All that glitters . . .

Pip is 22. She’s blonde and she’s comely and, except for a thin layer of paint and glitter, she’s also pretty much naked.

Welcome to the world of body art. Where bare skin is both  encouraged and celebrated.

Pip – who, just for the record, is also clad in nipple covers and black knickers – is a living canvas for Jakkii Goody, the owner of Fabart, one of only two national face and body art companies in New Zealand. Jakkii is preparing for the January 26-29 New Zealand International Body Painting Competition in Taupo by doing a practice run. Tonight she has covered Pip’s torso with the painted version of an Art Deco-themed flapper dress.

I’ve shown up out to do an interview and take photos and give a pair of local ladies some welcome newspaper coverage.

That the two have teamed up is an example of happenstance: they’d met at an earlier event and just clicked.

Talent met body. Cue the magic.

“You certainly have to consider the anatomy and the body shape of the model you’re working with,” says Jakkii. “The breasts and the hips become a really great feature of body art.”

Pip certainly has the body for body art. I’m doing my best to be discreet but it’s not every day that I am in the same room with a shapely young miss displaying this much skin. Even if it is covered by glitter

Am I embarrassed? Yeah, probably. A little bit.

I’m also shy. Pretty girls, even fully clothed, tie my tongue and my shoelaces. I stumble in their presence because they intimidate me. I am overwhelmed by their beauty. I know: typical man.

“Focus on the eyes,” is a standard mantra for photographers and it was never more truer than tonight.

I ask Pip if she’s cold. She says no, because it’s a warm summer evening.

I ask her about the first time she offered her body up to art. It was at the event where she met Jakkii. Pip and a friend served beer. I ask if sales were brisk. She said yes. I ask if any of her customers tipped her. She says yes.

Pip says she wasn’t embarrassed to be clad in little more than paint.

“I felt like a star,” she says. “Everyone wanted to have photos taken with me. Everyone was looking at me as I walked through the crowd.”

I ask if she knows why they were looking.

She says yes.

We shake hands, I wish Jakkii good luck in the competition and I leave. Later, on the drive home, I replay the encounter in my mind. Did I jabber on too much in an effort to mask my discomfort? Did I take too many photos? Do I have one that will illustrate the story without showing so much skin that it causes some pensioner to choke on her porridge when the paper lands on her breakfast table?

My secret goal has always been to be a fashion photographer, to take photos of beautiful women in interesting settings and poses.

Now I’m reconsidering that goal. Maybe I should stick to writing and leave the camera work to those who are not so easily rattled.

Several years ago, a newspaper photographer told me a story about how a young lady had come into the office to ask him about becoming a model. She followed him into the darkroom (I told you it was years ago) where the fellow was developing photos for the next day’s edition. When he turned away from his chemical trays and back to the woman, she was sitting on the counter, completely naked.

I forget now how his story ended, but I do remember having two reactions:

1) Oh, man, that is so cool.

and

2) Oh, God, I hope that never happens to me.

My Cook Islands photos displayed in gallery.

I look at the photos — the girl shrieking with laughter; the youngster clutching at her face as her brain cramps from ice cream eaten too quickly; the trio peering mischievously from a market stall — and the walls of the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay melt away.

I’m transported back to Rarotonga. The air is suddenly redolent of frangipani; the sun is hot on my neck. There is sand between my toes.

It’s all my imagination of course, but that’s the feeling I hope to evoke in all those who view my exhibit of Cook Islands photographs in the gallery. If someone smiles at the children’s antics or sighs in frustration at not being able to slide into the teal depths of Muri Lagoon, or recalls their own fond memories of the Cooks, then my job here is done and I can count the showing a success.

I landed on Raro the day after Cyclone Pat chewed up the sister island of Aitutaki. I left shortly after the general election. It was my sixth visit to the island in 10 years, and the third time I actually lived and worked there.

Between the two major events that bookended my year in paradise, I compiled a lifetime of adventures, experiences and memories.

As a reporter/ photographer for the Cook Islands Herald, I was the first member of the print media to land on Aitutaki, courtesy of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules, to record the devastation wrought by the cyclone. My job took me into the National Auditorium for cultural performances, to the retirement gala held for Catholic Bishop Stuart O’Connell.

I attended Christmas carnivals and was on the dock when the police boat returned rescued fishermen to the arms of their loved ones.

School children visiting cultural landmarks, the Vaka Eiva paddling competitions, a huge gathering of Zumba enthusiasts, a day spent on the island of Atiu in the company of sunburned travel agents — I attended all these events, camera in hand.

I worked on the 2011 Miss Cook Islands calendar and photographed models for the Herald covers. I wandered the weekly Saturday market, capturing the faces and expressions of these beautiful Polynesian people, committing split seconds of their lives to my camera’s memory.

It was a time of wonder. A time of magic and delight. It was a time of golden days and purple nights. A time of laughter and friendships. It was, in the end, a time gone too soon.

I returned to New Zealand with some 15,000 photographs — and a new tattoo — as a reminder the Garden of Eden really does exist. The plan was always to share my images and, thanks to Shayne Jeffares and the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay, that goal has been achieved.

The exhibit is my love letter to the Cook Islands and its people. It’s also a promise to myself to return once more to their warm embraces.

* The Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay is located at 138 Tennyson Street in Napier. For information: 06 835 8142 or http://www.pghb.co.nz

I believe in thirds.

A million years ago, when I was much younger, possessed of an excess of energy and still harboured dreams of becoming the next (insert name of mega-selling author here), I took a number of Creative Writing courses.

Give Canada a hand.

These were held at Langley Secondary School under the auspices of Adult Education or Continuing Ed or just plain old night school. Along with the opportunity to wax nostalgic as I wandered the halls of my alma mater, viewing the place through adult eyes (and, yes, it did look smaller), I was able to rub shoulders with a variety of other wordsmiths.

Inevitably I was the youngest member of the class, with most others being matrons of a certain age who, having grown bored with the macramé and embroidery classes, decided to try their hand at fiction writing, seeing as how they’d been prolific letter writers all their lives.

The teachers came and went but there was one lady, whose name escapes me at this late date, who taught a couple of the sessions. Where some instructors would allow us to write what we wanted and then offer tips and critiques, this woman had very distinct parameters as to what she considered to be acceptable prose.

You either adapted to her style or you suffered the slings and arrows of her criticism. I was young. My ego was still a tender thing, open and vulnerable, as opposed to the carapace of scars it now bears. And so I stopped writing like Me and started writing like Her.

Did it make me a better writer? I doubt it. Did it make me blend in with the grandmothers in my class? Yes. Most definitely. I became homogenized, a McWriter.

Which brings us to the present day and my latest foray into a class held at night in an educational environment. In this case, it’s an eight-week photography course taught by Richard Wood in a classroom at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Taradale. It’s not the most remarkable of locations, if only because I have no idea where the toilets are located.

Twenty-six strangers gathered for the first time last week. At the end of two hours, 26 strangers wandered away into the darkness. In a remarkable display of blatant professionalism, Richard launched right into his lesson rather than take 10 minutes to have us introduce ourselves.

I don’t know about the others, but part of my reason for taking the course was to meet other creative sorts and, had someone stood up and said they enjoy taking photos of people on South Pacific islands – just like I do! – then we could have bonded after the class and exchanged positive vibes.

Richard is, as you might expect from the awards listed on his website, an excellent photographer. I’d also venture to say he’s a bored photographer. That might explain why he’s now setting up and shooting these vast dioramas of people and props and costumes and makeup and wind machines in an effort to replicate masterpieces from centuries long past.

But there is a fine line between being an expert with a camera and being an expert with Photoshop. Being old-school in all I do, I’m not sure I like the slippery slope down which today’s photographers are sliding. At one time, the photo you took was the photo you got. Now, even the most mutton of shots can be dressed up to look like a prize-winning lamb.

What would school be without homework and so we had two assignments to hand in for tonight, based on the subjects Richard touched on last week: the colour wheel and thirds.

Colour is self-explanatory, but he wanted us to hunt down scenes where colours would complement or clash with each other.
Thirds is a bit trickier to explain but the idea is that horizontal lines – say, a ridge of trees or the edge where the beach meets the ocean – and vertical lines – say, the telephone pole next to the cool car – would sit on one of the imaginary lines that divide a photo into thirds. In other words, don’t place your subject dead centre. One side or the other, or up or down, apparently gives added pleasure to that part of the brain that derives joy from creativity.

Except, like the stories I forced myself to write years ago purely to elicit encouraging comments, I had to make an effort to find interesting colour combinations or some object I could then ‘force’ to the side of my photo, either by moving the camera or myself.

This is not my style of photography – I specialize in people caught in candid moments – and I’m not particularly happy with the results. I handed them in to meet the class requirement but I’m not sure I’d bother posting them anywhere but with this blog.

My worst fear now is that Richard will look at them and say something like, “Yes, you have grasped the concept of thirds. But, holy crap!, this is a boring photo.”

One week down. Seven lessons yet to go. Have I learned anything yet? Actually I have and it’s this: Staying true to your own style isn’t always as easy as dividing by three.

Yes, Richard did nudge me out of my comfort zone and force me to view my surroundings with a different eye. The end result may be photos he likes but I have little use for them.

It’s funny how fame can brush up against us ordinary folk, like a butterfly flitting past our faces while we daydream in the hammock on a lazy summer day.

Tina Turner once waved and smiled at me as she bee-lined through the lobby of the theatre I managed, a brief glimmer of appreciation for the fact I’d roped off a row of seats so she and her entourage could sneak in after the lights went down.

As an entertainment reporter, I’ve interviewed the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Astin, director Curtis Hanson and author Anne Rice.

And now, it turns out, I also have a connection with Richard Lam.

Right about now, you’re probably asking yourself Richard who? He’s the photographer who, while in the employ of Getty Images, snapped the photo of the couple kissing as chaos swirled them during the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver (see photo with this post).

Richard and I once worked together at the Langley Times. During my 11 years with the newspaper, I saw several weekend-slash-holiday relief photographers come and go and Richard was one of them. I can’t honestly say I knew him well but I did consider us friends and so am going to bask in a bit of his glory, in one of those “Hey, I know that guy” moments.

I have to admit to being dubious when I first saw the photo of Australian Scott Jones lying in the middle of the street with his new Canadian girlfriend, Alex Thomas.

My initial thought was that the shot had been set up. One of those, “Yo, buddy, take our photo while we pretend to make out in the middle of this riot. It will look so cool on my Facebook page.”

It was either that or one of those moments of wild, unleashed, unbridled passion where you just want to holler, “Hey, you two! Get a room! Preferably one without burning cars.”

But, according to quotes from Richard, and amateur video that has since emerged, the photo is genuine, that after being knocked over by the police riot squad, Scott is consoling Alex as madness reigns around them.

Richard admitted he didn’t even know he had taken a shot that would eventually become an Internet sensation and be printed in newspapers all over the world (including both major dailies here in New Zealand) until a fellow photographer saw it on a Getty computer as Richard’s memory card was being downloaded.

It seems Richard was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time with a camera. I know the feeling. Not the international acclaim, mind you, but the thrill of capturing a random, candid moment. I favour photographing people going about their lives, usually at markets or fairs or parades or other public gatherings, and am constantly amazed at what I called “happy accidents.”

That’s where I’ve captured – via a combination of good fortune, good timing and having a good camera pressed to my face at that precise instant – an expression, a gesture that defies that subject at that exact moment in time.

Of course, my minor masterpieces are consigned to my Flickr page and are seldom recognized, never mind lauded and applauded like Richard’s shot.

Meaning that, once again, I shall have to content myself with sidling up to fame and waving madly in the background.

Ashes to ashes. Rust to rust. Broken wharf, Ahuriri Marina, Napier, New Zealand.

Red, red, wall. Front of apartment, Waghorne Street, Ahuriri, Napier, New Zealand.

This may be difficult for you to comprehend, but journalism is so much more than free lunches and signing autographs for adoring font bunnies.

We journalists don’t like to make a big deal out of it, but the truth is that hours of research go into every story. Or sometimes just minutes, depending on the speed of your Internet connection.

My own research has seen me spend an entire weekend stuffed into a car with cheerleaders. OK, I was driving them to a tournament, but the car was full. And they were cheerleaders. And I did write about them. And then had to go through the entire process again the next season when a whole new crop joined the squad. We’re talking long hours of intense scrutiny here, folks.

Then there was the time I spent 14 hours at the side of a hotdog vendor outside a supermarket. So I could write a story about the day in the life of a, well, hotdog vendor. This is what I learned: Yes, you can eat too many hotdogs. And, no, you do not want to know what goes into them.

It was this dedication to ferreting out the facts — and the obvious success of my Daily Photo Project — that had me contemplating doing a Daily New Zealand Ice Cream Taste Test. This would see me personally sample every flavour of ice cream produced in this nifty little country, and report back on their degree of yumminess.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending whether or not you are the part of my body in charge of producing insulin — a job offer to return to the Cook Islands meant this projet melted into a puddle of not-gonna-happen before I could even make a decent start. As it turned out, all I managed to sample are the flavours pictured on this page. They are a mere flick of the tongue compared to the mouthful of Scrumptious Delight I had planned to serve up each day.

I like ice cream. Unfortunately, like its sister — the dark, sultry siren known as Chocolate — ice cream makes my clothes shrink. But that is the price a true journalist like myself is willing to pay.

I also like things in my ice cream. Which is why Fudge Chunks and Chips is my first choice at Baskin Robbins. Which is why Cookies’n’Cream and Goody Goody Gumdrops send shivers down my back even as they freeze my brain.

Now this project will have to wait until I return from Rarotonga. Actually, it was while living in Raro that Viking Woman and I had our first taste of New Zealand ice cream. The little shop next to our house stocked Magnum bars and they quickly grew adept at whispering our names every time we passed the freezer.

We became hooked; we needed a daily fix. You know that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the one where Indiana Jones reaches back for his fedora just as the stone wall is about to drop into place? That was us one night, pretty much sliding in under the roller door on our bellies as the shopgirl was trying to close the place. Junkies do those sorts of things . . . and then later refer to it as research.

What makes New Zealand ice cream so much better than anything else in the world? I don’t really know. Maybe there’s less pollution here. Maybe it’s the whole GE-free attitude. Maybe there is such a thing as a contented cow.

All I know is that I’m grateful for the texture and the taste and the extra layer of fat that will keep me warm come winter. In fact, since I’m pretty much finished packing, I’m going to head to the nearest paddock and bestow a great big thank-you hug on a cow. I’m going to choose a chunky one.

Ewe talkin' to me? Concrete sheep, Heretaunga Street, Hastings, New Zealand.

Art Deco streetlight, Russell Street, Hastings, New Zealand.

Civic pride. Detail, downtown artwork, Emerson Street, Napier, New Zealand.