Tuesday Poem and Interview with Mary Macpherson


Have you ever used the spare buttons

that come with clothes? Do you save

the safety pins from dry cleaning?

Have you ever used them to hold

your trousers together? Did you use –

a stout chrome pin, or dainty gold?

Do you think your computer is talking

when it gurgles or whirrs? Which would

you rescue, the family pet or your computer?

In foreign cities, how many knobs or handles

have you turned the wrong way?

Do you believe you can do anything?

How do you feel when someone imitates you –

annoyed or flattered? Do you feel guilty

when you imitate someone else?

Could you recite all your usernames

and passwords? Have you ever thought

of them as litter? How often do you choose

‘the name of your first family pet’

as a security question? Will you vanish

if you can’t remember your PIN? Could you

describe a colour without reference

to other colours? Do you panic when faced

with unfamiliar taps? How do you react to cords

that have lost their appliances?

Have you ever tossed an orphaned cord?

How do you deal with complicated devices

with missing manuals? Should you know

everything? If you don’t, does that mean

you’re old? Are you afraid of what’s

underground? How do you feel

when old bottles surface in a garden?

Old rubber balls?

Mary Macpherson

Old New World, photographs by Mary Macpherson

Today’s Tuesday Poem is by Mary Macpherson, a Wellington photographer, poet and communications professional.  Mary has just released a stunning new book of photographs, called “Old New World” (Lopdell House Gallery, 2012), which explores the changing face of small town New Zealand.  Inside, you’ll find a town clock, a painted tiger, war memorials and an old telephone box, alongside motel chalets and beach subdivisions.  As well as posting Mary’s poem, Litter, which was recently published in Hue and Cry, I am very pleased to be interviewing Mary about her book.


Congratulations on making such a beautiful work of art.  You’ve had many exhibitions over the years – I remember seeing your “Signs of Texas” exhibition at the Mary Newton Gallery in Wellington, as well as a series involving plastic sharks and lace fabric, and another series of vividly abundant patches of wild flowers and weeds that featured in Landfall.  Is “Old New World” a departure from your previous work?

The At Sea series, which featured the shark and lace, were scenarios that I constructed and photographed. That’s a different approach to the documentary style that I used to express the ideas of Old New World.

But all the work I do, whether it’s of constructed images or the ‘real’ world, is exploring ideas and concepts.

Old New World, relates most directly to a series called Urban Landscapes which was exhibited in at City Gallery Wellington in 1987 and again in 2006 with the Signs of Texas work at the Mary Newton Gallery. In Urban Landscapes I was excited about photographing everyday reality with formal precision, to bring out the beauty and strangeness of the vernacular. (A few images from this series are in the BNZ and Te Papa collections).

Old New World is probably a deeper work where I’m exploring a piece of social change that happened during my lifetime, and looking at the way New Zealand is shaping and representing itself.


Did you set out with a theme in mind that you wanted to explore, or did the theme(s) emerge as the book progressed?

The work began in an organic exploratory way. Because of my childhood and teenage holidays in a small Maniototo town in the 50s and 60s, I have a particular memory of the way small towns were in that era, and the society of the time. I also have strong visual and physical memories of the intimate human scale underneath a huge blue sky.

A few years ago I noticed the small places in the Wairarapa were changing – becoming much more branded and conscious of themselves as destinations. Because it affected some sense of myself (childhood memories are particularly potent), I picked up my camera and started photographing in the main streets and back streets. Having done one place, I thought I should check the next place up the line, and the next….

Because I was really interested in the images that were coming back, I decided to do a substantial body of work that covered representative places all over New Zealand. I thought a lot about how to represent the places I was photographing.

I was never going to have intimate knowledge of the hundreds of places I visited, but what I could do was to portray the main trends and possible futures of small towns that I saw. I see the book as an overall fictional small town made up these multiple narratives.

I also become very interested in the way these places were representing themselves and New Zealand history – in murals, advertisements, statues and artworks. I wanted to record these and show how they related to their surroundings.


Old New World” could be viewed as a road trip collection.  Does it represent several long summers on the road?

The work was made over seven years, whenever I had time and money to be on the road – not necessarily in the summer. In between times I printed and edited work, and thought about what I was doing.


Small town New Zealand and rural New Zealand both feature strongly in this collection – the Bay of Plenty town of Te Teko, Balfour in Southland – what attracts you to out-of-the-way places?

 I went to places that were slightly below the radar, rather than places that were officially sanctioned as cute, or eccentric. I didn’t want to make a clichéd or stereotyped view of New Zealand. I hoped the view that emerged would be of someone who was visitor to a place, looking intently, and bringing back things that were of this country, without it being forced.

Later in the work I went to places that have been changed by extreme development or prosperity, like Queenstown or Mount Maunganui. By then I was ready make photographs that incorporated this knowledge, but still had sincerity at their heart.


Do you drive along until something catches your eye, or do you set out with an idea in mind?

It was really a combination of those approaches. As the project progressed and I become more conscious of the direction I was heading, I did develop lists of things I wanted to include and went looking for them.

But I had to be wary of that approach too. Trying to photograph (or write) with the rational ‘I should do this’ mind, can lead to over-determined and not very interesting results. So I also tried to stay open to just walking down the street and being struck by wonder at something – being drawn along by the content and language of what was happening around me. Some of the most interesting images were made this way.


One of my (many) favourite photographs in the book is of “The Soap Factory – Home of Egmont Soaps” with its differently sized windows and carefully painted words in a range of typefaces. Do you have a personal favourite?

 For the project I took over 2,000 images and selected 62 of them for the book and 45 for the exhibition. So I guess I feel they’ve all passed the criteria for selection.

Perhaps the best way to talk about it is in terms of the aesthetics and themes of the work.

One thing I’ve always been interested in, in my photography is finding ways to get a sense of how people perceive their world. In Old New World this surfaces in the photographs I’ve made of statues, murals and public artworks – I was very interested in how people were representing regional and national history and regional identity. When photographing this type of iconography I wanted to place it in its surroundings – to show the ideal and how it sat in ‘real world’.

One photograph which is quite extreme is the image from a truck stop in Canterbury, where the DB advertisement featuring a pink-singleted shearer appears to have arranged reality around itself – to the point where every colour, and even the vegetation, matches the advertisement. The shearer (who looks strangely like Prince Charles) appears to be about to cut off the top of a real tree in front of him. I enjoy the complexity and strangeness of the image. (It’s also in the Te Papa collection).

You’re also a poet – co-author of “Millionaire’s Shortbread” and author of “The Inland Eye”, Pemmican Press.  Is there a relationship between your photography and your poetry, or are they two quite separate arts?

 I do practise them as separate streams of work and don’t put them together in a literal way. But I think that because photography and images are such a strong part of my life it seeps into some of my writing – I’ve written poems based on the box of slides my mother left our family, written about the complexity of light and quite a lot about journeys.

If words enter the visual sphere, I like the visual to clearly be the driver and I still seem to like to work that stems from the pop culture era. I respond to an Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince type of sensibility. Lately I’ve been interested in a multi-media book of photographs, documents, postcards and signs, called Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson. It’s a creation that addresses a killing spree by two teenagers in the States in the 1950s.


Where can people see your photographs and where can they buy a copy of the book?

 The photographs are currently showing at Lopdell House Gallery in Titirangi, Auckland, until 5 August. Lopdell House will then tour the work around regional art galleries.

The book is available at independent bookshops nationally (e.g. Unity Books, the University stores, Wheelers, Page and Blackmore etc), and Paper Pluses in Hamilton and Porirua. On the web it can be ordered from Lopdell House Gallery http://www.lopdell.org.nz/ .

Prints are available from Photospace Gallery in Wellington. http://www.photospace.co.nz/marymac_pages/marymac_01.htm

Mary’s blog is at http://marymacphoto.wordpress.com/



  1. Interesting conjunction
    “…does that mean

    you’re old? Are you afraid of what’s


    um – yes?

    And great interview. Cheers – I also particularly liked the cover photo – personally I can’t go past a Moa walking down the street.

  2. Yes enjoyed the poem and loved the cover.I’m all for main street moas myself.The interview was really interesting…so true how small towns are changing their identities or getting a sense of self.Perhaps tourism and a wider world connection have had an influence.I look forward to seeing the book.

  3. Very interested to read this poem and see the discussion in the interview here. This brings to mind my own interests in regional identity and questions of association/belonging in the face of change. The Aotearoa Affair Blog Fest is putting together a blog carnival in September all about regional perspective (theme is A VIEW FROM HERE) and this look at small-town NZ fits perfectly into the things I’ve been concentrating on lately. Thank you for introducing me to this book and to Mary’s work. Will dig a little deeper thanks to you, Janis!

    (and I really enjoyed the details in the poem — the opening pulled me right in!)

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