Unwind

Southland Times. 10 December 2011. Kim Bowden

For his latest collection, artist Grahame Sydney has ditched his usual canvas and paints to capture the seductive austerity of the land he loves on film. The result: a coffee-table book of photos that will make people look twice at the open, barren landscapes of Central Otago.

The Southland Times regional reporter Kim Bowden, born and brought up on the rainforest-cloaked, black-sand coastline of Auckland’s wild west, spent a morning in Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago.

Grahame Sydney, better known for his paintings, has had a longtime love affair with photography.  His first camera, at eight years old, was a Box Brownie. From there, he remembers inheriting one of his father’s 35mm slide film cameras.

Once he got into the high-school camera club, equipped with a Pentax his parents had brought back from a Singapore or Hong Kong holiday, it became obvious that this was much more than a passing fling.

“I used to do all my own developing and printing in the kitchen at home after mum and dad went to bed. “I would change the light, pull down the blinds, set up the trays and stink the house out.

“They would come down in the morning to newspapers on the table and floor with all these curling prints on them.”

Today, we sit at a different table, off a different kitchen, but the photographs remain.

His back to the floor-to-ceiling views of the Cambrian Valley, Sydney gazes at photos of his children on the opposite wall.

They are decent-sized prints, fading and showing their age, slotted among mountains of books, pieces of art and a stereo that is playing Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon show.

Posed shots were not his thing, he says. There are no family pictures of first days at school, the family under the Christmas tree or mum, dad and the children at a holiday spot.

Sydney’s brood have been snapped in all their candid glory. They look on the move, cheeky, as if they are keeping a secret – just as their dad saw them at that moment.

“Photographs are the tiny moment you steal, the tiny moment you capture.

“Photographs are instantaneous. Other people set things up, but photographs, for me, are just being there – being there and noticing.”

It is, he says, the same way he captured his beloved Central Otago in photography.

He does not aim for what he calls glamour shots – the picture- postcard beautiful lakes, the hillsides cloaked in autumn browns or pretty blossoms – but is drawn towards the subtler, more modest landscapes that many pass without even seeing.

“The landscape here is like the middle child you have, who doesn’t demand the same attention, but you find more and more depth in and more fascinating.

“It’s not a raging narcissist of a child. It’s the one that grows on you most imperceptibly.”

The Dunedin-born artist, who as an adult decided to build his life in remote Central Otago, says he has an observant eye – a mix, he says, of training and being born with it.

Essentially, his profession is about looking – being able to see more acutely than other people – and he is fascinated by how little people see, until a painter or a photographer brings it to their attention.

His art is often credited with helping people really see Central Otago, a region early settlers referred to as the wasteland, for the first time.

“An artist brings to notice what’s simply normal for other people. I don’t find anything normal. Visually, I am always on fire. I am always alert. That is my job and that is what is natural to me. It does get sharpened with a lifetime of professional work and you do get better at it, but it is always there. That is just what is built in.”

Sydney does not have to venture far from home before the creative fire ignites.

A good proportion of the images in his latest book were snatched literally outside his front door, from the elevated terrace that his house perches upon, or after hiking it up to the property’s back fence.

Some were taken out on the downs, part of his afternoon mountainbiking circuit – an effort, he says, to stave off middle- age softness and a rapidly increasing girth, “although I’m miles beyond middle age now”.

One, a startling picture of a frozen quail, was taken on his morning dog walk, probably accompanied by his Lotto dog, Milo, and the neighbour’s three- legged mutt that spends its days hanging out with the household on the hill.

He never claims the collection is comprehensive. As the book’s title suggests with the use of the possessive apostrophe, this is Sydney’s Central Otago – his corner of the world, his take on it.

In the same way, his early photographs of his children were an extension of himself. He was, in essence, documenting his memory of them.

He cannot extract himself from his professional photography, and neither would he want to.

He believes people feel an attachment to a place because they see something of themselves in the landscape. The place reflects back to them a mirror of their own character.

“That is why people talk about feeling at home somewhere, and for some reason, I feel very much at home here.”

As he sorted through and presented each image, he was trying to assemble an account of the explanation of why he felt that sense of belonging.

“The book was an exploration of landscape, of course, but it was also an investigation of the man, ” he says.

“Presumably, by this theory, a lot of the words you could bring to the landscapes I love most and the places I love most would also, therefore, apply to me.”

Calm, golden, bleached?

Remember, Graham Sydney’s Central Otago is not the stuff of the average scenic Kiwi calendar.

Although his earliest impressions of the region were siphoned from neighbourhood children lucky enough to partake in sun-drenched holidays in Arrowtown, while he was stuck in a coastal Karitane, where even in summer, they too often had to “wrap ourselves against the persistent grey gloom”, as an adult, the artist had come to appreciate the region’s mood changes.

He says Central Otago is like an impossible friend – you never quite know what you are going to get.

His Central Otago is dynamic and unpredictable, at times dark and mysterious.

It is often desolate and elemental, as if the photographer is the last remaining soul on the landscape.

The few characters who do grace the pages appear to be the type of people who could make do if they had to.

Again, they are not the people of Central Otago, just people who inhabit this valley, Sydney says, dodging the cosied teapot as he sweeps his arm to encompass the gully off Loop Rd he calls home.

There is Dominic “Dynamite” Priccolo, who lives alone in a woolshed with his dogs; brothers Frank and John McGregor, pictured outside the house they were born in; and Don Harvey, neighbour and one of Otago’s great rugby players, a hard man from the country, pictured flanked by dark space months before he died of crippling motor- neurone disease.

Then there is Bob Berry, who for 30 years has lived in a mud- brick cottage at the end of the road, cooking on his coal range.

“He once told me a beautiful thing. He said to me he considered society to be like an enormous whirlpool that is sucking everyone in all the time, into its core, which is money and spending and things – you know. He said living here, at the end of the Cambrian Valley, he regards himself as being right on the upper lip of that whirlpool and he can reach up and grab a branch to save himself from being sucked in.”

Sydney does not hide the fact that he is protective of his patch of paradise.

He does not mind the seasons rebranding the land around him, but he does not want the change to come at human hands.

He was instrumental in the success of a high-profile campaign against the location of a wind farm in Central Otago, and he sees similar battles looming.

New Zealand is turning into one green paddock from North Cape to Bluff as irrigation converts more land for dairying. He talks of uncontrolled wilding pine being a cancer on the hillscape that would smother the unique character of the region.

“It’s the industrialisation of a landscape, and I think that is very retrogressive.

“I think that it is unsustainable.” And, always the artist, “it is awfully unpleasant visually”.

Unlike his paintings, which he says were in a way dishonest, because so many artistic decisions were made in their creation that shifted the resulting image from reality, his photos are an honest account of the moment.

Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago is a collection of photos seeking to enshrine the memory of a place the photographer loves.

“I think of what my grandchildren are going to inherit, what they are going to be able to love like I love, what they are going to be able to look at that I have looked at and thought was marvellous.”