By David Cook
Craig Potton, NZ$49.95 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

IN THE Waikato, over the river from Huntly, are a number of small towns which existed largely to work the coal fields. Rotowaro was one of those communities. If you drive through the area today you will see next to nothing indicating the presence of the town at all.

Rotowaro has the dubious honour of being closed down and the population relocated by State Coal Mines (as Solid Energy was then known) because they needed the coal over which the town had grown.

In 1984 photographer David Cook was asked by the Waikato Museum to document the closure of the town. That project resulted in an exhibition and a book – Rotowaro : the last days of a Waikato coal-mining township. It also led to a desire in Cook to explore the location and the people in a much greater depth.

That twenty year project has resulted in the recent publication Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Township. It is a social history as much as it is a photographic book. Divided into three sections – Before, During, After – Cook’s photos tell a story of a community disconnected, and a landscape re-shaped. Cook also shares some of the stories of the town in words; in interviews with the disconnected, through Cook’s own journal entries, facsimiles of letter to and from State Coal Mines, etc.

Cook described his 1984 project as “a visual ethnography of the place from the beginning of the upheaval to when Rotowaro, as a town, as a place of peoples, ceased to exist.” Lake of Coal is the realisation of that concept, a beautiful visual ethnography.

The town was finally vacated in 1987, though it survived for another ten years before succumbing to the mining machinery. Cook returned during this time to record changes as nature, and then humans, staked their claim on the land and what lay beneath.

Cook’s initial approach was very much that of the photojournalist – wandering, exploring, and documenting with black and white film and a 35mm camera. As the project developed his approach changed, colour crept in, and he started using different film formats. With the departure of the townsfolk the landscape became the dominant subject. One fascinating series is a pair of panorama images, one taken in 1987, the other taken at the same site two years later.

As strong as Cook’s images are, it is the words that have the real emotional impact for me. I was reminded in this regard of the late American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s 1975 publication Minamata: A Warning to the World..., an intensely moving portrait of a fishing town being poisoned by industry. Photography can be powerful and moving in its own right, but it can’t truly capture the voices of those being photographed.

Alongside the history of Rotowaro are conversations with some of those around in 1984 – a schoolteacher, one of her pupils, mine workers – and Solid Energy’s current environmental manager. The stories they tell give real insight into the sense of community that existed and how it all fell apart, as well as informing us about the more recent activities.

The twenty years covered in this book surveys both the dislocation of a community and Cook’s own photographic development. But he also realised that other images existed which would compliment and expand on his own. Interspersed amongst Cook’s images are the private photos from some of the families, video stills from community events, and children’s drawings, all of which add to the resonance of a community disconnected and the associated sense of loss.

A lot of time has been spent to make this book a true work of art. The design is quite lovely. It’s clean and simple with nice little design elements which lift it about the milieu. The printing is beautiful and the whole layout is well considered. On a purely visceral level it is a joy to look through and read.

As someone who spent their youth amongst the huge changes to the New Zealand social landscape that was the mid- to late-1980s, it’s clear that the stories told in this volume are ones that largely got lost along the way. There are similarities with, say, the freezing work communities, though what happened at Rotowaro was the result of geographic misfortune not economic restructuring.

A little historical research on the internet take you to the Solid Energy website and these words: “In the North Island the most important coal mining centre is Huntly where mines have worked more or less continuously since the 1860's. The Rotowaro coal field, 10 km west of Huntly township, is historically the most important in the North Island.” (http://www.solidenergy.co.nz/ab-history-waikato.htm)

It is somewhat interesting that while Solid Energy is happy to point out the importance of the Rotowaro field, they mention nothing of the 1987 social upheaval. Fortunately we have Lake of Coal to remind us of this important event in New Zealand history.

Andy Palmer is a Wellington-based artist and photographer. His works can be viewed at www.acpalmer.co.nz.