It sits at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, at 41 degrees south – the southernmost capital city in the world.
Compared to Cairo, and Moscow, and London, and the many other sprawling megalopolises Wellington is a toy town capital. A population of some 400,000 is spread across the suburbs and satellite cities to its north, but Wellington City itself – contained by the hills that tumble down to the harbour’s edge – boasts little more than 200,000. London, the city I’ve lived in for more than 20 years, has an urban population nearly 50 times that.
Wellington’s compact city centre is built on land largely raised in 1855 in a major earthquake – walk down the central thoroughfare of Lambton Quay and you’ll see plaques reminding you that little more than 150 years ago, this was on the edge of the sea.
Wellington doesn’t pretend to be a mini Manhattan. A handful of skyscrapers clustered along the adjoining Willis Street – the ‘Darth Vader’s Pencil Case’ of the BNZ Centre, and the Majestic Centre with its crown of thorns – are in stark contrast to the rest of the city. Wooden villas cluster around the hairpin roads skirting the city hills. If you grew up in San Francisco or Vancouver, you might feel right at home.
The harbour is the true heart of Wellington; 11 km long and 9.5km wide at its widest point.
It’s widely regarded as one of the finest natural harbours in the world. On a clear, bright summer’s day – and with Wellington’s notorious southerly winds dialled down – there’s few other places in the world I’d rather be with a camera and a few rolls of film.
I’d not been back home to Wellington for nearly eight years by the time I made it back at the end of December 2015. For Kiwis, this is the start of summer – like the Aussies across the Tasman, the perfect Christmas Day should involve a spread of cold meat and salads, pavlova, and a game of backyard cricket, or even better, a quick knockabout on the beach. I headed from Wellington’s stately railway station – a pillared monstrosity with a faintly Soviet feel – on a bus to the suburb that lies on the eastern edge of the harbour, Seatoun.
From here, Wellington Harbour flushes into the notoriously choppy Cook Strait, the channel that separates the North Island from the South. Despite the manicured lawns and million-dollar villas, this has a real end-of-the-world feel. The harbour leads out to the chilly, plunging depths of the strait. Head south from here and you’re on a straight line to the lost continent itself, Antarctica.
But there’s an easier journey to take. Along the black-topped bay-side roads and past the coffee bars and ice-cream signs, here, it’s a good couple of hours traversing the bays – Karaka Bay, Scorching Bay, Shelly Bay, Shark Bay and Weka Bay, to name a few – before you round Evans Bay into Oriental Bay, and the harbour city shimmers in front of you.
I’d packed several cameras on this trip back to New Zealand, but on this trip to Wellington did most of my shooting on a Zenit TTL, one of a range of Soviet SLRs descended from the ubiquitous Zenit E. The Zenit TTL is essentially an E – M42 lens mount, solid metal construction, a handful of shutter speeds – with the added bonus of a meter read out in the viewfinder (if the hit-and-miss reliability of 1970s Soviet electronics is in your favour).
I paired the Zenit with some Lomography CN100 negative film and some old slide films – Kodak Ektachrome and Agfa’s legendary Precisa – to cross process. Outside of fashion magazines, most people cross process slides in compact cameras like the Lomo LC-A and the Cosina CX-2 for eye-popping effects, thanks to these cameras’ tendency to boost saturation and add dramatic vignetting around he edges. But you can cross process with any kid of slide film in any kind of camera, and the effect is often more interesting with older cameras and older lenses that lack modern anti-flaring coatings.
Along with the slides was some Lomography CN100; re-branded colour print film that is sold for a bargain price in packs of three. I have no idea what it is – Lomography keep pretty tight-lipped about where they get their film – but it feels like the old Kodak Gold 100. It gives a lovely bright, retro feel to images, in keeping with the nostalgic pull I was feeling walking around the city I had left so long ago.
My favourite pic was one taken in the railway station. In the week between Christmas and New Year – a few weeks before the peak of summer – most offices are closed and many of the central city’s stores take a break too. The trains into town almost deserted and the station feels like a location in an end-of-days thriller.
The lone figure walking into the ticket hall, with the colours behind him, which you can see below, seemed like the perfect subject, a jet black silhouette with a surreal coloured backdrop. It’s a sight I’ve seen such hundreds of times, but never quite like this.