Photographic Society of New Zealand Conference

A copy of Grahame’s talk presented to the Photographic Society of NZ Conference in April 2012:

I knew at the outset, about a year ago, that I should never have allowed myself to be flattered into fronting up at this Conference.

At my age you’d think a wise man would have learned his limits, and of his own susceptibility to the flattering, persuasive charms of the Organiser.

My standing here now proves yet again that I obviously don’t possess that wisdom, though I do  cling to the hope that one day I might – in the next life, perhaps, when I’ve promised myself to actually learn lessons from experience  in this life, and put them into practice.

As Mark Twain said, how much happier would life be if we could be born at 80 and gradually approach the age of 18……

The private discomfort for me is  that in this company, and before this audience, I feel like an impostor.

Knowing you’ve been listening to the true professionals at this Conference, like Jackie before me here, Stephen Voss, Tom Ang,   Julian Apse and the other  marvellous masters of their trade, I am the ring-in, sacrificial amateur.

While they,  and many of you, are enthusiastically committed to the complex and astoundingly comprehensive art of photography, I am, of course, first and foremost, a painter. 

Its not a camera that’s occupied my hands for the last 50 years – its brushes. And its not photography I know much about – but I do know a little bit about painting : in this one area, at least, I appear to have gone against character and gradually learned a few things.

Possibly even some wisdom  – about images, at least. What happens inside the frame, and what doesn’t happen. Wisdom ? Let’s just say I’ve formed some opinions of my own.

I’ve been immensely fortunate to have  been an artist now for nearly 40 years. I’ve always hesitated to say I’m an “artist,” much preferring to see myself as a more humble  “painter.” And as a consequence of that, several times over the years when, in answer to their question, I’ve told strangers I’m a painter, they’ve asked me if  I’d come and quote on doing their house – the real painters !

It was brought home to me once, in the 1970s, when I was sitting in a farmer’s paddock doing a drawing of something in the Ida Valley I was thinking of painting, sitting there on my folding camp stool, drawing board on my knee, in the proverbial middle of nowhere.

After a while  working on this drawing I realised  there was someone standing  behind me, a few metres back, look over my shoulder from a safe distance. It was a farmer. He didn’t say anything, just stood there, and I thought, “Bugger it, if he’s not going to be polite, I’won’t say anything, either !”

This silent stand-off went on for quite a few minutes, and  I was getting a little irritated by his being there. It was very disconcerting.

Eventually he cleared his throat and, without moving at all,  grumbled at me very disapprovingly,

“So ya reckon you’re a bit of a painter,  are ya ?”

So “a bit of a painter” I’ve been since 1974 –believe me, its a long time on the end of a brush. A long time alone in  solitary confinement – what others call the studio.

And I guess I  can claim to be a professional, too – by that telling definition which goes something like : an amateur is an artist who supports himself with outside jobs which enable him to paint, whereas a professional is  someone whose wife works to enable him to paint.

So I can only bring to this table some of the things I’ve learned as a painter, and I would never dare elevate myself or my own photographs to the level of the speakers before me.

I have enjoyed cameras  as a natural adjunct to my art life since I was a teenager and my Mum and Dad brought me my first Pentax Spotmatic in the late 1960s.  Those were  the days many of you will know as well as me – the days of small metal canisters of 35mm film, erotic red safe lights in the kitchen or bathroom late at night, dishes of hypo and intoxicating chemicals, enlargers on shining stems, and developing tanks which required a boy to disappear into dark wardrobes or beneath the covers of his bed at  odd hours to engage in some private and very furtive behaviour with both hands, much to the consternation of the anxious  parents…….

In my photo world colour was a rare commodity then, reserved for the wealthy aficionados only – aside from the six-by-four prints we waited so keenly for, days sometimes,  produced in some distant laboratory, if we could afford them – I seldom encountered colour work at all. 

Dad had a camera early on, with its shiny brown leather case, and I remember the excitement of getting the slides back; then boxes of slides and unavoidably tedious neighbourhood slide show evenings when someone else returned from a  holiday, and everyone pretended to be interested.

Another neighbour in Dunedin did do a spot of hand colouring  photographs, though, rubbing oil paint from tiny tubes into the surface of the print,  and I remember watching as black and white prints turned slowly into a sickly range of unwordly shades of greeny-grey, or unhealthily insipid pink faces, and being deeply impressed by  the magic of it.

This was the late 1950s and the 60s.

How much has changed in these few decades.

But not me, really. While I  loved developing and enlarging my own photographs  way back then, and pressing the curling  prints  under heavy towers of books for days until they flattened out, I’ve not progressed much beyond being  someone who always, instinctively and involuntarily, puts frames around things.

I’ve not felt the need to advance my photographicskills as the new digital technologies have carried off the old world of my teenaged hobby like a tsunami, and swept all that back out to sea and oblivion.

In fact most of the language of the digital and computer worlds bewilders me, and I’m not particularly interested in it. That’s just not in my nature.

Where to some I am “a bit of painter,” to myself I am honestly just “ a bit of  photographer,” and in truth any attention my photographs get is because of my painting life, nothing more.

But I have a couple of  observations to offer which I hope will justify my  being here this morning.

They come from my painting life, mostly, but I hope there may be some smidgen of relevance in them all the same. The world of photographs, and the world of paintings are almost Siamese twins these days, closer than they’ve ever been in history, and  fine photographs are even in NZ at last being treated as equivalent art works to those made of paint. I know that has been the case in the USA and Europe for some decades, that a large community of collectors there focus on photographs… but that belief has been slow to reach this country – a condition now thankfully changing. Public galleries are now more likely to  show photographs than paintings, and art schools are witnessing the gradual reduction of numbers of students wanting to be actual painters.

Photography is in the ascendant, spurred on by the remarkable gear now available to all.

And this brings me to my first point – one which may be very obvious to you all :  that it is intriguing to watch the rapid emergence of what is, in fact, a whole new creative form – the art of digitally manipulated images.

Not the average i-photo slight alteration of tones and the happy eradication of dirty lens and sensor spots and blemishes – the commonplace kindergarten level play with the simplest toys available to us all, but the new urge to radically alter and recreate an image , the photographic equivalent of surgical reconstruction, the Plastic Makeover capacity of any number of computer-based  toolkits to create wholly new, images far removed – deliberately far removed – from their initial real-world origin.

This is a new art, hovering half way between photography and painting.

Just as photography was once a new language beyond painting, today’s digital revolution is creating a new language beyond  the old, conventional film photography.

A new language needs a new, separate set of values from the old, for understanding, acceptance,  and criticism, different from the old form.

How do we now go about judging, evaluating this new art ?

The grammar of the English language is different to the grammar of French, even though they use the same alphabet. So must the new digital language in photography – especially that extreme form of digital intervention – develop its own grammar and understanding.

This is an unprecedented art form, enabled by computers, and permitting those who may have none of the once-necessary  patience, understanding or ability,  to  now apply so many of the elements which used to belong to painting alone to their photographic foundations.

Because it is clearly the new way to paint. Painting without pigment.

Altering colour to suit themselves, removing unwanted contents, transforming tones, textures, contrasts, adding overlay effects… all these things were not long ago the sole domain of the painters, and took technical expertise, and long labour – TIME, in other words. And  technical skills learned  and applied slowly. CRAFT, in other words.

Its  the major difference between painting and photography.

Now, for photographers, at the click of a button any effect can be  introduced to an image, and INSTANTLY applied, instantly rendered.

The computer, the machine does the work – immediately. The time and labour has gone, the slowly accumulated knowledge is replaced by instant application  – anyone can be an instant “painter”…. and the least impressive original image can, like the dull, tired, saggy housewife of the makeover reality shows, be magically  reconstructed into a  shining, glossy  and voluptuous centrefold.

Its  a new form , totally separate from conventional real-world photography of course, and it should have a category of it own – never be compared to, or judged alongside those of more modest, unaffected intentions.

To me it’s a problem area, the equivalent of science fiction, or comics, in literature.

These images are not to my own taste, I have to admit, any more than the rebuilt, panel  beaten bodies toddling out of the plastic surgery  are. I can’t believe in them, and can’t find it within myself to care about them. They’re both just too artificial for me.

That’s my problem, and not meant to be judgmental about the form. I know others love it.

It comes down to character and instinct. What sort of person you are.

But I do recognise that, just as in the  body business, its going to be very difficult to establish the boundaries which separate one from the other, as I believe they should be separated, and have separate values of critical judgment applied to them.

Its why, in the so-called “real world” the Miis Universe pageant has lost all credibility.

And of course  the ability to manipulate computer tools and create this new, intentionally artificial form, is no guarantee that in so transforming an image the new digital “artist” is adding interest or depth of meaning, any more than the plastic surgeon can add interest or intelligence to his latest, jubilantly enhanced patient.

In the immediacy of the technology lies the  very danger which makes it so appealing, and which has made everyone a more or less competent  photographer : with the slower elements of labour and time replaced by instantaneous effect, the  former influence of the  human  hand and heart – that  old “distillation through a temperament” which makes great  art so wonderful, and so revealing – that human heart and hand influence has been condensed and abbreviated, and  the danger is that with the long, slow thought and distillation process absent,  the internal private processing, the slow craft gone, one is left with only superficiality. Quick Effects as a substitute for deeper contemplation and wonder, and deeper sourced.

I suspect that this manipulation and enhancement, being rather new, is something of a fad , and like all fashions, it will fade back over time from the excitement of novelty into something approaching restrained  integrity, if it has any real value, rather than the merely superficial, easy effects we see too often now.

Or, like fashion, it will build a world of its own.

I  myselfhave no respect at all for fashion in any form. Fashions are generally driven by nothing more than commercial imperatives, and by definition what’s in fashion today will  become unfashionable soon enough. Commerce demands it, and  many happily comply. Not this boy.

If you are tempted by the delights of Photoshop’s top toolbar, make sure you use only what you must to  make the image more your own.

Lipstick wears off, and lipstick on the face of a moster is only a temporary disguise – a dangerous seduction.

The tools are  on every computer screen. The toolbag is full, and the tools are sharp. But having access to a full tool-kit is no guarantee that what you build, what you make, will be good.

Be a master of your tools, know what you need to know to do what you want and need to do, but beware the treachery of  fashion. And make sure you are not seduced by the superficial novelty of easy effects. You don’t want those implants bursting…….

Far better, perhaps, to concentrate your attentions on, and explore the natural mystery of yourself and your uncommon life, the qualities you alone possess. 

This brings me to my second observation, one I like to emphasise and underline whenever I get a chance to speak to a captive audience.

Mind you by this stage I know I have to speed up –  you’re all sitting there thinking of lunch, and I know also that in speaking to any audience a good talk should be like a woman’s skirt : short enough to rouse the interest, but long enough to cover the essentials.

So I’ll hurry ahead.

The digital revolution, for which we are so very grateful and which has  changed and energised the whole business of photography for everyone, and which continues to surprise us with its latest  advances,  while making photography a whole lot easier for us is also, in another way, making it much more difficult.

It is paradoxically harder to be really good now, not easier.

As with any art, the most important ingredient, in my view, is the extent to which the art form reflects the personality and  singular individuality of the person who made it.

All great images speak to us in a voice from inside the frame. They have a life and voice of their own.

They are speaking essentially about two things : their own subject, and the person who made them.

Not only do we have to listen attentively to that voice inherent in every image, we have to ask the questions which must always be asked in front of any image, painted or photographic:

1.What is happening here , why is it like this?

2. If the image is special enough to have been chosen, and framed  this way, what is it telling us of its subject and content?

3. Most importantly, what is it telling us of the person who  chose and framed it this way ? What sense do we get of that person, the unique, one-in -6- billion, unrepeatable life behind the camera?

That, to me, is where the greatest fascination always lies. In what the artwork reveals of the life directing the hand, and making the choices.

And therein lies the difficulty I mentioned.

In the olden days when I was young, the camera had no brain. The  intelligence, the knowledge  and experience behind any good photograph was housed in the head and heart of the human holding the instrument.

That person had learned about apertures and lenses, about film speeds and shutters, and made decisions according to that knowledge and their experience of what worked, and what their intention was. What you could actually DO was limited.

Today the cameras have  built-in brains, miniaturised but immensely competent and containing the knowledge of experts – often much more than  photographers used to understand themselves.

So with the camera, a cold, anonymous, heartless machine, now  housing so much easily accessed intelligence, what can the warm human hand holding that machine  bring to the image to speak of their own individuality and uniqueness, the very character and experience no cold machine can ever possess ?

Now that the camera itself does most of the thinking, what’s left for the photographer ?

Very little, I fear. This is the difficulty.

What used to be the vital ingredient – the magic moment, the telling instant in the real world, is now very often just the foundation, the concrete pad on which to build.

That, of course, is why so many photographers now play so much with the Photoshop toys – there are more options along that toolbar for that necessary individuality to express itself, over the top of the original photograph – to disguise its inadequacies, perhaps. Lipstick on the monster.

Or to create a whole new art.

At the flick of an Auto switch  almost every camera  – every person holding that camera – can produce an acceptable photograph no matter how much, or how little, they know. It didn’t use to be that easy. Now it is. The camera does it.

So what can the photographer do to make his or her work truly their own, revealing to the audience something of their own personality and experience of life, their own emotions and thoughts, beyond the basic, built-in cold competence of  the camera ?

The box of tricks comes ready-made now,  just a click of the mouse away, like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. But just because you have all the jig-saw pieces at your fingertips, there’s no certainty that the picture you  assemble is going to be interesting, or meaningful, or revealing about yourself.

In a terrific  BBC documentary film I watched recently , called “The Genius of Photography,” the great contemporary American portrait painter Chuck Close  recognised this challenge:  he said how do you make a photo which everyone knows as the work of a particular artist, creating a particular kind of vision to such an extent that they OWN that vision?

Photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, because the camera now contains that competence; but it is the hardest medium in which to  express some kind of personal vision, because ( unlike painting ) there is no touch, no expressive hand, no physicality. The computer’s “paintbrush” is instant, not held by a hand with a whole life behind it, a unique personality controlling it.

The goal, every  photographer’s goal – just like every artist, or singer, or writer, or film-maker, or musician –  should be recognisable authorship, and through that recognisable authorship offering to the audience a doorway into, a glimpse of what it is like being you, being different to everyone else, being unlike anyone who has ever lived.

That, after all, is what we all are. And that, too, is what art is all about – revealing that extraordinary individuality through the works we make, and leave for posterity. What does your work, your creation, tell us about you ?

Just as our voices are unique to ourselves and recognisable instantly to those who know us, and our handwriting, too,  can reveal a great deal about our personality, so should the images you make speak to the world of your singularity, and your private response to your time on this Earth.

“These are the things I have loved, the things I have found unforgettable, the moments I have lived most fully. This is what it has been like being ME.” 

So it is both easier and harder now. Mere competence is no longer enough for admiration or interest. Its what lies beyond competence which matters today, and which should occupy us all.

Remember the camera sees everything, but it does not discriminate, it has no interests, no emotions, no chemistry, no history. It has no story. The camera doesn’t care. Its not like you.

Its just like a paint brush –in itself amazing, but nothing like as amazing as the hand which holds it, and the life, the character, the story behind that hand.

Its up to the photographer to impose his or her personality, their uniqueness, the story of what its like being THEM, onto their images.

That is all which remains  now, in Photoshop and the like, the same formulaic tools are available to all, and are the same in every system. Everyone has the same toolbag.

It is that notion of sameness which is the danger. We are none of us the same.

When the same tools are available to all, and they are so easy to apply, its much more difficult to rise above that common performance.

Art lies in finding the most appropriate way to show your own special rarity, and making the choices which most effectively reveal that individuality in an overcrowded world.

The trick is  knowing yourself well enough,  finding yourself fascinating enough to want to share yourself around, then finding the best language – visual language and grammar – with which to express that uniqueness. It’s a fundamental vanity, but essential to every art form – the  profound belief in one’s own worth and mysterious,  inherent appeal. Plus the secret wish to put it out into the community.

Best disguised in the social world, in the creative world  that powerful ego is the  vital DNA of every great work.

Besides, once recognised and  accepted, it gives you the courage to travel boldly to new places, places no-one else could possibly know, because they’re not you.

But your art will show them, if its good enough, and when you depart this life, your legacy of images will tell the story of what you cared most about, and what it was like being you.

It’s the Yellow Brick Road to immortality, and it brings immense satisfaction. How wonderful to think the camera in your hands can do that for you.

But without you and your private instincts driving it, the camera is nothing at all. 

Okay, that’s enough from me. You’d think that another thing I would have learned by this age is to keep my mouth shut – to be silent and mysterious….. if only ! That’s never been one of my virtues, I’m sorry to say.

I hope something of what I’ve had to say today stays with you, even if only on thing, and even if it stays with you only because you disagree with it so vehemently.  Thinking about these things, arguing about them, is very important.

Its how you sort out your opinions. And your considered opinions help separate you from everyone else.

I’m grateful for your attendance today, and your patience.  I hope the Conference has been of real value to you all. I’m sure it has.

I don’t want to step down without mentioning  the marvellous support I receive from Canon NZ, and Rochelle Mora of Canon NZ, who has been so generous to me with their brilliant product. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have their sponsorship.

Oh, one last thing – a little personal, intimate hint about how to survive as an artist. Years ago I read this and have tried to remember it whenever times get tough. Its very insightful. Always remember – Van Gogh would have sold more than one painting if he’d put tigers in them.

Thank you for your kind attention, and I wish you all courage in your work.

Grahame Sydney


26 April 2012