From New Zealand amateur shooters to globe-trotting pros, together, photographers of all types have pictured nearly every corner of our country. Although just about every inch of Aotearoa has been explored through the lens, exploration beneath our land, particularly by way of images, is still in its infancy.
In a newly released photo book that’s the first of its kind for New Zealand, photographer Neil Silverwood and writer Marcus Thomas take readers on a journey into our deepest and darkest caves to find some of our most untouched scenery — the subterranean scenes make for some pretty spectacular shots.
In just six months since its publication date, Caves: Exploring New Zealand’s Subterranean Wilderness has been met with vast interest and international acclaim. Recently, it was awarded the Union International Speleology (UIS) Best Caves book award, while images featured within the book led to co-author Neil Silverwood’s honour of New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year.
Produced as a case-bound, large-format publication that showcases ten of New Zealand’s most spectacular cave systems, the book features over 300 pages of photographs, text, maps, and diagrams. With dramatic photos that reveal an underground odyssey and the mettle of those who explore them, the book depicts cavers struggling through tiny gaps in rocks, underground waterfalls and streams set against extraordinary rock formations, and the diverse life forms that exist beneath our feet.
Dark, wet, cold, and claustrophobic, caves are places most would consider too difficult or dangerous to venture for a photo. It turns out that’s precisely why Neil first began cave photography — to show people that it’s worth making the effort to see just how spectacular our caves can be.
“I was involved in the exploration of our longest and deepest caves [as] part of a team heading underground. When I came back I'd tell people about my experiences. Usually people would say ‘I'd never do that, I'm claustrophobic, what if there's an earthquake?’, Neil explains.
”I think over time the film footage and stills we've collected have helped change that perspective”, the photographer adds.
Of course, this very specialized kind of photography isn’t without its safety concerns, as there’s a reasonable amount of risk, especially from falling on exposed climbs and rockfall. Each member of the team carry with them two light sources, as well as all the gear needed to carry out a self rescue.
While the adventure photographer can take precautions to ensure that he avoids physical harm on his trips, it’s a whole other story for his precious and pervious photography equipment. “Sooner or later, all cave photographers will destroy equipment. While making the book I drowned, broke, or lost $10,000 worth of gear including a DJI drone, Canon 5D Mark III, and loads of flash guns.”
Negotiating the elements with a full kit of gear requires a team of people; what you don’t see in the book are the numerous cavers hiding behind rocks holding flash guns or modelling lights outside of the frame. “The most important thing is having people who are patient and willing to stand around for hours in freezing conditions,” Neil explains.
“The best shots are not at the start of the day when people are clean, dry, and happy. Rather at the end of the day when they're tired, dirty, wet through, and just want to go home”, he adds.
Of course, working in total darkness isn’t easy for any photographer, but Neil devised a system that ensures every shot’s a keeper. Each of his images begin as a blank canvas, wherein he slowly adds in light, flash by flash, and then places his subjects. The entire process takes between half an hour to an hour on average, and the whole time, it’s hard work:
“Everyone is running around shifting flash guns, modeling for shots. It's actually pretty intense. Especially if you've been placed under a waterfall, etc. Also, to make the images look natural and convey a sense of moment and make the viewer feel like they're there, the models have do do some pretty full on stuff. Ascending pitches, jumping voids, etc. Recreating what happens on a day-to-day basis in the real world.”
And on his bold choice to shoot in some of the toughest environments of photography, the photographer coyly remarks: “... it's a lot easier shooting underground than above ground where you have to wait for good light.”