Book of the Week: The man who discovered Middle-earth

Dave Comer was a film location scout who is credited with finding many of the spectacular locations for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. His widow Peta Carey introduces her new book of his photographs.

It’s an odd affair, a book launch. Particularly your first book launch. My very kind publisher had warned me, “It’s a sink hole for money.” But I went ahead regardless, and threw on whitebait and venison in a Queenstown helicopter hangar. Good mates who own vineyards threw in the wine.

Not enough wine was drunk, but the venison and whitebait went down a treat, and all the books were sold, and the local paper took snaps for the social pages the following week.

And I was left wondering what on earth that was all about. It took two and half years of meandering through the chaos of 40 years of archived photographs, and the chaos of my own meanderings of mind and memory, to publish A Place for the Heart: The Life and Work of Dave Comer, Photographer and Film Location Scout.

I didn’t settle on that title until the eleventh hour. The working title was Beachcomber, which says more about his hoarded collection of paraphernalia found on long lonely stretches of sand – and also through a lens. An overwhelming avalanche of photographic archives confronted me in the days following his death.

Photo: Dave Comer

Most writers would approach a book with something like a plan – a half-decent plot line, a rough structure. My first foray in publishing didn’t even start as a book. It evolved as a necessary response to the scale of the chaos I had to deal with.

At the beginning were the images. Dave’s photographs needed to be seen. A book was one possible way for them to be exhibited and not simply banished to one of the hundreds of file boxes on the shelves.

Photo: Dave Comer

Or did it begin with the words? The involuntary response of any writer attempting to comprehend the unfathomable. Perhaps it was somewhere between the two.

Strange the marriage between image and words. I would trawl through the photographs and a tangent would emerge. I already knew Fiordland – jetboats, helicopters and deer, big skies, dark weather. Less familiar were the boxes of prints from the early Silverscreen production days, of TV commercials for Mainland Cheese and Crumpy’s Toyota. Then there were the many hundreds if not thousands of rocks, river gorges and mountains that laced Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Dave was the man who found Middle-earth, they say.

Photo: Dave Comer

It’s now a few weeks after the venison and whitebait and first slightly humbling reviews. But the pinch-me moments continue. I’ve had old helicopter pilots ring me in tears; had emails from hardened southern souls, fishermen and whitebaiters, saying “thank you”. There are Facebook images of Lord of the Rings fans in raptures, clutching the book. I’ve had a notable photographer from the other side of the world saying “I wish I’d met him” and I’ve had people I don’t know approach me in the street, saying the nicest things about a book that I think came from me.

Even readers from metropolitan centres in the North Island like it. That’s nice. I hope they get to like Dave. I did.

Dave Comer

And now I wonder at the irony. That he had to bugger off so I could write this book about him. That he had to leave his nine-year-old daughter so I could finally get into this mess of an office and start dissecting photographs he took over more than 40 years, and would have never done anything with himself.

That he had to go, before I could actually find the words, a few lines of poetry and prose to accompany his beautiful images. To put my best friend and soulmate into print.


A Place for the Heart: The Life and Work of Dave Comer, Photographer and Film Location Scout by Peta Carey (Craig Potton, $59.95) is available at Unity Books.

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