing Crescent, November 2022 II, 37°25'47.4"S 175°30'39.2"E, for example, acts as an index of the time and location where negative film was placed in the awa to listen to the non-human matter below. Through direct physical contact with the resulting photographic positive, the impressions embedded in each surface act as a physical record of a subject’s existence in time.
Text by Nina Dyer
‘I would like to acknowledge and extend gratitude toward tāngata whenua of the Hauraki Plains, Ngāti Hako, the land and waters where this research is situated, and which I have visited as manuhiri while making work. With a deep respect for Te Ao Māori and its inherent interconnected understanding of the more-than-human world, this research seeks to understand some of Hauraki’s social and ecological system stories, their connections and interdependencies.’ - Kate van der Drift