Beyond the Ledge by Liz French


A love of ocean photography lured Ken Wright to the Bay of Plenty.

Now he has fallen for waterfalls. Blame Rena!


When graphic artist and photographer Ken Wright moved his family to the Bay of Plenty for a change of pace he reveled in the opportunities for photographic art provided by the beautiful coastline. He overdosed on beaches, waves, tides, sunrises and sunsets over the sea, setting up his tripod at unusual angles at unsociable times to create images that coaxed every last bit of beauty out of the scenery.


Then Rena floundered on the Astrolabe Reef and for months the beach was not a happy place to be. Scenic it was not. So Ken turned his sights inland and found what many long term Bay of Plenty residents have yet to discover. This is a region endowed with spectacular waterfalls.


But unlike big brash beaches waterfalls tend to hide their light in the bush, in this case the very beautiful bush of the Kaimai and Mamaku Forests which form as dramatic a backdrop to the Western Bay of Plenty as the long coastline does a foreground.


While taking beach shots involved getting down to the seaside, albeit at times of the day when most people are hardly awake or nearly asleep, capturing waterfalls was not so easy. “First I had to find them, and often just getting to them was a mission,” says Ken. “And often I had to return several times to get the right light for the shot I really wanted.”


Several of the waterfalls featured in Ken’s exhibition, Beyond the Ledge, are simply not accessible to the general public and the ones that are do not readily reveal the aspects he has captured in his work.  He is grateful for the guidance, and special access he was granted. Gary Borman, Park Ranger for McLarens Falls Park was so helpful that Ken has gifted a panoramic photograph to the McLaren Falls Visitor Centre. “Gary also pulled some strings and got me into the Omanawa Falls,” says Ken. “through a locked door, down 170 steps in a tunnel to the old overgrown power station, and clambered over slippery rocks to find the best view of the falls.”  


All this while carrying expensive photographic equipment including a tripod which ended up in some precarious positions. “If I’m not getting wet I’m not close enough,” he laughs. Ken has always been prepared to get waist deep in water if a shot requires it but was not so prepared for the fast flowing water that rips from the bottom of waterfalls, notably the Ngatuhoa which were particularly volatile. “I created some weights out of five litre water bottles to hold my tripod in place,” he explains. “That way I could fill them with water on site, empty them for carrying, or for Steve Allan, who nobly assisted me, to carry!”  Ken and Steve were guided into the falls by Ngatuhoa custodians Stu Emerson and Bob Mankelow; via the lodge which is used extensively for outdoor education and camps, to the Te Rere I Oturu Falls named for the Maori legend where Oturu leaped over the 42 metre high waterfall to avoid certain death by his brothers-in-law who discovered him dining sumptuously on the fattest fruits of his hunting expeditions and taking only the skinny pigeons home for his family.


Exploring the Whataroa Falls in the Otaniwainuku Forest involved a couple of trips with local farmer Hanz Pendergrast just to figure out how to get to the desired positions. Trampers make the hour long walk on the track to one fall from Otaniwainuku but it’s a different story when you are doing a ‘recce’ of all five falls on this stretch of river. “We used a climbing rope to ensure we could get out,” Ken says. This was made even more necessary by Ken’s artistic view that it is not just the water falling that creates the best shot; his interpretations often taking in the scene below the falls - water over rocks, fallen branches, even the unexpected. “I was in the river in my waders getting the angle I wanted,” he relates, “but it was not till I was working on it back in the studio I discovered a ‘ghost fantail’ caught in the light.”


Ken refers to his photographic creativity as ‘digital painting with light’ and employs technology to enhance his work. “Photoshop is a fantastic tool but,” he points out, “you can’t ‘photoshop’ it if you did not capture it.” Ken illustrates his point by literally painting with light over the dark ferns flanking a waterfall. They slowly emerge and improve in definition, subtly improving the image.