Photography by Grahame Sydney
Penguin, NZ$115 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

WHEN I recently reviewed Roger Donaldson’s book, All Dogs Shot, I commented that some photography books seem to get published because of the person and not the work. White Silence falls into that camp and while Donaldson’s photographs definitely have merit I’m not so certain about this book. I’m not really sure of its purpose beyond an expensive souvenir of Grahame Sydney’s time in Antarctica.

Sydney is renowned as a painter of Central Otago landscapes. With this book he puts down the brushes and changes location. While I appreciate the reasons for the photos being made, I’m not sure they needed to become a book. Admittedly this work was sullied for me somewhat prior to the book’s publication by seeing some prints at a local gallery; some technically poor prints, some lacking focus (or maybe just enlarged too much), some badly exposed, some with strange colour casts.

Flicking through, I was initially struck by similar issues. A lot of images are muddy, lacking any visual punch, and suffering from odd colour casts. These aren’t your typical glossy calendar Antarctica photos, but the perceived technical issues stop me connecting with the images. In his introduction Sydney says it is a struggle to find a unique artistic voice, and that struggle is amplified with photography as it is a medium which, these days, allows everyone to take good images regardless of technical knowledge/ability. Fair point, and this book seems to be a document of Sydney struggling with the technology and trying to find his photographic voice.

To be fair, the selection largely steers clear of the expected imagery of Antarctica we’ve all seen more than enough of, and the photos of the road marker flags in particular have real appeal to me. However, there are 140 odd shots here and I feel too many images are essentially repeats of other shots, and others sit oddly with the rest of the images. As you’d expect there is something Sydney-esque about the photos, but for me I’d rather have seen the paintings of the photos over the photos themselves.

The most interesting aspect of this book was Sydney’s introductory text in which he recalls early tales about Antarctica, and briefly tells the story of three of the first artists to explore the continent. Sydney is a good writer and the text flows from history (his own and others) to art (his own and others). Oddly though, a couple of times, he rails against the ‘ease’ of digital photography – the very medium he used to capture these images – and digital manipulation. It’s a strange viewpoint considering that Photoshop is just a new means of manipulating images, something photographers have been doing since its inception, and something many painters (including Grahame Sydney) also do frequently. Regardless of the technology used good work will always rise above the rest. Sadly, many of these works don’t rise far for me.

White Silence is the first of three planned photography-related books by Sydney, with the next two looking at his beloved Central Otago. It is an area he has defined as much as anyone, so it’ll be interesting to see if his photos can add anything to his paintings. As for his Antarctica, I’ll wait for the paintings, thanks very much.