Light has a central role in the Māori understanding of the universe. According to Māori stories of creation, the world was once in darkness (Te Pō). Then Tāne, god of the forests, forced apart his parents Rangi, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and light flooded into the world.
This primal moment of illumination, the entry into the world of light (Te Ao Marama), is often referred to on the marae. The Māori word for New Zealand, ‘Aotearoa’ (usually translated as ‘land of the long white cloud’) may mean ‘long bright world’ or ‘land of abiding day’, referring to the distinctive qualities of New Zealand light.
Most 19th-century immigrants came from Britain, a land known for its soft, gentle light and its mists, where the black coal smoke of industrial factories must have added to the gloom and haze.
An American tourist wrote in his blog from Auckland in July 2005: ‘What’s most amazing, we’ve all concurred, is the light … the clarity of the air allows you to see farther than I think I’ve ever been able to look on a city of this size. It’s impossible to explain, the light has a different tone … the clouds in the air move constantly, rain falls without warning … The light on the sea, as a result, is in constant flux, so one second the water is a pale greenish brown, the next it’s a deep azurean blue. Incredible.’ 1
Settlers noted the clarity of New Zealand light. In 1874 Mary Robinson, an English immigrant living in Temuka, wrote to her parents in Bedfordshire: ‘We can sit in our house and see the mountains with the tops all covered with snow, although they are about 60 miles off.’ 2
The English immigrants who came in the 1950s, when London was blanketed in smog, also commented on the clear light and the amazingly blue and clean sky. One of them remembers seeing Auckland, ‘a sparkling blue harbour with white boats at anchor, green hills in the background, houses on the hills and clear, clear air.’ 3 In 2005 a Thai immigrant spoke of ‘a clarity in the atmosphere that makes me think of being inside a beautiful orb of crystal.’ 4
The American poet Robert Creeley wrote in 1976, ‘New Zealand light – intense, clear, particularizing, ruthless, unlike any I’ve previously known. In my own concerns, it brought all things factually to stand in the light, and that’s where finally one wants to see them.’ 5
Not surprisingly, different regions have exploited this perception to claim their own unique light. In 2005 Central Otago’s marketing motto was ‘Come see the light’, while Marlborough was just as sure that it was ‘awash with sun and a wonderful quality of light’.
As for New Zealanders, many wear dark glasses outside, while those who do not will often develop a squint.
The clarity of New Zealand light is a widespread perception, but is it real? There is no absolute answer. The light varies with the weather, the season, the time of the day, and the place. Its quality is also affected by pollution in the atmosphere, which scatters and absorbs it. However, certain conditions contribute to low pollution and therefore clarity of light:
The proximity of the sea, which reflects sunlight, may also be a factor.
In places such as South Canterbury and Central Otago, which are protected from the rain by the Southern Alps, the air is exceptionally dry and clear. At the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research station in Lauder, Central Otago, researchers have examined both the meteorological visibility index (which measures contrasts of black and white over distance), and optical depth (which measures the absorption of light from the sun).
The air quality is high, with indicators (carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) typical of very clean southern maritime air. Air clarity, or visibility, is especially high because clouds and precipitation over mountain ranges upwind of the site wash the salt and other aerosols out of the air as it passes. Measurements at Lauder show that New Zealand air, along with that of Antarctica, is among the clearest on the globe.
An observatory such as Mt John, near Lake Tekapo, is regarded internationally as a superb site for looking at the stars.
Although Central Otago normally has an exceptionally clear atmosphere, researchers at Lauder in the region note the impact of distant events. The 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, the 2001 Boxing Day bush fires in Australia, and annual springtime burning of savannah and cropland in southern Africa, South America, southern Asia and Australia have all been observed at Lauder.
Most New Zealanders live in cities, where motor-vehicle emissions, domestic fires for heating and industrial discharges pollute the atmosphere. Christchurch has its smog alerts. And anywhere in New Zealand when the cloud cover comes down, ‘bad light’ can stop play in a cricket match, or fog can close airports.
New Zealand receives comparatively high levels of ultraviolet light – a part of the electromagnetic spectrum invisible to the human eye. One reason is the clarity of the air surrounding the country. As a result of these higher levels, there are high rates of skin cancer, prompting a constant message in summer about the dangers of sunburn. In addition, paint, textiles and plastics deteriorate rapidly, and there is widespread use of venetian blinds to protect furniture.
Because light is a distinctive part of the New Zealand experience, many visual artists and writers refer to it in their work.
Some writers have observed the play of light. The short-story writer Katherine Mansfield wrote that ‘the leaping, glittering sea was so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.’ 1 Poet Ursula Bethell referred to ‘this hallowed clarity’. 2 Writer Monte Holcroft made light central to his philosophy. His essay of 1940, The deepening stream, ends with a vision of a New Zealand intellectual tradition in which the individual merges with the environment. He describes the light at Lake Heron amid the Southern Alps: ‘I watched the colours change on the mountains across the lake, wondering at the depths which lie between the hard brilliance of noon and the tender drift of shadows in the dusk.’ 3
Photographers have often noted that images taken in New Zealand have an unusual contrast and brilliance of colour, but few have identified this as producing a distinct school of photography based on the effect of the light.
Similarly some international film-makers may well have been drawn to New Zealand by the quality of light, although the relatively cheap production costs are a more likely explanation. Only the New Zealand actor and director Sam Neill, in 1977, saw light as creating a future for local movies: ‘When New Zealand films reach a sort of maturity, there will be a special look about them that will be unlike any film in the world. It’s because of this incredible clarity of light we have here.’ 4 But it is also true that some New Zealand films, such as those by Vincent Ward, have a dark and brooding atmosphere.
Of all the visual artists, painters have been most influenced by New Zealand’s light. In 1911 a reviewer praised the artist Alfred Walsh for depicting it in works such as ‘Low tide, Kaikoura coast’. In 1929 Christopher Perkins, an English artist who had just come to New Zealand, said that ‘the future of New Zealand as a country for painters [was] guaranteed by its marvellous light’. 5 He attempted to capture this in his own paintings.
In the next few years the critic James Shelley contrasted the ‘hazy atmosphere’ of northern countries with New Zealand, where ‘the mountain fairly bounds across the sky’. 6
In 1934 the poet and art critic A. R. D. Fairburn compared New Zealand and British art: ‘There is no golden mist in our air, no Merlin in our woods, no soft, warm colours … Hard, clear light reveals the bones, the sheer form, of hills, trees, stones and scrub. We must draw rather than paint, even if we are using a brush, or we shall not be perfectly truthful.’ 7
In 1969 Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith published An introduction to New Zealand painting 1839–1967. They stated that light, along with landscape, was central to understanding New Zealand painting. There were 30 references to the subject in the index. Their study featured earlier artists (Charles Heaphy and Alfred Sharpe) and more recent painters (Rita Angus and William Sutton). Hamish Keith has since noted that in the 1960s, he and other art historians ‘put the Great New Zealand Light on the front of our bicycles.’ 8
Several painters supported the idea that light was a key factor. Colin McCahon praised the landscape painter Toss Woollaston’s work for being ‘bright with New Zealand light’. McCahon embellished several of his paintings with the words, ‘As there is a constant flow of light we are born in the pure land’. Pat Hanly produced a series of cut-out ‘Figures in light’, and Don Binney’s sharply defined bird images were seen as a response to the hard light. Binney commented that the importance of light was ‘a myth worth believing in’. 9
In 1983 the art historian Francis Pound attacked the notion that artists were influenced by the light as ‘meteorological determinism’. He claimed that hard-edged imagery had more to do with artists’ stylistic concerns – their ‘frames’ – than with the local environment. He also pointed out that some artists such as the 19th-century Dutch immigrant Petrus van der Velden had predominantly painted darkness and shadow.
And yet, in the early 2000s New Zealand artists, from painter Wendy Leach to Ann Robinson, maker of glass bowls, still acknowledged the wonders of New Zealand light. It seems unlikely that it will quickly disappear as a defining element of New Zealand identity and culture.
Brown, Gordon H., and Hamish Keith. An introduction to New Zealand painting, 1839–1967. London and Auckland: Collins, 1969.
Keith, Hamish, and others. Painting, 1827–1967. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1968.
Pound, Francis. ‘Harsh clarities.’ Parallax 1, no. 3 (Winter 1983): 263–269.
Skinner, Damian. Don Binney: ngā manu ngā motu – birds/islands. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.