Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago, by Grahame Sydney (Penguin, Auckland, 2011) 160 pp., $95.00.
‘The landscape surrounding me only pretends to be empty. It is in truth humming with life, with change, with subtle, seductive detail and countless delights.’
The preceding affirmative sentence was written by one of New Zealand’s leading painters, Grahame Sydney. Renowned primarily for his singular vistas of the Otago landscape, the painter Sydney in his latest book, entitled Central Otago, turns photographer once again (the book is a follow-up to his 2009 effort Graham Sydney’s Antartica), presenting us with a selection of his favourite photographs of his favourite region. I counted approximately 156 images, many of which, such as those of cloudscapes and hoar frosts, are stunningly beautiful, and, looked at repeatedly, confirm, through strength of composition alone, the initial impression that Sydney has not only developed a vision as a fine painter over years of connection with the region, but that he has now formed a unifying wholeness, a sense of oneness with his environment as a photographer.
This quantity of photographs, though, is rather a lot to take in. Had I been putting together such a collection, I would have favoured a smaller number, culling those that do not possess an intense appeal, thus presenting only the strongest works. The photograph on page 123, for example, shows some twiggy vegetation frozen into a jewel-like rapture. A sparkling rivulet gushes below. This magical image suggests what it might be like to be encased inside a chandeliered lantern of icicles. It is beautifully seen, and appears glowingly lit from within. It demonstrates the photographer possesses a spirit of enquiry which gets beyond such merely prettifying effects as the unearthly light which caresses so many of his more notable snowy hillside-with-foreground arrangements to a sense of what it might be like to actually be part of the spirit of place. Two smaller images presenting similar subject matter, which are opposite the above-described photograph, do not possess an equivalent inner life. A similar situation is repeated at page 75, with a photograph taken in the fog. Only a visual master can have created it, but the two smaller and similar photographs opposite are amateur by comparison, and give the impression they have been positioned just as space-fillers.
Sydney points out in his Introduction that these photographs ‘Inevitably
reflect a painter’s eye. After thirty-seven years of constant, automatic observation as a
painter, of putting a frame around things subconsciously, this is my default position;
my way of seeing.’ Of course this is not the first publication to bring Otago’s magical presence in the form of a photographic odyssey in full colour to the forefront of public awareness. Robin Morrison’s book The South Island of New Zealand from the Road, published in 1981 and dominated by photographs from this region, became a landmark work of its time, a signature example of New Zealand photography book production. Morrison’s resonant hardback has now evolved, thanks in part to the internet, into a highly valued collectors’ item.
It would not, however, be appropriate here to compare the two books side by side. More significantly, what is it that makes the often-surreal-seeming region of Otago so attractive to both the painter and photographer alike? What is it that magnetically draws these artists into a vortex of space, time, colour and circumstance, to produce some of the most memorable images we have of New Zealand’s southern regions?
Sydney’s own book hazards an answer, of sorts: ‘Space, as energy, cannot be seen’, he remarks in his Introduction. Space appears empty, yet forms a connection between the see-er and the seen. Panoramic vistas lay claim to the land, that is, establish their hold on us, by virtue of the wide-open spaces between near and far. Sydney’s photographs, with their skilfully evoked spiritual or cosmic aspect, remind us of the order of the universe beyond what is perceived by the eye. They also remind us, by implication, how immeasurably priceless and profoundly extensive it is. The very energy in the space between objects forms an ‘attraction’ to us, with the entire universe revealing itself as a manifestation of energy, a primordial force to behold.
The history of art tells us that many painters and photographers used devices to frame, project or mask the world before them, placing the viewer ‘eye to eye’ with the environment, and often compelling the viewer to focus on where the vanishing point is within the scene — or at least the suggestion of a vanishing point, and what might lie beyond it. The American landscape photographer Ansel Adams, in teaching his students how to grasp the basics of seeing and shaping, used a cut-out cardboard mat, proportioned to his 5×4 format, to frame what was essential in the scene before him and to block out the unnecessary features. The American landscape painter Georgia O’Keefe said, ‘I want to find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill, the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big, far beyond my understanding.’ This statement in itself suggests her obsession with the realm of the infinite, alerting one to the devotion of great landscape artists to the mystical aspect of vistas and views.
Sydney, employing a painterly eye, uses the camera as a tool, like landscape photographers and artists before him, to register a viewpoint that explores the complex seasonal dialogue between humans and the land, especially between empty airy spaces and valleys, slopes and fields as touched or experienced (but not necessarily transformed) by human beings. In this he is very successful.
The book offers not only landscapes of seasonal variety and of engaging structures, but also a number of portraits of its inhabitants. It is the portraits in particular which demand, to my mind, a further, condensed photographic edition from Sydney. The photograph on page 35 of a local identity named ‘Dynamite’ — ‘one of the last of the gun-and-dog rabbiters’ (caught reflectively wreathed in cigarette smoke) — is a photograph I returned to over and again. This character study forms a perceptive benchmark for Sydney’s future portraiture, should he venture further with such a challenge.
Another portrait by contrast, that on page 28, is quite humorous, showing a couple of local wine-quaffing neighbours who’ve chosen to meet mid-way between their respective mud brick cottages, a fair distance apart, for a game of petanque, And a truly sensitive portrait of a former rugby flanker and farmer is found on page 39: ‘a few months after this was taken Dan died of the crippling motor neurone disease’.
Sydney’s photographs are about soaring light and falling shadows, about what’s close up and what’s distant. He has taken his camera outdoors into the kind of scenery many of us might never be privileged to visit. The physicality of crunching through rugged backblocks in the snow-covered depths of winter would prove too much for all but the very hardy, and for Sydney’s stamina and skill in providing the evocation of such a journey and the rewards of it, I am grateful.
TOM ELLIOTT is a photographer, graphic designer and writer, residing in Karekare, Waitakere.