The Press: ‘Icy Seduction’

The Press, Christopher Moore.   Abandoning his pencil and brushes, Grahame Sydney uses the camera to distil the essence of the unique landscape which has haunted his life.  The genesis of Grahame Sydney’s fascination with Antarctica

hung on the walls of King’s High School, Dunedin.  Sydney still sees the landing outside the staffroom as a barren platform of fear – “and there was scant comfort in the sole picture, which relieved the varnished tedium of its walls”.

The elaborately framed print depicted a hunched figure bent almost horizontal against a howling blizzard under the weight of his thick khaki clothing, stumbling away from a small dimly lit pyramid tent.  It is dark, there is snow everywhere and his left hand is held out and up as if trying to hold back the icy wind.

“It is Titus Oates*.  He will be gone sometime” Sydney remembers 48 years later.

For the teenage Sydney and his fellow pupils, Oates’ heroism, Robert Falcon Scott’s obsession, Shackleton’s dogged determination, the Terra Nova, and the heroic age of Antarctic exploration loomed large in their young lives.

The words Operation Deep Freeze and icebreaker became a seductive siren song as Antarctica beckoned somewhere beyond the Otago Peninsula.

Many years and a lifetime of art later, Sydney finally stepped into the world he had merely imagined as a teenager.  In 2003, he took a five hour flight south as Antarctica New Zealand’s Arts Fellow.  What he encountered when he landed was an undiluted culture shock.

“My lifelong habit of basing paintings on pencil studies gathered in the field had to be set aside, almost the moment I first stepped out of the Hercules at McMurdo.  I had loaded pencils, drawing pads, watercolour and gouache tubes and a fistful of sable brushes into my luggage for Scott Base but quickly realised that the dry, icy landscape would make sitting with fingers exposed a virtual impossibility.  I’m a slow hand and depend for my studies on careful scrutiny and selection.  Watercolour washes froze, not drying but shattering.  Hopeless, unless I was to sit at base windows or inside hated Haggunds and work from there.  That’s not me. A painter who couldn’t paint.  I felt fraudulent.  Paintings would come later in the studio back in Central Otago, but on Cape Armitage I turned to the camera.”

Initially, his photographs were designed to replace field sketches.  “I’d used the photographs as studies for studio paintings.  In 2003, I was photographing with my painter’s hat on, assembling the component parts for a painting.  I had time to think about it, churned it about in my mind at home.  By 2006, when I was fortunate enough to get down there again, I’d decided that any determination to paint in Antarctica was in a sense, misplaced.  I’d try to use the camera as my creative form.  I was not photographing with any sense of paintings to come.  I knew much more about what I wanted to achieve.  I wanted to look for the things which only I could find; things which would be distinctively mine.  As a mirror of my personality”.

The result of Sydney’s photographic expeditions in Antarctica have now been gathered into a book – a visual journey – a distillation of Sydney’s personal and artistic experience.  The bulk of the images in the book emerged from the 2006 trip, edited down from about 1000 digital photographs.

“Everyone who goes to Antarctica, is in effect, a tourist.  You are only there briefly.  You don’t belong. You can take technically wonderful photos.  The landscape is so amazing that there will be wonderful images.  The question really is how you set about your art, trying to be yourself with a machine common to everybody when all you have are your eyes and an awareness of the photographic traditions in Antarctica.  I am anxious not to position myself as an Antarctic expert.  I’ve only ever had a few weeks of exposure to the place, and what could I add which was new?”

He was also aware that he followed in the footsteps of a trio of artists and photographer who had preceded him to Antarctica – Herbert Ponting, Edward Wilson and Frank Hurley.

“When you are in Antarctica, these men not only dominate, they are palpable.  They are the standard bearers.”

For one of New Zealand’s best-known artists, the transition from pencil to camera was smooth.  Antarctica itself provided a trove of images although Sydney tried to avoid visual clichés.

“I am aware of the great images and the welter of fine photographs of Antarctica.  In my search I had to do things others had not done.  I had to aware of that.  It’s hard to find your voice.  There are no penguins here but through these photographs I tried to communicate the loneliness and uniqueness of the place.  Like many other, I had already had a long attraction to Antarctica, one nurtured in many small ways.  Good art doesn’t come out of anything but a long attachment, which filter through the heart and mind, allowing everything to be compressed into a jewel-like experience.”

White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica.  Published by Penguin.

* [Titus Oates was a member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s polar party which reached the South Pole in 1912.  However, it ended in tragedy when all five died on the return journey.  Oates, who was injured, left the tent to die in a blizzard, in the hope it would give the rest of the party some chance of survival.  His famous parting words were “I may be sometime”.]