Stolen Moments

D-Photo. December Edition. Vicki Jayne.

Creation or capture?  Is digital wizardry blurring the distinction between painting and photography?  Vick Jayne asks well know artist and photographer Grahame Sydney.
When it comes to capturing the bleak beauty of Central Otago with its sun-blasted hills picked out in almost painful clarity against a vaulted sky, painter Grahame Sydney does it like no other.

This is a place that has long tugged at his soul, whose essence he has expressed in hundreds of beautifully crafted canvases, a landscape he now calls home.  It is also his favourite photographic subject – as the recently published ‘Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago’ makes clear.

Although he got his first addictive sniff of darkroom magic as a student at Kings High several decades ago and has been documenting his world on camera ever since, Sydney says he would not have chosen to promote his own photography had he not been commissioned by Penguin Books.  This is the last of three books (which include his take on Antarctic bleakness, ‘White Silence’) and it is not designed to be your average touristy tome.

“This is a little more intimate, more from the heart.  It is not an attempt to display the extraordinary range of landscape in Central – just the places I love and go to a lot and know very well”.

So what is the difference in creative approach between Sydney the painter and Sydney the photographer?

“The camera is always much more about a moment – a fractional time decision to steal a second.  Paintings are products of much longer contemplation, construction and development.  Within the frame of a painting, the artist has absolute control over everything he or she decides to include or omit.  I know you can do that now with photography and it is creating this third world which is half way between painting and photography as it perhaps used to be.  Though, having said that, there were always darkroom games to play for special effects.  But it is so much easier today to radically alter the look of a photo and take it down that path of creative painting.” 

It is not a path he wants to follow.  “I don’t know how to do it and I don’t really like it, so I’m conventional in my approach to photography.  For me it is about that rather clichéd expression ‘stolen moments’.”

Not only stolen from ‘the now ‘but perhaps also from the future.  That’s because through his camera Sydney is documenting a landscape he fears is under threat – from the creeping artificial green of dairy farms, the relentless transformational pressures of growth.  “There is a prevailing view in New Zealand that all landscapes are resources and if money can be made from plundering or transforming them, then that’s the best thing to do.  And I vehemently disagree.  There are values far beyond money, spiritual values, values which shape the way people feel and believe and imagine themselves.”
Central Otago ‘special quality is already being diluted – subsiding in to a landscape that resembles anywhere in New Zealand, laments Sydney.

“This used to be a unique iconic landscape because it is golden, tussocked, semi-arid.  But because some guys are getting rich off free water and massive applications of fertiliser, we are losing that specialness; I think that loss is irretrievable.  We need to think much longer-term about what this country should look like in fifty years – what are we leaving to our descendents.  Do we really want it to be abused, transformed and destroyed like the rest of the world?  We have a wonderful opportunity here not to do that”.

His images, he says in the foreword to the book, are ‘intermittent efforts to capture some of that landscape’ before so much of it is lost.  Photographs, like paintings, he adds, quoting Laurie Lee are  “Tiny arrests of mortality”.

But of the two mediums, Sydney puts a lot more of himself into his paintings.  While his photographs inevitably reflect a painter’s eyes they are more instinctual. 

“In photography I just trust that visual instinct and I trust it completely. I take lots of photos these days – not with a view to paintings, but just because the camera can record what is.  It is a fabulous guard against my loss of memory and I love keeping track of all those things that have made me look twice”.

The photos in this latest book are, he says, an account of what he has seen and loved. What he has been lucky enough to live amongst.  This ranges from the seasonal transformation that spike trees with hoar frost and lay quiet blankets of snow over the irresistible tussock, to the ever-changing plays of light over the Hawkdun Range captured from his own backyard.

“We live in a belt of westerly winds that, when they hit the West Coast and the Alps set up a rhythmic rollercoaster of a ride – racing over the Alps, dropping into the valleys, and they produce amazing cloud patterns.  From my studio or kitchen window it is a daily theatre.  Sometimes melodrama, sometimes very subtle beauty, but every day it is a different show and I do think it’s an incredible privilege to have that happening.  Sometimes I just drop everything and think shit, this wonderful.  We are very much in natures ‘front stalls’. That is the stolen moment.”