Steve Braunias reviewed the new edition of The South Island of New Zealand — From the Road


Steve Braunias has written an excellent and comprehensive review on Newsroom of the newly republished The South Island of New Zealand — From the Road by Robin Morrison:

Once more unto That 70s Show. New Zealand publishers have gone crazy for the 1970s this past year, issuing forth a range of fascinating, anthropological journeys into that recent peak-Boomer past, such as Nick Bollinger's Jumping Sundays (the rise and fall of 70s counterculture in Aotearoa), the Robin White retrospective Something Is Happening Here (all those 70s Kodachrome colours in her beautiful prints), and Jan Kemp's small but beautifully formed memoir Raiment (sort of bearing witness to the first wave of 70s feminism but more so a document of 70s sex). And now a new and really beautifully republished edition of the Robin Morrison classic, The South Island of New Zealand From the Road, our photographic Dark Side of the Moon, a greatest cosmic hit, fixing an image of the South Island in the minds of the North Island.

The photos were taken on a six-month roadtrip ("I travelled 18,000 miles with my family", he trainspots in the preface) in 1979. Alister Taylor published the first edition in 1981. God it was a tatty piece of publishing. The binding was as loose as a goose; only John Dix's Stranded in Paradise fell apart as quickly. And yet it felt like it achieved legendary status overnight. Like Robin White's prints of the fish and chip shop in Maketū and Sam Hunt in a singlet outside the Portobello pub, Morrison's photos showed you a New Zealand you always knew existed but no one had captured. The South Island of New Zealand From the Road confirmed your sense of a  land of space and sky and the bright light of the Pacific. He dealt in New Zealand characteristics. He turned the South Island into a kind of Kiwiana. It was hardcase. It was just making enough to make ends meet. It was empty, it was sad, it was down the end of lonely street; it was settler territory, and it was very white.

Strange to look at the book again in the 2023 Massey University Press iteration. Massey makes the best illustrated books in New Zealand and has produced another gorgeous piece of publishing. It's a museum piece, clean and elegant, although the placement of captions is weird (sometimes you have to flip a page forward, sometimes you have to flip a page back), and the pages are unnumbered. Hamish Keith writes a pompous introduction ("I can see that, as Pākehā New Zealanders, Robin Morrison and I were on the same journey" etc) but at least it's brief. Louise Callan, at more length, provides a celebratory although not entirely uncritical introduction. She interviews some of the usual suspects – of course Dick Frizzell is a Robin Morrison fan – but architect Pip Cheshire says, "Looking at the book today, there are all sorts of things that are not addressed, like the absence of Māori."’

Read the full review here.