“I just want people to remember that we come from an agrarian country,” says photographer Stephen Robinson. “We must understand that it makes the grass to feed our animals. In parts, we’ve done a good job, other places we’ve buggered up. Land is like an antique, we’re not going to be making any more of it.”
In celebration of our legendary lands, Stephen has published Show Time: The A&P Show For All New Zealanders, a collection of fascinating photographs of fabled farming events from the length and breadth of the country. “I believe the A&P shows are a great link between the city and the country,” says the prolific photographer (this is his eighteenth publication). “It is one of those moments where the two can combine. It is now quite difficult for New Zealanders to get on to farms, to see the animals and the shows are a place where families can do that.” There is also, he adds, a growing curiosity of “where our produce comes from”.
The project has been five years in the making, and Stephen soon learnt just how important these shows are to the communities. “People go to these things religiously,” he says. “They take it very seriously indeed.”
Did you have any favourite shows?
“I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that! I have two favourites, one on the North Island, and one on the South. The one at Waimate North is really isolated, with the feeling of a real New Zealand fair, while the one at Wanaka has that incredible backdrop, the whole area comes together at this big market overlooking the lake.”
And any favourite photos from the collection?
“No! It would be like trying to name your favourite kid. If I didn’t have an editor, there would have been about 10,000 shots.”
Were the people always happy to be snapped?
“Some are, some not. As always, wherever you go, it’s the whole gamut of life. Even the animals are camera shy sometimes.”
Throughout his life, Stephen has had plenty of connection with the countryside. Though he grew up in Wellington, as a youth he “spent plenty of time on farms”, his partner is a “sheep farmer’s daughter from Hawke’s Bay” and brother-in-law a dairy farmer in Taupo. “For my last book, I learnt to ride a horse, which was pretty crazy, but I loved it,” says the Auckland-based photographer.
Ambassadors for all things rural, the Topp Twins, have penned a foreword for the book (which also includes one of their DVDs), describing the A&P show as “an integral part of Kiwi culture” and “a celebration of heartland New Zealand” allowing folk “to be recognised for what they’re good at, whether it’s growing vegetables, making pikelets, raising calves, chopping wood or shearing sheep”. Stephen, so say Jools and Lynda, has “captured the heart and soul” of the event.
The pictures riff on Stephen’s signature style of finding the fascinating within the familiar. “That is very important,” he says, “because there is now a trend for people to snap random collections of things. I’ve been observing life for a long time. It is the ultimate for me to publish my photos as an entity in a book as opposed to an exhibition because I like the idea of people sitting down and pondering over them.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Show Time: The A&P Show For All New Zealanders is out in all book stores now.
A Brief History of the A&P Show
Agricultural and pastoral (A&P) shows were established to promote all things farming.
The idea was born in the UK. The Highland Society of Edinburgh, founded in 1784, held one of the very first such shows, in 1822. England followed 16 years later.
The Bay of Islands was the setting for the first New Zealand event, in 1842.
The Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Auckland sprouted in 1843, holding its first show at the Exchange Hotel.
Canterbury’s and Hawke’s Bay’s A&P societies were established 20 years later.
In 1877, the A&P organisations were granted parliamentary protection as incorporated societies.
Initially the shows were all about farmers competing to have the best crops and livestock, later blooming into events to share ideas to improve farming methods and safety.
Later attractions included wood chopping, equestrian events, and displays of farm machinery.
By the mid-20th century, Kiwi’s were throwing more than 100 of these rural celebrations each year, they continue in similar numbers today, split pretty evenly between our two main islands.