Abby Storey – Into The Wilderness, Or Not

The below essay was written by Damian Smith about my series Of the Land:

Since the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand in 1769 the region’s feral animal population has played havoc with the local flora and fauna. 32 species of introduced mammals and 144 bird species has placed enormous pressure on the local environment. New Zealand’s picturesque tourism campaigns convey a pristine image to the world, but to imagine that humans might imbibe from an untouched Pacific paradise on those shores is to ignore centuries of incursion and degradation.

Those who make their living from the land such as forestry workers and farmers experience the problem most keenly, for they must manage, mitigate and inevitably cull. Such a career path is not for all, yet to ignore its necessity is to deny a level of collective responsibility where stewardship of the eco-system is concerned. Ambivalence in this instance, however well derived, is not an answer to the problem.

It is this complex topic that photographer Abby Storey addresses in her new body of photographic images, Of the Land. At the centre of her series is Terry, a solitary farmer documented as he plies his trade on the land. His world appears largely peaceful; walking the earth in the company of his trusted black Labrador he is seen absorbed in his daily routines – untangling fishing nets, strolling through fields, plucking the feathers from a brace of wild birds.

The little bodies of ducks, freshly denuded and laid out on the water tank roof, in Five Plucked Ducks, 2013 seem almost ornamental, reminiscent of their lounge-room cousins though not so sentimental. The image is suggestive of living on the land but also of trophy taking, a theme reiterated in Deer Head in Tree, 2013, which at first glance appears simply to be a serene arboreal study. Yet such photographs are far from blatantly triumphal. Rather they are an acknowledgement of the entwined relationships enfolding man and nature, action and reaction, cause and effect.

In Chiller with Deer, 2013 the murky black of an interior space attracts our eyes; the dark bodies hanging in unlit storage. But in acclimatizing to the illusive tones we might just miss the vibrant bird roosting on its perch outside the door. “It’s killing an animal, but it’s saving a native bird”, explains the farmer, and here the juxtaposition and close proximity is apparent.

From here the narrative expands, indeed it was created over a six year period between 2008 and 2013. A cairn of stones reveals where a much loved hunting dog is buried. The lichen, already reclaiming the hand-built memorial suggests that the event is distant in time, except time out here appears to have slowed and the order of things is not so easily discerned. In Sheep’s Kidneys, 2011 the image of freshly extracted offal resting on a butcher’s hatchet recalls an antique tradition of morbid still-life paintings, such as Goya’s A Butcher’s Counter, 1810-12. Has so much changed since then?

All of Storey’s images are created ‘in camera’, which is to say the artist has shot them using a medium format film camera (a Hasselblad) and each image before us represents the whole of the original frame. In the era of digital technologies her methodology is noteworthy for it requires an approach to image making where successive failures are inevitable and the possibility of editing or airbrushing is set aside. Yet perusing these works there is little that snags the eye. The images seem easily obtained, which tells me they are most certainly not. To pursue a theme over six long years, sometimes with a newborn child on the hip and a camera slung around the neck is to become a part of the mise-en-scene. Storey grew up on the land and the country she reveals is a place the photographer has known from early childhood; she knows when the light is at its best and how the colours and contours coalesce. Storey quite clearly is immersed in this terrain, much the same way as the images she conjures sink into the textured cotton-rag paper upon which she chooses to print. At all stages in this journey the sense of tactility, from the hands of the farmer grasping the lifeless body of a turkey to the carefully constructed imagery and consummate production conjures a sensation of participation in a chain of things from which we cannot be distant.

Damian Smith, 2014