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Photos: Stuart Page, with additional treatment by Archi Banal
Photos: Stuart Page, with additional treatment by Archi Banal

SocietyJanuary 7, 2024

Here’s how Auckland really looked in 1989

Photos: Stuart Page, with additional treatment by Archi Banal
Photos: Stuart Page, with additional treatment by Archi Banal

Summer reissue: A project documenting everyday life in Tāmaki Makaurau at the dawn of the 1990s is finally reaching its intended audience: Aucklanders of the future. Gabi Lardies talks to one of the photographers about how he approached the assignment.

First published on November 5, 2023. All photos, including the group portrait that opens this story, by Stuart Page.

In 1989, Stuart Page, then 31 years old and almost definitely dressed in all black, lugged a beastly Mamiya camera weighing over two kilograms around suburbs of Auckland he’d never been to before. 

He’d moved to Auckland from Christchurch just two years before. In Tāmaki, Mt Wellington, Panmure, Onehunga, Sandringham and the CBD, he walked the streets capturing spontaneous moments and transient places. In the industrial suburbs, he found his way inside factories and took photos of the people working there too.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I should make sure that I photograph all the people that all the other photographers would leave out of the frame,’” Page says today. He’s still dressed mainly in black, and still lives in Grey Lynn, though the private pools, Lamborghinis and Bentley showrooms in the neighbourhood are new. Page prefers to travel on the bus, using his SuperGold Hop card. 

1990 Project photographers Stuart Page, Chris Matthews, Ans Westra, Miles Hargest and Paul McCredie in the central median of Queen Street between the Kerridge Odeon Theatre Centre and the Civic Theatre. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG057-22)

Along with four other photographers, Page was commissioned by Auckland Public Library to document life in the city for The 1990 Project, marking 150 years passing since the signing of Te Tiriti. Page approached the task as a corrective to the touristy photographs of the city bathed in nostalgic romanticism and late afternoon light. Neither was he interested in capturing the architectural achievements of urban development or geographic features like the volcanic cones or harbours. 

Instead, the hundreds of photos he took are filled with ordinary people going about their usual routines. Abattoir workers play cricket at lunchtime, a woman tends to her lawn, a young man stands on a vase to paint the sign for a leather shop, workers load fish into buckets, or are happy to be heading home for the day. It’s Auckland in 1989 from street level, a documentation of the interlocking lives which make a city. 

Even when the photos are posed there is a casual lightness to them. Traditionally, documentary photography has tended to be grim. Often photographers have captured poorer people with an intention to spread awareness of their living or working conditions. Subjects appear downcast, down and out, perhaps objects of pity. That’s not the case in Page’s photographs.

The camera tends to be seen as a truth-capturer, a machine for recording objective reality. And yet, “if you put two of us [photographers] in the street side-by-side and told us to take a photograph, you’d get two totally different photos,” says Page. By pressing the shutter at a certain moment, and pointing the camera at a certain angle, “you are creating a little scenario, to a certain extent”.

Still, in the back of Page’s mind was the historical purpose of the photographs. Where there were signs he tried to include them in full at a readable size, and he kept a log book of dates, locations and names to attribute to each frame. He calls it a “subjective objectivity”.

Dairy owner Nanjit Singh Mann and his staff outside the dairy at 91 Tripoli Road in Panmure, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG018-01)
Auckland City Council Abattoir workers on their way home, Westfield, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG022-10)

Page started taking photos when he was 14. When the brass band he played the snare drum in travelled to Australia for a competition, he seized the opportunity to purchase his first camera, an Olympus OM-1, from the Duty Free shop. “Duty Free was a big deal back then, you saved a lot of money,” he says. 

After school he studied at Ilam School of Fine Arts, choosing art because there was “no other option. I wasn’t really interested in getting a job.” Although he loved photography, he thought he would be a painter, and was doing well producing Andy Warhol-esque canvases. That was until he “became aware of this really loud explosive little man” in the photography department: New Yorker Larence Shustak. They got along like a house on fire, and Page switched to the photography department. 

It was around the same time that Page “sort of got tricked into being in a band”. It’s a long story involving a bottle of tequila, a friend, an old fire station and a drum kit on the stage of a ballroom. This led to decades drumming in The Axemen, who played an anarchic style of rock and roll and were prolific record releasers. Among their fans was Kurt Cobain, who saw them play at a party on the roof of Frisbee Studios on Mayoral Drive when Nirvana was in town, Page says, and then bought their record from Real Groovy.

But the work Page is best known for is probably his music videos. It all started in 1985, when Flying Nun agreed to release The Axemen’s debut LP with a colour-printed gatefold cover. The production costs of such a release were huge; Page remembers a staffer at Flying Nun telling him, “You’re gonna fuckin’ bankrupt me.” Not wanting to be held responsible for the label’s financial collapse, The Axemen decided to promote the album themselves. The best way for a local band to be noticed was to get a music video on Radio with Pictures, which aired on Sunday evenings before the weekly horror film on TV2. And so Page learned how to shoot moving pictures. The result was “outrageous” and “pretty rough, there’s lots of mistakes”, he says. “I think they played it once – all that work and they played it once. But it was a momentous occasion to see it on TV. All these people came around, and we went ‘holy crap, that’s us’.”

Page soon became a go-to for New Zealand bands wanting alternative music videos – his CV includes videos for The Clean, Snapper, Headless Chickens and more recently, Princess Chelsea. His best-known work is the infamous video for the Skeptics’ ‘AFFCO’, filmed on the sheep floor at Auckland’s Westfield Freezing Works and a meat packing line at Kellax Foods nearby. The video shows the slaughtering of sheep on their way to becoming meat products, and was taken to be a statement about animal rights. Page has always disputed that reading of the video. “The song was written purely about some guys who ‘pack meat’ and the video was made in that light – not wanting to cast any aspersions on the workers in the meat trade, but to document the ‘process’ of a sheep’s life in contemporary New Zealand,” he wrote on the blog Vital

Sheep being loaded into holding pens at the Auckland City Council Abattoir in Westfield, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG021-10)
Avon Rzoska inside Avon’s Butchery at 246 Apirana Avenue in Glen Innes, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG003-07)

One of Page’s biggest projects has been the documentary How Bizarre: The Story of an Otara Millionaire, about OMC frontman Pauly Fuemana. The work that occupies him now runs in a similar vein, focused primarily on documenting New Zealand’s musical history. Among the projects are an LP collecting the tracks of a 1981 band called Riot 111, a reissue of ‘Robert the Record’ a Fog LP from 1986 and a BluRay release of his 1992 Noisyland VHS compilation

The 1990 Project was a markedly different assignment. At its culmination, Page didn’t hand over a neat selection of edited images – he turned in every roll of film he had used, so that the library ended up with over 1000 images he had shot, a complete record of his finger on the shutter. The photographs were, and continue to be, under the guardianship of the library. 

In 1990, one of the commissioning librarians wrote, “The file-prints which are arranged geographically for public reference will become well-thumbed and misfiled before the long and expensive road to optical disk technology brings the reader to a screen where the images can be safely browsed.” The photos missed the optical disk era and have gone straight to being online records. It took about 30 years for the library to digitise The 1990 Project, which is why they’ve only recently started stirring nostalgia online, being shared by local history Facebook pages like Timespanner.

June Fletcher, store manager of Campbell’s Shoes, arranging shoes in the shop window, on the corner of Vulcan Lane and High Street, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG039-26)
Sanford Ltd worker loading fish into the back of a truck at Onehunga Wharf, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG049-09)

But the photos already had a nostalgic quality when they were taken. All five photographers worked in black and white film, prompting a Metro magazine reviewer to write that they “already have a paradoxical and wholly unexpected nostalgic quality which allows the contemporary viewer to see them as the future may do”.

It is a strange feeling to be that future audience. An Aucklander born just after they were taken, I recognise the place names and still see traces of that 1989 Auckland. Campbell Shoes is no longer on the corner of Vulcan Lane and High Street, but the shop window is familiar; apart from the new Gorman signage and clothes, the facade looks the same. The Onehunga Wharf was purchased from Ports of Auckland by the Auckland Council in 2018 and is being developed into a “destination”. Fish are packed elsewhere.

Pacific Steel Group is still in Ōtāhuhu, and still making that coiled wire, but the only images you’ll see coming out of the factory will be carefully curated. The glass manufacturing plant has changed hands several times but is still at 752 Great South Road in Penrose. The only contemporary photos of it are of the outside, taken from above to show the size of the site when it was for sale. Avon’s Butchery is still there, but Avon himself retired about three years ago, after running it for 41 years. “Est 1980” is still proudly written on the butchery’s window. Family Fare is now the Tripoli Road Superette, with Lotto branded signage.

Page doesn’t spend much time in the eastern suburbs he documented in 1989 – he’s heard there’s a good fish and chip shop there, but it’s a bit far to go for chips. He barely visits Queen Street any more either, saying that in the last 30 years it’s lost the venues, clubs, cafes and shops which made it interesting. You’d be more likely to find him around Ponsonby Road, where his current favourite cafe is, or at home surrounded by archives of his work that are threatening to take over. The heavy Mamiya camera is long gone, but should he want to take a photo, his iPhone, which “takes better photos than it should,” is always in his pocket.

Engineer repairing the bottle conveyor at the ACI Glass Factory, 752 Great South Road, Penrose, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG025-01)
Wiring emerging red hot from a shaping mould at Pacific Steel Limited in Ōtāhuhu, 1989. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG055-05)

The complete 1990 Project collection is available via Auckland Libraries.

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