Central Spirit

The Press.  25 November 2011. Christopher Moore.

Review ‘ Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago’. He is one of New Zealand’s best known artists.  Now Grahame Sydney has turned to the camera to record his heartland – the vast expanses of Central Otago.  Grahame Sydney can testify to the still potent power of that old force Genius Loci – the spirit of the place. 

Seen through his eyes, place and art are inextricably linked.  Central Otago’s rumpled expanse of mountains, lakes and valleys and the huge skies remain his presiding spirit – the place he continues to explore in the paintings and drawings which have become part of New Zealand’s artistic heritage.  He may travel to other places, but the region remains his inspiration, abiding pleasure and, one suspects, lifeblood.

From his home and studio high above the Cambrian Valley, Sydney can be excused for occasionally feeling he is the monarch of all he surveys. To the west, the Dunstan Range heaves itself up with its highest point, Mt St Bathans towering over the valley.  The Hawkdun Range presents its neatly pruned 25km barrier, furrowed by gullies, lowering in winter snow or flaunting heraldic colours in the setting summer sun.

A decade ago it was this view that made Sydney choose an elevated terrace as a site for his new home.  The spirit has never let him go.  Now it has inspired a new book of photographs rather than paintings, as Sydney turns to the camera to explore his beloved Otago.  “Photographs like paintings are as Laurie Lee said so perfectly, ‘tiny arrests of mortality’.  Inevitably, they reflect a painter’s eye”.

He admits his attitude towards photography has changed.  “I don’t see myself as a photographer of any note.  I entered into this project with some trepidation after the original idea came from the publisher.  Apart from the usual family snapshots, I have tended to leave photograph to others. But gradually I have come to see a photograph as the raw truth of a moment in time.  The images in this book, drawn from ten years of photographing Central, are my intermittent efforts to capture something of the landscape which surrounds me, parts of Otago that I know and love so much, before much of it is lost.  After 37 years of constant automatic observation as a painter – of subconsciously placing a frame around things – this is my default position; my way of seeing.”

The inspirations might be drawn from the same place, but Sydney’s photographs are meant to be subtly different from his paintings.  A camera has the advantage of immediacy; of capturing a fleeting moment.  Faced by a trick of the light or a mood flickering across the landscape, he can immediately trap it with the same meticulous eye which he applies to the canvas.  A distant burn-off at Dunstan Peak Station becomes a flaring Otago volcano in the gathering darkness.  The unblemished but frozen body of a quail is revealed by the melting snow. A row of poplars are mirrored in the waters of an irrigation am like a Monet landscape.  Banks of wild thyme surge down a rocky hillside.

Then there are the people. 

“These photographs are of a place I know intimately. This is my street and my neighbours and friends.  You have to know people to be able to create good photos of them,” Sydney observes.

His camera captures faces which reflect Otago’s character and idiosyncrasies.  Dominic Priccolo, last of the gun and dog rabbiters and champion vegetable grower, wreathed in cigarette smoke; Brothers Frank and John McGregor outside the house in which they were born and raised in the Cambrian Valley And most poignantly of all, Donald Harley’s once powerful body now wasted by motor neurone disease, propped in a chair in the Lauder Station stable, his face turned defiantly into the Otago light.  A few months later Donald Harley died.  “I wanted to give his family something to remember Don by,” Sydney explains simply.  “He had been born at Lauder Station and it seemed the perfect place in which to photograph him with the light against the dark wedge of the stable door”.

While other photographs may use Paintshop to mould their images, Sydney believes in the original unvarnished image.  Digital technology might make photograph infinitely easier but it still allows the photograph to inject their own personality and signifier on the image.  It also presents its own challenges to distilling the essence of this particular genius loci.

“With luck, some of my photographs will look like images only I could have taken, but all are a product of my fortunate life here in this paradoxical, unforgettably beautiful place”, he adds.