Speaker by Various Artists

15

Christchurch: We're not "apathetic", just busy rebuilding

by Greg Jackson

This year’s local body elections are as weird as Christchurch life in general.

Incumbent Mayor, Lianne Dalziel will romp back in with a few bites on the bum from challenger, John Minto. Four incumbent Councillors and a smattering of Community Board candidates face zilch challenge and are effectively back already.

There is a slight spark of life at ECAN, run by commissioners since National took democratic control away in 2010, where the government  is letting us vote for some seats this time.

I’ve been biting passing pundits on Twitter this week as they roll out their Christchurch reckons, underpinned with the predicate that the voters are  dumb, apathetic and provincial. These “dumb” voters handed out a terrible, informed and clinical whipping to virtually all of the former Council at the last local body elections.

The apathy is relative. As a Christchurch-based three-term mayoral advisor and campaign strategist, I learned to leave the quixotic quest for the youth vote to the idealists and deal with the people who vote. Old people.

Now, "old" is still a pejorative that plasters over the reality that the old have generally learnt a trick or two. Back in 1996, as a reporter, I interviewed the daunting ladies of Ashburton’s retirement community about the national elections and realised that they could see through just about all spin and bullshit. Christchurch’s local body voters are cut from the same parsimonious and flinty-eyed cloth. If you want to get their hearts and minds, speak the truth and use large print.

They also tend to cleave to old Kiwi values like fairness. If they think someone has done a good job they rarely tell them to their face. But they will let it show in the ballot box.

I believe this group has the nous to understand that the first time Dalziel put up her hand for the job it was obviously out of commitment to her home town. In 2013, politically, the mayoralty was a Fukushima-scale poisoned chalice full of very little other than Dick Cheney’s “unknown unknowns”.

Nothing other than an informed decision to risk total burnout turning around a gutted shell of poor governance and failing competence made sense of her decision to stand. The previous council had even lost the power to issue building consents – a ghastly failure in normal times and a tragic one when the need for consents had never been higher.

Dalziel got very lucky in that she also got two major gifts amongst the intake of “new” Councillors.

One was Vicki Buck was an outrageously popular former Mayor who returned from private life to become Deputy Mayora nd help clean up her city. She and Dalziel are both well versed in the political skills of public life and equally in how to manage, deflect and override the Sir Humphries and Humphrenas of the not-so-civil service.

This is hugely important. Dalziel inherited a Council structure where the management had long ceased even pretending to have anything other than contempt for elected officials. Council management needed a very firm internal hand.

Add to this the other windfall,  former markets maven and financial free thinker Raf Manji, and you have the very strong skill base that helped form a robust, results-focused centre of gravity for the new Council.

In a very rough form (and doubtless slighting others) this gave them the capacity for Dalziel to manage, Buck to provide the public heart and Manji to out market the business community and do the numbers.

People elsewhere in New Zealand also tend to forget that since the quakes Christchurch and Canterbury have been firmly under the jackboots of central Government.

The present City Council has but to look across town to the remnants of democracy at ECAN, run by commissioners and technocrats, to see what fate lies in store for anyone who gets too independent.

Nor has Minister Brownlee been slow, or reticent about being willing to whack out a Council that gets too far out of line.

It makes the fact of the present Council’s achievements all the more impressive when you realise they effectively have a gun at their heads every day.

This is also why there is no overt candidate of the right for the Mayoralty. They know that if the Council gets too far out of line they will be punished.

Against the backdrop of these brutish realities the Mayoral candidacy of John Minto is at best a naïve triumph of ideology over reality. With a policy mix that fails to understand a Mayor is just one vote on a Council, that the Council does not have control of public transport, and that swimmable rivers are impossible when the drainage system leaks like a sieve, it is hard to be overly charitable here.

Then away from the clever wee world of “players” and political junkies there are many competing calls for the attention of the average Christchurch resident. Many of us have more pressing matters. What route through the rebuild roadworks is passable enough to get the kids to their relocated school on the other side of town? What are the lawyers up to and how much will the next phase of redress cost? Do we stay or do we go once all this stuff is settled? It’s a big list and we have the mixed blessing of living with a form of chronic fatigue which precludes too much in the way of 9 to 5 working.

Faced with all these daily realities, if you can look at the Council and see nothing alarming there that’s actually a big plus. The lack of competing candidates this time round means to me that people are relatively content and/or hellishly busy and buggered or possibly deeply embroiled in Christchurch’s alt-activist network of NGOs and start-ups.

There is a huge network of people coming together to help guide people through the hideous maze of earthquake repair and redress hurdles they still need to navigate.

The evolution of Christchurch’s self-defence movement against the antics of both EQC and private/state-run insurers has finally culminated in the formation of EQCFix.nz, which offers frustrated locals easy access to answers to their many questions.

The website is professional enough to make things look easy – it's the sort of ease obtained from years of Cardboard Cathedral claimants' meetings, OIAs, number crunching and hard research.

 There are also many other groups, like the Avon-Otakaro Network, Greening the Red Zone, the Rubble, the Student Volunteer Army. The list is endless and takes lots of community time.

Former Mayor Garry Moore anchors the Tuesday Club from his son’s inner city bar Smash Palace, bringing in keynote speakers from all sectors to inspire, inform and sometimes account for themselves. I chaired Christchurch’s Tenant’s Protection Association for several post-quake years, stepping down this year to make way for new blood and to aid my own physical recovery.

Every non-incumbent person I know who was looking at possibly standing for office this year, me included, did not in the end. I suspect all the factors I have cited above were in play here.

For all these reasons and crucially because the public trust the present Council and Mayor my reckon is we should be filed under content rather than apathetic.

The moment control of our own city returns to our hands, I also predict a very different sort of election will result.

38

Confessions of an Uber Driver III: How do I rate?

by Ben Wilson

You've just finished your Uber ride. By the general standards of taxi rides, it was very good.

The driver came fast, the car was newish and in good condition and tidy inside. The driver was courteous and asked how you were. Because you felt talkative, you had a discussion. Because you were having a discussion in a language that they were not native to, they were a little distracted, but not in a way that was particularly dangerous, and since they followed Google anyway, you can be pretty sure the route was a reasonably good one, except perhaps that last bit you had to talk them through as you drove down a long right-of-way that's not on any map.

At the end you jumped out and it was all done. As taxi rides go it was one of the good ones. But you've used Uber many times, and it definitely wasn't your best ride ever. What? No free water, no aux cable, no breath mint? No heated leather seats? The conversation was all right, but they didn't really show that much knowledge or interest in your life. Their banter was only at a canter. So should you 5 star them, or give them an average score?

Tough one. What is an average score? Normally, when the scale is from 1 to 5, the average score would be 3. A 5 would mean exceptionally good. You'd expect on this kind of scale for driver ratings to be normally distributed around a mean of 3. And you'd be half right. The ratings are approximately normally distributed around a mean. The mean just doesn't happen to be 3. It's somewhere between 4.5 and 5

I collected the ratings of 25 drivers in our association, and the mean score was 4.8, with a standard deviation of 0.07.

Here's how that looks on the 1 to 5 scale. 

This data is probably on the high side. Uber's own meagre insight is that the top 25% of drivers have an average rating of 4.79. We don't get the actual mean or variance, these are only known by Uber.

So how do you rate an average driver on a scale of one to 5, when the average driver rating is 4.8 (say). If you give:

  • 5. Their mean will go up by 0.0004. Effectively this does almost nothing.
  • 4. Their mean will go down by 0.0016. Still not much, but 4 times as much movement as 5
  • 3. Their mean will go down by 0.0036. This is 9 times as influential on their rating as a 5
  • 2. Their mean will go down by 0.0056. This is 14 times as influential on their rating as a 5
  • 1. Their mean will go down by 0.0076. This is 19 times as influential on their rating as a 5

For any score below 4 you have to give a reason. Since it will take 9 consecutive perfect scores of 5 to undo the effect of your 3, this is fair, although it might be puzzling to anyone accustomed to 3 meaning "average".

So how do you signal that your driver is good? Currently, there is only one way with the app. You give them a 5 and you also leave a nice comment. The comment won't affect their rating, but it will show up on their main home screen and make them feel good.

Outside of the app you could signal it in two main ways - you could say something nice to the driver (for most people this is less effort than writing a comment), or you could even give them a tip. But this is NZ. Most people never tip, on principle.

Why is it this way? Isn't it rather perverse to have a system in which you can really only signal average, bad, really bad, shockingly bad, and fire-this-person? That depends on what you think the purpose of the system is. Clearly, it's not to reward the driver, because there is no way to reward them with anything other than keeping their job, and perhaps the afterglow of a kind word. Clearly, the whole purpose is to punish drivers to varying degrees.

Drivers are, unfortunately, very much in the dark about the specifics of their own ratings. We never know which trips received bad ratings or complaints. We don't even know how many of each rating value we have. The only numbers given are: How many 5 stars, how many rated trips, how many total trips, and what the mean rating is across the last 500. We can also see the top category of complaint.

What do I mean by punishing? Is a bad rating that much of a problem?

I have received many distressed phone calls in the last few months from drivers who have been disconnected permanently for low ratings. Uber's process is to "deactivate" drivers at will and without warning, and then when they inquire as to what has happened, they are told that they have to go on a course at the driver's expense, after which they are given a chance to improve or face permanent deactivation.

No specific target rating is ever given, the "city minimum average" is unknown, but it would seem that anyone below 4.6 in Auckland is at risk. The subsequent deactivation is given with a brutal message "Your final payment will occur within the next week. There is no need to come into the office, as our decision will stand." Attempts to come to terms with what has actually happened to the rating, what bad trips happened, where and when, are stonewalled. There is no natural justice whatsoever applied to this.

This was the fate of Sreeman, a veteran driver of over 1000 trips, on Sunday. Having a rating of 4.49 he had been deactivated and asked to do the training course to give him pointers about how to get a good rating. He accepted that the way he'd been doing it before was not as good as the average Uber standard and set about following the instructions given. His mean ratings over the last three weeks were around the 4.7 mark (he was careful to take some screenshots). But since he was fighting the dead weight of a 4.49 score based on 500 previous trips, it was clearly going to take him quite some time to fight his way back to an acceptable score. He fought, getting steady improvement: 

Despite "Smashing It", on the 17th of September he was deactivated on a rating of 4.53.

No entreaty given to the staff in the office made a lick of difference. It did not matter that he had done their course and that he had significantly improved since then. It did not matter that he had taken on a significant investment in choosing to work for Uber, specifically buying a Prius, and gaining all of the compliance possible, the P Endorsement, his own PSL, a CoF for the vehicle. It certainly didn't matter that this was his only job and that he relied on it to support his family. His reduction to tears and begging made them a little uncomfortable and they tapped away at the screen for a while, before calling security to have him escorted from the premises. Now he can't support his family of 4, and is seeking work.

This, dear readers, is why Ubers are high quality. Because they have a rating system and termination processes that resemble no workplace practices you'd see in NZ. The refusal to ever give a useful mean and variance on driver ratings is not so strange when you consider it could be used to work out just how arbitrary their disconnection practices are. Are they ridding themselves of the bottom 1%? Or 10%?

Uber drivers are no longer called "Partners" – in the last few months that phrasing was quietly dropped.

Is this our model for the grand future of employment? Consider how that might work in your own workplace, for your own job.

PS: Ironically, on the way to meeting Sreeman, Arden MacDonald from the NZUDA used an Uber with a 4.3. I'm a little confused about where the Auckland minimum average rating must be, since 4.53 is clearly below it, but 4.3 doesn't seem to be.

10

Apocalypse on the count of three: inside a Soviet missile silo

by Clinton Logan

Sergeant Alexander of the 46th Rocket Division buckles me into the commander's chair and wrenches the four-point harness down to the point of discomfort. Two massive blast doors seal the control chamber shut 12 storeys below the Ukraine countryside, protecting us from nuclear attack.

The atmosphere down here feels artificial and far removed from the earth's surface 40 metres above. A stuffy mixture of metal and electronics permeates the sterile, cramped space of the command centre. An impressive array of lights and switches — the pinnacle of '70s Soviet technology — blankets the curved wall of the 3.3 metre wide room. All controls have been kept operational to preserve the fidelity of a launch. 

It's so quiet you can hear yourself breathe.

Papers are removed from a locked safe, and codes compared with the commands appearing on our screens. They match. The launch directive from Moscow has been authenticated.

Alexander takes a seat in the second officer's chair and barks orders in a mixture of Russian and English.

KLYUCH [key] IN!

ON COUNT THREE. WE PUSH BUTTON!

ОДИН... ДВА... 

(If I hesitate at this stage, the Sergeant's Makarov pistol will quickly relieve me of my duty, and a backup officer will take my place.)

ТРИ!!

The harsh, shrill sound of an alarm buzzer ricochets about the confines of the steel room. A semicircular array of missile-shaped status lights starts blinking ominously.

At six seconds, 10 120-ton silo hatches swing open, and three seconds later 10 SS-24 "SCALPEL" thermonuclear missiles ignite their rocket engines.

Alexander grips my chair with both hands and violently shakes it to simulate the kinetics of the 100 ton missile launching next to us. At the same time, nine other SS-24s rocket away from their respective silos. 

The Sergeant turns, looks me directly in the eye, and in an accent as thick as tar...

ten. vockits.
twinty. tree. minutes.
bye-bye-amerika.

He grins.

A strike from this facility would've hit the United States with ten missiles, each carrying 10 nuclear warheads. A forest of 100 mushroom clouds would've blanketed the east coast with the combined power of 423 Hiroshimas. An area of 12,000 square miles would've been vaporised along with every living thing in it. 

At the height of the Cold War, the USSR managed 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles with nine sites just like this one.

Today there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, each targeting an adversary. Officers from America, Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea are on duty 24/7, waiting for that single coded command, waiting to push that small grey button on the count of three.

"But I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war, in a certain way, but only when we win." — Donald Trump

–––

Clinton Logan is a New Zealander who decided three years ago that "it was time to recalibrate my relationship with the world" and has since ventured forth from his home in New York State to explore, photograph and write about the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America and, currently, the former Soviet Union. His last post recorded a visit to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The words and pictures in this post are adapted with permission from the personal Facebook account where he records his journeys.

32

After the Apocalypse

by Clinton Logan

Three years ago, Clinton Logan sold all his possessions, leased out his house in New York state and set out on his motorcyle. The New Zealander, who had spent most of the past 20 years building a software company, decided "it was time to recalibrate my relationship with the world."

Since then he has crossed the United States eight times and explored Alaska, Canada and Europe. He spent last year riding, photographing, and writing about his experiences in Latin America.

"This season I've been focussing on exploring the traces of the Soviet Union here in Eastern Europe. Next season I'll probably ride into Russia proper. As you can probably tell I'm just making plans up as I go along."

The words and pictures below are adapted with permission from the personal Facebook account where he records his journeys.

–––

Chernobyl Part I

Exploring the ghost city of Pripyat.

"If we have nuclear weapons why can't we use them?" - Donald Trump

Pripyat was a young municipality, purpose-built to service the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Like other cities that served the technology industry, it was a planned model that stood as a shining example of modern day USSR.

Home to 50,000 people, it was considered a privileged place to live. Compared to other soviet cities at the time Pripyat featured more spacious housing, good schools, well stocked retail stores, effective public transportation, healthcare, and extensive recreational facilities (including a disco!)

But at 01:23 in the morning of April 26th 1986, a control room operator named Alexander Akimov punched the emergency shutdown button for Chernobyl's reactor #4 and changed all of that forever. It was an action that would eventually kill thousands of people, force the immediate and permanent evacuation of Pripyat, and ultimately bring about the collapse of the Soviet political system.

Now, 30 years later the area still exhibits dangerously high radiation levels and will continue to do so for the next 300 years. Pripyat is a city that had its future ripped away in a very sudden and dramatic way and for those who are game it represents a unique opportunity to genuinely experience a post apocalyptic world.

The second part of my visit here entailed virtually travelling back in time to photograph the highly restricted internal workings of Chernobyl Reactor #2. It's an exact duplicate of Reactor #4 which imploded 30 years ago and is one of the most amazing spaces I've ever witnessed.

Chernobyl Part II

The Reactor

As our 50 year-old Russian UAZ van pitches over the broken streets of Chernobyl, Serhii ends his mobile phone conversation and turns to me.

"You're in. They've given you access to the reactor. We need to be there by noon."

He hands me an indemnification document to sign.

"I do understand and fully realize that staying in the area with high levels of ionizing radiation can cause potential harm to my life and health in the future. I agree to all terms of visiting the exclusion zones and refuse all claims of a legal nature..."

I can barely contain my excitement. I'm not sure how he did it, but I'm about to step back 30 years and experience first-hand one of the most infamous locations held by the USSR.

The Chernobyl powerplant, known as the Lenin Nuclear Power Station during the Soviet era, was undergoing rapid expansion in the 80s. Reactor Unit 1 went online on November  26, 1977, and after months of testing, Units 2, 3, and 4 soon followed. In 1986 the four reactors were providing 10% of Ukraine’s electricity with two more under construction.

In total, the USSR was planning a cluster of twelve nuclear reactors that would've easily made it the largest power station in the world. But in the early hours of Saturday April 26, 1986, it all came to a sudden and very dramatic end. 

While the doomed city of Pripyat slept, engineers on the evening shift initiated a safety experiment to determine if the reactor's cooling system could still function without external power. Unfortunately the test exposed serious flaws in both the reactor design and the Soviet safety culture of the time. 

A cascading series of events soon culminated in the plant spiralling out of control and the reactor core melting down. The resulting explosion created a radioactive breach equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas that irradiated large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. Two people were killed instantly, with 237 other plant workers being diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome. Twenty eight would die horrible deaths in the following weeks. 

Today, the Ukrainian government employs 2500 people and spends nearly 10% of its national budget maintaining the Chernobyl site. Its biggest priority is the ongoing containment of the large amounts of radioactive material that remain in the area. Among the myriad of challenges the government faces is the real concern that a hostile entity could smuggle out one of the thousands of "hot" objects for use in a dirty bomb. To guard against, this three rings of increasing security have been put into place. 

The 30km exclusion zone: No one is allowed into this 2800 sq. km area without permission papers and an official escort. There's a long list of rules (no eating outside, no resting equipment in the ground) and a dress code (no exposed skin) that need to be adhered to. You must travel in an enclosed vehicle and motorcycles are forbidden.

The 10km exclusion zone encapsulates the areas of highest radiation: The ghost-scape of Pripyat, which I previously visited, and the Red Forest – named after its population of pine trees turned red and died from the first wave of radiation. To this day it remains one of the most contaminated places on Earth. Employees within the 10km zone have limited work shifts; no more than five hours a day, with 15 days spent clear of the zone for every month worked. Exiting the zone requires you to pass a mandatory radiation scan. According to Ukrainian officials, the area should be safe to inhabit again in the year 4986.

Thanks to my "fixer" Serhii, I've now been cleared to enter the third and most secure zone: The reactor complex.

At 12 noon a government representative wearing a staid grey uniform walks over and shakes my hand. "I'm Marek, welcome to Chernobyl. I'm happy to show you the current state of the site and our new safe confinement project."

(I feel a little overwhelmed to be even standing here right now. I'm not sure who they think I am but I'm rolling with it.)

"You need to stay with me at all times and only photograph the locations I approve of. Do not take photographs of the outside. Do not photograph any workers"

After clearing a series of PIN-protected rotating metal gates I'm confronted by a guard with a dosimeter and blood type info velcroed to his chest. He gestures to feed my camera bag into the gaping mouth of an x-ray machine.

My credentials are checked and re-checked against their visitor records. The guard looks at me, then my passport, then studies the official stamp on my Ukrainian document. Names, numbers, and dates are compared. He looks back at me, then back at my passport, then back at me. If the tiniest of details don't match up I'm not getting in. It feels like an eternity.

"Go."

Marek leads me into a pristine grey room filled with white tunics, hats, and shoe covers.

In the corner stands a large blue-grey machine with a human sized slot cut in the side. It's time to take another radiation test. I step inside the scanner, place my hands and feet on each of its four sensors and wait. On the adjacent wall an old sign reads “Let the Atom be a Worker, not a Soldier.” I grin at the irony.

A green light with indecipherable cyrillic text illuminates with a click.

"Ok, now put those on and follow me." 

The unmistakable smell of vintage engineering — like the interior of an antique car — permeates the golden brushed-metal corridor of the reactor building. We're all wearing identical tunics, the same as those worn by the operators at the time of the accident. The decor, signs, and equipment — nothing has changed here in 30 years. I'm shuffling through the world's coolest time capsule in a pair of white cotton booties and I think I'm quite possibly high on dopamine right now.

"That's the door to the computer center."

Even if Marek had said this room allows you to selfie the last supper, my anticipation couldn't be greater. The mental image of the 70s Soviet mainframes that lie beyond that thinnest of thresholds is just too much for my inner geek to contain. 

Can I photograph it? I ask rather optimistically.

"No."

Twenty meters away the hallway is punctuated with a backlit ceiling sign. "БЩУ • II" is stencil-cut from metal alloy in a rad retro modernist font. In a scene lifted from a drive-in B movie, Marek lifts an intercom handset, punches its oversized button, and announces our arrival to the operators inside.

Okay, this is it. This is the reason I travelled halfway across the globe to the Ukraine. We're about to step into the control room of a soviet nuclear reactor. Holy shit.

As a kid growing up in clean, green, nuclear-free New Zealand, news snippets of reactor meltdowns, mass evacuations, and abandoned cities lit up my sci-fi obsessed imagination. I swore to myself that someday I'd visit Chernobyl. As twisted as it sounds, I really wanted to experience first hand the epicenter, and aftermath, of a real-life apocalypse. 

Now, after all these years, I'm finally standing in the control room of Reactor #2, twin sister to the one that dominated the news all those years ago.

I survey the panoramic array of gauges, lights, buttons, and switches and imagine them all lit up in the constellation of chaos that must've existed that early April morning. Even though the control room is now dormant — Reactor #2 was shut down permanently in the '90s — I could still feel it echoing the confusion and terror of the operators coming to the realization that they'd just lost control of the most destructive force on the planet.

They were going to die and they knew it.

In the weeks following the disaster, Akimov, the operator who'd pushed the emergency shutdown button, was especially haunted by what had happened. As he lay painfully dying in hospital, he knew his theoretically correct course of action had ultimately triggered the meltdown. He just couldn't understand why things had gone so wrong. His wife recollects visiting him in hospital the day before he died.

“While he could still talk, he kept repeating to his father and mother that he had done everything right. This tortured him to the very end. [The last time I saw him], he could no longer speak. But there was pain in his eyes. I knew he was thinking about that damned night, he was reenacting everything inside himself over and over again, and he could not see that he was to blame. He received a dose of 1,500 roentgens, perhaps even more, and he was doomed. He became blacker and blacker. He was charred all over. He died with his eyes open ...”

The lesser-known story of the cleanup crew, or “liquidators,” who entered highly contaminated areas to battle the reactor and greatly reduce the consequences of the accident is riveting in itself. What the world takes for granted is that more than 300,000 men and women sacrificed their health for the sake of us all. If it weren't for the efforts of these brave people the the meltdown would have affected the planet on a global scale. 

All told, about 4,000 people would eventually die from the accident, according to a World Health Organization report. Others say this number is wildly low. The official number of disabled Chernobyl rescue workers today in Ukraine is 106,000.

A monument now stands in the town of Chernobyl dedicated to the courage of those liquidators. A chillingly accurate inscription is etched into the front. “To those that saved the world.”

I've been very fortunate to have witnessed the dark consequences of the "worker atom" running off the rails. It's provided a profound appreciation for the potentially insurmountable cost that's associated with our continued use of this source of energy.

I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but my next site of exploration would eclipse even Chernobyl in its display of how tenuous we humans are making life here on earth. In the vast open wheat fields of Ukraine lies a perfectly preserved example of the "Soldier Atom" lying in wait ...

31

Colouring Girl

by Peter Alsop

The hand-coloured photos of Whites Aviation have become celebrated icons of New Zealand’s mid-century culture – but the story of how each photograph was individually coloured by hand has been almost lost. That's the story Greg Wood and I sought to tell in The Colourist, which is part of this year's Loading Docs film festival.

The film highlights the vocational alchemy and the love of creating a hand-coloured New Zealand. The depth of friendship amongst the ‘colouring girls’ was so great they even went on holidays together. One of them, Grace Rawson, even planned  her honeymoon to visit the locations of Whites Aviation scenes.

'Ohau Road', 1953, 560x1010mm, Collection of Peter Alsop, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL) Negative WA-32638-F.

The idea was this: could Grace Rawson, at a spritely 83 years of age, have another go at hand-colouring a photograph, 53 years after giving up the craft when she left Whites Aviation?

Grace at work in The Colourist with her cotton wool brush. Photo courtesy Samuel Montgomery.

To fully understand the story, let’s wind back the clock.

In 1963, a rare behind-the-scenes account was published of life in the colouring studio of Whites Aviation, showing the studio as a well-lit room in Darby’s Buildings on the corner of Darby and Elliot Streets in downtown Auckland. Inside, a group of about eight women loved their work; using cotton wool to create the best-known examples, then and now, of hand-coloured photography in New Zealand. 

Interestingly, the article didn’t appear in a photography magazine or any publication related to art or design. Instead, the article graced the pages of none other than the Women’s Weekly. It was a good fit; all the members of the colouring studio were women, as they were through time, and the hand-colouring craze was on a public high.

The article was matter-of-factly titled ‘Steady Hand, Keen Eye and a Retentive Memory Needed for Tinting’. In the art paradigms of the day, these women weren’t "artists" and nor, for that matter, were those who took the photos. But the women were devoted to their art form, proud of their achievements and immensely happy in their work.

Grace at work in the 1950s in Whites Aviation’s production division in Auckland’s Darby’s Buildings. Photo courtesy Grace Rawson.

 

A wonderful photo of the "colouring girls" in company uniforms in 1948, working on large-format hand-coloured photos (ATL, WA-16074a-F, L to R: Joyce Chapman, Pat Poole, Colleen Beaumont (with uncertainty), Jocie Baker (with uncertainty) and Ray (with uncertainty and unknown surname).

The article provided insight into the delicate and intricate nature of the craft:

The sea was washed with blue, highlights were added in green and a darker blue. Rangitoto was a combination of green and mauve for the base and blue and mauve at the top. Highlights were of raw sienna. The yachts were mainly scraped up with shadows on the sails and the hulls brown. The tree in the foreground was washed with a darkish green with the highlights of a paler tone of the same colour. The flowers were done last … For bush, four shades of green were used, several tones of yellow, browns and pinks.

One gets the picture that it was complex work but, like most hard things, made to look easy by people at the top of their game.

'Rangitoto Island from Bastion Pt', 1954, 500x750mm, Cropped for display, Collection of Peter Alsop, ATL Negative WA-34549-F.

Grace was born in Auckland in 1933. At the age of three, she was asked that quintessential childhood question: "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Her answer was as unusual then as it would be today: "I will be an artist!"

Grace’s artistic vocation would soon become even clearer. Aged four, she was a flower girl and looked after by the bridesmaid who hand coloured a photo of Grace in her pretty wedding dress. In reflecting on that time, Grace said she ‘understood right then that there was a branch of art that maybe was possible later’.

 

Grace as a young bridesmaid, when she recalls getting her interest in hand-colouring. Photo courtesy Grace Rawson.

Later, like many of Epsom Grammar girls, Grace was hand-coloured in her ball gown; her photo worked on by Crown Studios opposite Smith & Caughey. The photo was displayed in Crown's front window – and it was the final inspiration for Grace to apply for a colouring job. For £1 10s a week, Grace was taught by Shirley Davies, a real hard-case character, and quickly fell in love with painting portraits and groups.

A portrait of Grace hand-coloured by Grace herself. Photo by Auckland’s Crown Studios.

After a trip to England, where her hand-colouring continued, Grace returned in late 1953 and heard of the growing reputation of Whites Aviation. She recalls meeting Leo White like it was yesterday.

Despite showing White her British portfolio – old mills, bridges and thatched roofs – Grace was also asked to paint some of White’s own photos to further prove her worth. Clyde Stewart (or "Mr Stewart" to Grace) was her manager. Stewart ran the colouring studio for 37 years and signed out each and every photo with the flowing ‘Whites’ signature.

The photos were printed on a special semi-matte, fibre-based paper, striking just the right level of absorption to allow the colour to cure without bleeding. The photos were painted in oil, thinned with turpentine to allow the paint to be translucent, creating a wash-like effect. For application, paint brushes were only rarely used and, instead, a small amount of cotton wool was wrapped around the end of a thin grapevine to create the ‘brush’. Cotton wool had the advantage of being able to create a thin film of colour, and in a uniform, streak-free way.

 

A set of Winsor & Newton paints for hand-colouring photographs. A bottle of turpentine can be seen on the right of the tray, with cotton wool and sticks in the bottom to be used as the "brush".

For landscapes, Grace recalls Mr White describing the right colours, always ensuring clarity in the New Zealand light. The 1963 article also refers to photographers frequently bringing back samples, "such as the time Mr White returned from the South Island high country with a handful of tussock."

A photo about 35x50cm would take about one morning to colour. When the girls painted large murals, it wouldn’t be uncommon to work as a team, standing, sitting or climbing up on stools. Even then, big pieces could take many days to complete, nine in the case of a large Lake Taupo photograph worked on by four "girls" in 1963.

Grace Rawson, Lorraine Sutton and Nola Mann work on colouring a large photographic mural for H & J Smith’s store in Gore in 1955 (ATL, WA-39940). Large murals like this took a number of days for a team of colourists. Nola Mann worked as a colourist at Whites from around 1955 until around 1998, likely making her – given the popularity of Whites’ work – the most extensive hand-colourist in New Zealand’s history.

Speaking to us, Grace explained her theory on the Whites sensation and the orders that came in thick and fast:

"It was very important for people to have photographs of New Zealand on their walls in those days. And once Whites started selling, they went berserk everywhere. In my view, everybody bought them because there was nothing else like them at the time. There were some prints of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Brugal’s paintings, Constable’s hay wain – but suddenly Whites was different. It was real, and the country we lived in,  and hand coloured. It absolutely took off."

One of the early hand-coloured ventures for Whites was also the capturing of farms, tapping into a strong sense of national pride in rural land.

Seventy one years since Whites Aviation was started, Grace still sees the hand-colouring legacy.

"I love to come across the photos: a majestic mural of the Remarkables in a Queestown café and many in Replete café in Taupo."

All, it so happens, locations of special significance in Grace’s life. Wherever she goes, the popular Whites Aviation scenes are never far away  – not least among them, the photos that she coloured with her own hand.

Grace with her completed hand-coloured photo of Queenstown created for The Colourist in 2016. Photo courtesy Peter Alsop.

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The Colourist

 

The Colourist from Loading Docs on Vimeo.

Peter Alsop co-directed The Colourist with Auckland-based filmmaker Greg Wood. Loading Docs is funded by NZ On Air and made with the support of The New Zealand Film Commission.

Peter’s beautiful book on Whites Aviation, Hand-Coloured New Zealand, will be released in October (Potton & Burton, hard cover, 416 pages). A sampler of the book is viewable here. The book can be ordered now with an attractive pre-release discount: 20% off and free postage within New Zealand (Coupon code WHITES).