Picture Perfect

D Scene. 02 November 2011.  Mike Houlahan.

Best known for photo realistic landscapes, painter Grahame Sydney has taken to the camera for his latest book. Famed artist Grahame Sydney doesn’t have to look far for inspiration: the view from his backyard does the job nicely.  Sydney, whose paintings have made the Central Otago landscape world famous, has just released a new book of his photography.  Many of the shots in Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago have been taken from the back fence of his Cambrian property.

“I read once about a Canadian painter who said he liked to elevate the ordinary, and I like to think that’s me too” Sydney says.  “Taking photographs over my back fence is to do with that philosophy of saying “look how fabulous the ordinary can be, if only you look hard enough.  There is art all around us.”

Of course, it helps if the vista from your back fence is a vast expanse of sky upon which natures paints its own spectacular canvases at dawn and dusk.

The landscape surrounding Sydney’s home used to be nicknamed the wasteland, and it is in no small part due to the work of the artist that Central Otago’s daunting terrain has come to be seen as beautiful rather than barren.

Sydney first learned to love Central during long road trips to his parents’ holiday home in Arrowtown.  “It kind of seeped in to me, almost through the car windows, as it were.  I found a natural connection to me that I could never shake: it even infiltrated my dreams when I was overseas.  That was what I came back to paint, trusting my instinct and hoping like hell”.

He was fortunate to return home at a time when art buyers wanted to buy distinctively new Zealand works and dealer galleries were opening to sell them.  Sydney’s works soon became popular, and these days he paints for client list – although reserving the absolute right to paint what he wants to.

Pataka, the public art gallery in Porirua, Wellington, is currently staging Sydney’s first public showing in ten years, giving a wider audience the chance to see his works exhibited.

With an ironic chuckle, Sydney attributes his popularity and longevity to “keeping at it for so long”.  However, there is no doubt his work has struck a chord with the wider New Zealand public: the term ‘a Grahame Sydney landscape’ has become adjectival. “Isn’t it strange?”‘ he says with a smile.  “You never imagine things like that happening and it’s unintentional on my part.  I have heard the expression on occasion and it does make me laugh”.

While he is best known as a painter, Sydney has always been a photographer too – in the foreword of the book he recalls as a student turning the family kitchen in Kew into a darkroom after his parents had gone to bed to develop black and white prints.  “I wouldn’t have put my hand up as a photographer or have had any pretence of being the equivalent of one of the great New Zealand photographers, it’s only been an adjunct”.  Sydney says “I used to take a lot of photographs when I didn’t have time to stop and draw, but it changed to a more serious level on my trips to Antarctica.  I realised I wasn’t able to do my habitual painting or drawing on the spot, which used to be the main way of gathering information for me, and I had to resort to the camera.  I started to really love it, and thought maybe it was a territory in which I could make my own mark”.

While he considers himself a painter who has a camera in his hand, Sydney has found himself using it more and more – hence the logical move to publishing a book of his new photographs.