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Look through the lens of Maori Astrophotographer Richie Toa Mills

Meet the Maker Interview: Maori Astrophotographer Richie Toa Mills

Westfield Newmarket has the privilege of showcasing the captivating work of Maori Astrophotographer Richie Toa Mills this Matariki Day.

Visit us this Friday to learn more about his work, and Matariki, in the atrium leading up to Rooftop on Broadway, our star-studded dining and entertainment precinct.

Read on for a fascinating look through the lens of Richie.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey with photography?

My name is Richie Toa Mills and I am Ngāti Whakaue from Te Arawa, I've been involved in the arts for over 30 years. These days I am a multi-disciplinary artist working around the country as Aotearoa’s only practising Māori Astrophotographer.


Image: Richie Toa Mills

In 2010-2012 I studied film school at Unitec and remember everything was heavily theory based. In contrast, we had this one teacher who taught set design and on our very first lesson he encouraged us to take out our cellphones (pre-smartphone cameras) and to go out and take a series of photos thinking about texture, lighting, shadow etc. After that one lesson, I started looking at everything differently and ever since then I’ve always appreciated light, lines, colour, and shape.

In 2015 I got my very first camera. I didn’t have any insurance, so I ended up taking it with me everywhere. I would go out walking, look down alleyways and notice the light hitting differently, so because I always had a camera, I could quickly take a photo. This gradually morphed into what I do now.

When I moved to Leithfield in Waitaha (North Canterbury), that’s when I really fell in love with the night sky. I read ‘The Star Of The Year’ By Dr Rangi Matamua and since then I’ve been obsessed with Māori folklore and the Maramataka (Māori traditional lunar calendar) system of time.

What inspires you the most?

I am inspired by the beauty of nature, my son and of course Matariki and the night sky.

Astrophotography has really helped me as it’s sparked a sense of interest and pride in my culture and has been the thread to get me really excited to learn Te Reo and all things tikanga Māori.

I also love emerging technologies and like to look forward not backwards, so I see Meta, NFT’s and similar technology as a way for people who are smart, early adopters to start creating their profiles, environments and chasing opportunities before the rest of the world catches up.

What does Matariki mean to you?

In the 80’s there wasn’t a lot of national pride surrounding Māori culture (unless you were Māori). Nowadays, there’s so much more Te Reo in the education system, news and the everyday so a national holiday celebrating Matariki is adding to that pride.

The artistic and visual side of my photography is another way for our people to engage with and be inspired by Māori culture rather than just focussing on learning Te Reo, which can often be quite hard. What I’ve loved is actually showing people Matariki and how it relates to us. You’ll often see images of Matariki which are just close ups of the cluster, but with my photos I think it’s important to showcase the cluster in relation to the land, the beaches, the mountains, the moonphase or the dawn sky. I’m glad that I can add and contribute to the educational work that Dr Rangi Matamua and the Matariki Advisory Board do for our country.

Right now, we can refer to the folklore of the past, but in 1000 years time, this (astrophotography) will be considered old technology, and we’ll be considered the ancestors. My work is an opportunity for me to add to the conversation, knowledge and folklore that surrounds the Matariki story for the benefit of future generations.

How will you be celebrating Matariki?

This year I will be pretty busy working for Ngāi Tahu, taking photos for their Matariki events as well as spending time with family and getting my own photos of the cluster from various positions in Te Wai Pounamu.

However, once I’ve got all the various photos and angles of Matariki, I always like to put my camera down and hang around a while. I think about the people that we’ve lost and speak their names out loud in acknowledgement, sending good intentions and a safe journey on their way up into the sky.

Dr Rangi Mataamua speaks about the different attributes of the 9 Matariki stars. Those being: Matariki (Alcyone), Pōhutukawa (Sterope/Asterope), Waitī (Maia), Waitā (Taygeta), Waipuna-ā-rangi (Electra), Tupuānuku (Pleione), Tupuārangi (Atlas) and Ururangi (Merope). If they shine bright and spread out, that signifies a good thing and if any stars are dull or the cluster looks ‘squashed’ then that means something is not right or the attributes will be affected for the year. I like to really observe Matariki and read the stars to know which ones are standing out or standing back. I’ll then email Dr Rangi Mataamua with my conclusions and we’ll compare notes on what we both saw from different areas of the country.

Tell us about the photographs you have displayed at Westfield?

The first image was taken in 2021 above a formation of foothills I call ‘The Pyramids’ and depicts the night sky near Waipara in the Hurunui District. This is my favourite spot to take astrophotography because it’s one of the closest points (from where I live) where I can look back towards the east from an elevated point. This is where all the magic happens.

I remember this particular night was crazy due to the mist rising up out of the valley and seemingly coming out of nowhere. Some shots I would have a clear view, then the next minute I would be completely shrouded in fog and couldn't see anything in front of me. Sometimes astrophotography can be quite disconcerting when you head out on a mission by yourself, but when you get home the results are amazing and always worth it.

The second image was also taken in 2021 just down from where the Kowai River meets the sea in Leithfield, Waitaha, Te Wai Pounamu. This image shows the Ōmutu phase of the moon about to disappear from the horizon line and clearly shows Te Waka O Rangi, an important Māori star formation. Matariki is the prow or head of the waka with Tautoru (Orion’s Belt) placed at the back. Te Kotoka (Hyades cluster) which looks like an upside down ‘V’ is the sail of the waka. A particular feature of note is the zodiacal light which is when the glow of the sun shines in the direction it will move (you can see the direction glowing outwards at the top left of the moon).

Te Waka O Rangi is the vessel which gathers all loved ones who we have lost throughout the year in its net and lifts them up towards the heavens. When the sun rises, the star formation disappears from the wash of light and this signifies when they have been given fully to the sky.

One detail that makes this photo easily identified as Matariki is the orange hue or breaking of the dawn sky. Later or earlier on in the year you would take the same photo at the same time and the sky would be completely dark. This would be one of my favourite photos that I’ve ever taken of the cluster.

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