Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The catalyst of change for two photographers
I was curious what the transition from paints to camera would be like for an artist of Sydney’s caliber and arranged to meet with him. Sydney did all the landscape photography for his Antarctica book using an SLR, not a bigger-format landscape camera. When I asked him about this, he replied, “No reason, pure accident,” but later in our conversation, Sydney mentioned his admiration of the work of classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, the masters of capturing the decisive moment. Their tools of choice were the small Leica cameras. To Sydney, the camera was made to capture these instances, unlike painting, which is a more time-consuming process of selection and omission, and the SLR was the perfect tool to capture his impressions as he explored Antarctica.
When Sydney began photographing, he wanted to find images that matched the personal and aesthetic ideals that he captures so well in his paintings. Antarctica is a beautiful, dramatic landscape, and Sydney was looking to capture it in its most austere form. “With photography, the best of what I do would only be good if it is a reflection of me,” he says. “For me, the challenge was how the hell am I going to do justice to my own well-developed artistic character or personality and avoid the clichés that everyone else naturally takes?”
I wondered why Sydney couldn’t use the photos from the camera and make paintings based off the photos at a later date. His reply is like that of a seasoned photojournalist: “I don’t work that way. For years I have been telling art students that you should paint from personal experience. Departure from the direct first-hand experience is a dilution of the experience; the image loses its power.”
Except for minor exposure compensation, Sydney does no digital manipulation of his photo images for the final print output. He feels this is an attempt to avoid diluting the photographic moment. “If I want to do manipulation, that’s much more like painting to me,” he says. “I see a whole new genre of photos emerging, which is high intervention through Photoshop, and everything elsewhere shots are taken and used in the same way I might base a painting on a pencil drawing or study. What happens to the painting is a massive departure from what that drawing may have originally intended to be. The drawing provides a platform for expansion and play. This new world of digitized imagery and digitized creation emerging over the last few years—I don’t like it; I want nothing to do with it. If I want to manipulate and play with imagery, I’ll do it in paint. I’ve still got that world to retreat to. I have a very conservative, protectionist notion about the artistry of the camera.”
Sydney has a second book of photography coming out this fall, Promised Land (Penguin Press, 2009), as well as a documentary film, Dreaming of El Dorado. The photography and filming for these projects have left Sydney only a few days in the past year to paint. He hopes in the coming year to find a balance with his new creative outlets. To learn more about Grahame Sydney, go to www.grahamesydney.com.
Keep up with Bill Hatcher’s projects Down Under at www.billhatcher.com and on his blog, www.billhatcher.typepad.com.
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