A Purely Personal View

The Otago Daily Times.  29 October 2011. Shane Gilchrist.

Grahame Sydney has put down his paintbrushes in favour of photography for his latest book, a personal tribute to Central Otago. Shane Gilchrist reports.  Grahame Sydney, once again, has been looking for gold in his backyard. 

“Some of these photos are literally taken from that back fence there,” he says, lifting one arm off the large wooden table that divides his living room to indicate an area beyond the driveway where two dogs, including a three-legged adoptee from a nearby farmer, had offered half-hearted barks a few minutes earlier.

“Or from that terrace.” This time Sydney’s arm sweeps eastward; lo and behold, an expansive, elevated view from the front of his house encompasses Mt St Bathans and the Hawkduns.

On a slightly gloomy weekday, these geographical features lurk beneath grey cloud. However, Sydney is fortunate enough to see them on a daily basis and they are thus captured in all sorts of moods in his forthcoming collection of photographs, Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago.

Published by Penguin as part of a three-book deal that included last year’s Promised Land: From Dunedin to the Dunstan Goldfields and 2008’s White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica, the 160-page photographic tribute to a region he holds dear could easily have been twice that size, he says.   “I decided it would be a selection of a slightly more intimate world that I inhabit and a few places I love a lot. I wanted to demonstrate the remarkable range of seasons this part of New Zealand boasts.  “The difficulty, really, was trying to find a way to differentiate this collection of Central Otago – a much photographed area – from everyone else’s collections. For me, it was important to have my name on something that wasn’t like the rest. It is not a tourist book. There was no point churning out another airport book, if you like.”

The possessive apostrophe in the book’s title says a lot. The views are personal, Sydney confirms. Along the boundary fence at Bill Clouston’s, near Becks, there hang dozens of pig skins. This boar is one of them.  “I imagine you couldn’t describe many of these photos as objective. They are totally subjective … There are all sorts of places in Central Otago I don’t cover; it is highly selective.”

For a painter who is frequently described as a realist, Sydney has always struggled to have people understand that though his paintings might look real, they have nothing to do with the truth. Painters wilfully change things within the frame: they put things in (“I might bring a sky in from last week that I made a note of …”); they take things out.  “In photography, I want the images to be much more truthful. This book, in a way, comprises really naked photographs.”

The word snapshot, despite being loaded with disparaging connotations, is thrown across the table.  “There is truth to that in that they are simple accounts of a single moment,” Sydney responds.  “In that sense, they are snaps – by someone who has been lucky enough to have had a lifetime as a painter. They reflect that experience, too. And so they should.”

Taken in all seasons, in all sorts of weather and at whatever time of the day suited, Sydney’s photographs sometimes glow with golden sunshine; in other instances, they brood in eerily murky light, bringing to mind a comment Brian Turner made in the Montana Book Award-winning The Art of Grahame Sydney (2000): “Beware of what appears benign.”

In the introduction to his book, Sydney says his existence at Cambrian, a rural valley between Becks and St Bathans, suits him now. He has grown to love it more than Dunedin, his home town. He has no desire to live elsewhere. This wasn’t always the case.  “I’ve come to consider now that the emptiness and rawness is a very important part of Central Otago. With those qualities comes a beauty that is not repeated anywhere else.”   On moving into his house in 2000, he was gripped by a feeling of panic, a “chronic, pathological dread” of being isolated.  “I was so excited about building this house – my brother and I are the first males on my mother’s side in about 300 years who are not builders – but when I came here I did think, ‘What was I thinking?’ The silence mortified me, initially.  “I feel a strong component of the Central Otago landscape is scary; for a lot of people it is unwelcoming, hard and intimidating. “But it only took a matter of a few weeks for me to then become alert to the strangeness and wondrousness of it all, the subtleties which I still love, and the theatricality of this location, where we are so exposed to the sky. The ceaseless pageant of scenery, be it daily or seasonally, quickly replaced any unease I had. “I’ve come to consider now that the emptiness and rawness is a very important part of Central Otago. With those qualities comes a beauty that is not repeated anywhere else. And that is probably what I hope the book reveals more than anything else.

“They [his photographs] are of the things I love and can’t forget – going back to that possessive apostrophe. There are neighbours, people I see often on a daily basis, who make up our social world now. It is one I’ve come to really enjoy and I wanted to have people understand why I love it so much.

“A couple of photographs are very straightforward: ‘here they are in front of their house’; there’s nothing special about that except that it is part of the character up here. I’ve always believed that people are shaped by the environment in which they live – both domestically and by the landscape.  “Someone said to me that they had seen the book and it felt to them like a meditation on a sense of home. There is something in that.”

Despite having taken photographs most of his life (he started at King’s High School, where he developed traditional darkroom skills), Sydney admits he used to dismiss photography as a “slightly unworthy” art form. “It was always only in comparison to painting that I took this attitude. The rationale for that viewpoint then was that a camera was so unlike a human; it was the polar opposite of all that makes a creative human interesting in that a camera has one eye, no heart, no history, no emotions.  “Those things are what make creative people interesting and if those things are in abundant evidence there is a good chance that whatever work is created will be worthy and, possibly, wonderful.  “I do think the way I used to dismiss photography is wrong; I think it was unfair and was a product of not enough thinking about it. But it was usually just to stir things anyway; to make people think.”

Sydney makes it clear he doesn’t consider himself to be in the same league as a professional photographer (“I’m a painter first and foremost”). In fact, the camera only became a significant companion in a professional sense through his experiences in the Antarctic, where he couldn’t wield a pencil or a brush because of the cold.  “After those Antarctic trips [in 2003 and 2006, at the invitation of Antarctica New Zealand)] I did tend to take far more photographs than I used to, as a sort of shorthand for memory and assistance at times when I couldn’t be bothered driving or didn’t have time to.  “Gradually, I started to think there was something of value in this separate form. In the same way you hope your paintings might be stamped with a clear signature of your own personality so, too, might photographs.”

Sydney describes himself as an amateur in regard to the image-editing software (such as Photoshop) employed to dramatic effect by so many. That is partly by determination. He wants to draw a line (no pun intended) between his artistic endeavours. “I don’t want to become one of the very many now who are building what I regard as a third world of photography.

“Emerging very rapidly is a new creative world which sits halfway between painting and photography. It is one where there is considerable and evident digital intervention: selection, alteration, changes in weight and balance, changes in texture.

“With the camera, I’m making the decisions about the framing, the idea. It’s my instinct at work, not the camera or computer’s contribution. In the same way that my paintings are conservative and traditional, so are my photographs. They are sort of old-fashioned.  “I’m a conservative in a great many ways. In my practice, I’m an anachronistic worker; I like the old traditions; I like the challenge.”

Given Sydney’s meticulous painting methodology (he generally produces no more than six works a year and seldom exhibits) and fears he expressed in The Art of Grahame Sydney of wasting time, another question arises: does photography now offer an efficient way to access or more readily catalogue the myriad images that swirl in his head?

“You’re dead right. It’s true. I’ve realised what I possibly should have realised decades ago … I haven’t got time to paint everything I care about, to make them permanent. That’s what painting is to me, making something permanent or unforgettable.”  This motivation extends to his photos of Central Otago. Though no captions suggest it, there is a political component lurking in the shadows of Sydney’s latest images. In bearing witness to the region’s beauty, Sydney makes a visual plea: let’s not ruin this place.

“It wasn’t my primary motivation for the book but it is something I live with constantly – that feeling that this landscape which I find so magnificent and so distinct is, almost on a daily basis being altered, transferred to an almost New Zealand-wide homogeneity of greenness.

“Now you have Central Otago and the Mackenzie Basin turning green through artificial means – water and fertiliser – in order that primary industries thrive. I find that a tragedy of our own time and wish it wasn’t happening.  “It makes me sound awfully conservative and almost a radical conservative in the sense I don’t want anything to change. That’s not true. It’s just that I think some practices and attitudes are pushing far beyond what is sensible and sustainable in the long term.”  Sydney believes vehemently that a major appeal of this country depends on the fact it has such a wide range of unique landscapes within a relatively small geographical footprint.

“We are losing so much of almost incalculable value. I feel sad that our children and their children are not going to be able to enjoy New Zealand’s extraordinary range in the same way we have.  “Certainly, I wouldn’t like to see books like this – work like mine – become a testimony to what used to be.”

The book: Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago (Penguin, $95, hbk) is published in November.

Born in Dunedin in 1948, Grahame Sydney was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for his services to painting in 2003.

Having graduated from the University of Otago with a bachelor of arts degree in 1969 and a secondary teaching degree the following year, he left for the United Kingdom and Europe before returning to Dunedin in 1974 to begin life as a full-time artist.

Sydney’s work now spans more than four decades and encompasses oils, watercolours, egg tempera, lithographs, etching, photography and film. His works are held in private collections throughout the world and represented in the collections of New Zealand’s major galleries and museums. Rozzie at Pisa (1978) hangs in Wellington at Te Papa Tongarewa, and his Self-Portrait at Fifty (1999) is held by the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Sydney’s Central Otago paintings were first published in Timeless Land (1995), which is now in its fifth reprint; his 2000 publication The Art of Grahame Sydney won the Montana Book Award that year; he is also the author of Promised Land (2009), and his Antarctic photographs are collected in White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica (2008).