Richard Brimer’s photography exhibition Harvest is a little bit Humans of New York. Except it’s in Hastings, has zero pretension, and captures the diverse population of seasonal labourers who work the local vineyards and farms.
Richard Brimer was born and raised in Hawke’s Bay. At 19 he worked his first vintage at Vidal’s winery in Hastings. His next was at Sacred Hill. As he puts it, he “forgot to leave” Hastings, which hasn’t stopped him building a close to 30-year international photography career, or publishing 14 collections of his work, including three on the wine industry.
His portraits have a candid street-style. Think Cartier-Bresson, Willam Eggleston, Brian Brake or Ans Westra. A little bit Humans of New York. These influences mix with Richard’s distinctly coastal-casual sensibility, an off-handed style that almost succeeds in hiding the immense technical virtuosity of his work and his abiding awareness of people’s connection to place.
Harvest, showing until March 2020 at the Hastings City Art Gallery, is an eight-piece installation that highlights a side of horticulture often hidden from view – the individuals who work the land and pick the fruit.
It’s hard labour done under hot sun, far from supermarket shelves, dining tables and cellar doors. The workforce shown here is a diverse one. As well as a few hardy locals, people of many backgrounds and ethnicities arrive here each year. In 2018, 11,000 were employed from 16 different countries. Most work under the Recognised Seasonal Employers programme, which seeks to protect temporary workers and also keeps them from overstaying.
As in Europe and the USA, migrant labour increasingly underpins an economy where local labour falls short. This may be due to static wages, tough working conditions or increased urbanisation. As the old song goes, ‘How you gonna keep ’em on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?’ Simply put, very few young locals are now willing to spend their summers picking fruit.
At the same time, producers and growers need a higher calibre of worker than ever. Hawke’s Bay primary production is now far less about mums and dads and kids in gumboots making a go of it. More than ever, it’s about big business, health and safety, prestige brands and commodity premiums – and workers with specialised skills. However, the workers who meet that need are often not valued as they should be, as the uniqueness of this show highlights.
Brimer’s portraits appear like classic Cibachromes. Subjects stand in bright, vivid detail, cropped at the waist, looking straight out at the viewer, their eyes in focus. High gloss and shot with wide-open lenses for minimum depth of field, hung without frames against dark grey walls, his images seem to catch character effortlessly. Some subjects are serious. Some laugh. Local Māori and Pākehā appear alongside German backpackers, a Sikh in his immaculate white bana, apple orchard and grape pickers from Vanuatu.
We see a Hawke’s Bay local, Clinton, known as the ‘Mountain Goat’ for his ability to scale hillside vineyards. One lady in a colourful red hat and orange high vis, with arms outstretched, has picked fruit at the same vineyard that her mum has worked for the last 25 years. An Indian EIT student is almost anonymous in turban and Ray-Bans as he shoulders his harvest of grapes in front of vast skies. Audio plays from a Samoan choir singing at the Methodist church in nearby Flaxmere. Snatches of French conversations are caught from between the vines. Ni-Vanuatu sing their national anthem.
There’s a sense of reverence here, valorisation where we don’t usually see it. But there’s also zero pretension. There’s candour and humour; a sense of direct connection and individuality pervades the series.
A season in Hawke’s Bay for some workers can net the equivalent of five years’ pay back home, and Brimer doesn’t ignore the economic aspect of this work. One corner of the exhibition documents his journey to villages in Vanuatu to catch up with workers who have spent their earnings building churches or caring for their elders. It’s not what every worker does, but it’s no accident this is shown. It’s a reminder of why so many take up this work, so far from home. This extra detail shows an economic reality distant from the glamour of wine tourism, and the award dinners and sparkling events that make up Hawke’s Bay social calendar.
Just as a community arts centre give access and recognition to all members of its community, Harvest reflects the agency and diversity, hardship and humour of people who are proud and willing to share their stories. “These folk are necessary,” says Brimer. “They do amazing work and deserve some love.”
The workers in these portraits meet us eye to eye. “I wanted their eyes to be sharp as tacks. I reckon if I get that, at least I’m getting one thing right.”
Each summer in Hawke’s Bay, a population of workers and tourists comes in as regular as the tide. This year’s cruise ships are already arriving at Napier Port. Meanwhile the fruit packing houses are getting ready for another busy season.
Curated by Jonathan Brown, Richard Brimer: Harvest at the Hastings City Art Gallery continues until March 1 2020. The full collection of 50 photos appears in Harvest, published in conjunction with the exhibition and Hastings City Art Gallery. (ISBN 9780473497705).
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.