First published on 5 Jun 2012. Updated on 5 Jun 2012.
Photographer Derek Henderson was commissioned to photograph images that would be used for Kip Williams's production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood for the Sydney Theatre Company.
Set in the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub, it is perhaps unsurprising that Henderson chose to photograph the countryside of his New Zealand home than to jet off to Wales. It’s a lot cheaper, for one, and a lot more accessible than Sydney. "And, you know, those rolling green hills," says Henderson, who has actually been to Wales (in case you were wondering). "Some of the weather is kind of similar," he says. "Pretty moody, foreboding skies – that kind of stuff." And residents of both heard an equal share of sheep jokes too.
So, how will these images be used? "The play is all set in one room," explains Henderson. "It’s a very dark room, and at the back there will be three bay windows, running horizontally, almost like a panoramic. Then, outside of these windows, there’s this view of a bay – and that’s what I was commissioned to do, to go and photograph this Bay."
Approximately 18 images will be used during the play, which runs from the beginning of the day to the evening. "Basically from dark to dark," Henderson tells us. "[The images] will slowly change as the play proceeds. The day will come up, then it will go through the whole day into evening and fall back into darkness again."
"I was there for four days to get those," Henderson continues, "and I obviously shot a lot more than that. It was important that there was a bit of drama in the sky, and the sea, throughout the day, just some play in the weather. Surprisingly enough, normally in the South Island of New Zealand you get a lot [of weather] – stormy, windy, lots of clouds and it’s dramatic – but it was actually quite sunny a lot of the time, so that’s why I had to hang around for four days – to get a bit of drama."
Henderson was in an area called Port Chalmers, near Dunedin. "I went and scouted quite a few locations for Kip. I gave him a choice of different bays that I photographed and that’s the one that they thought was best for the play."
Henderson was working with a large format analog camera, and he says the effect is "quite painterly". He also took inspiration from the play itself, which he chose to read while on location. "I didn’t pretend to understand what was going on," he confesses. "It’s very lyrical. It’s interesting – I was almost in the cottage, looking out those bay windows."
"After a while the locals knew what I was doing and one old man used to come along with a thermos of tea and we’d have a couple of biscuits and talk. In a weird way, it was very therapeutic to sit there and look at the same thing for a few days. You get over the threshold of boredom and it becomes quite Zen-like to stare at the same thing. It’s a good experience for a photographer, to see all of the changes in light."