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The catalyst of change for two photographers

I recently attended a fund-raising event held by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. It’s working, among other things, to preserve Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition base, which is suffering from recent climate change. The event was a screening of a film by the Scott expedition’s photographer Herbert Ponting, along with a talk by New Zealand artist Grahame Sydney. New Zealand has a long association with Antarctic exploration, and this gathering was attended by many who have spent time in Antarctica.

I’m familiar with the work of many Antarctica photographers, but I’ve become intrigued with the stories of those whose experiences in Antarctica changed their future creative work forever, including Ponting and Sydney. Both artists overcame the remarkable challenges in Antarctica, but more importantly, their Antarctica experiences became a catalyst for their future photographic work. One gave up photography for life while the other’s Antarctica experience led to his discovery of photography.

Herbert Ponting was the first professional expedition photographer in Antarctica when he sailed from England on Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition. (Scott died returning from the South Pole in 1912, and his body wasn’t found until eight months later.) Ponting’s Antarctica photography was shot over a period of 14 months as the Scott expedition established a base camp at Cape Evans and overwintered on the edge of the Ross Sea.

Ponting was a committed professional and pulled a sled, by himself, with over 200 pounds of camera equipment. He considered himself a “camera artist,” and despite the advent of more portable small film cameras introduced 10 years before, he used a large-format camera with the glass-plate technique to produce more detailed images. During what would be his only trip to Antarctica, he produced what’s considered the most iconic images from the “Heroic Age” of Antarctica exploration. The photography from Ponting’s trip south propelled Scott into his status as a legendary explorer (compared to the fairly obscure Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole a month before Scott and lived to tell the tale, but didn’t have a photographer along) and has been the inspiration for the thousands who visit the continent each year to photograph this dramatic landscape.

With photography, the best of what I do would only be good if it is a reflection of me, [Sydney] 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?

Why did Ponting go south? He was a hired hand whose pictures Scott would use to help recoup the debt incurred by the expedition. (Upon his return to Britain, Ponting was shocked to find that all the rights to his still photos had been sold by Scott.) Ponting was a very successful magazine photographer, and his reputation as a journalist with an ability to create a narrative with images made him a natural choice for the Scott expedition. Ponting published his photos of the Scott expedition in the book The Great White South (1921). Just before his death in 1935, he personally narrated his film 90º South. While not as popular as his book, this documentary gave a first-hand account of the challenges Ponting faced when making his most memorable landscapes. Despite his photographic accomplishments in Antarctica and the public praise of the photos at home, Ponting never again shot still photos. Instead, he put his energies into filmmaking. His photography from the Scott expedition, although only a short chapter of Ponting’s exciting career as an adventure and a travel photographer, remains the most memorable work he produced. Antarctica was the catalyst that ended Ponting’s career as a successful photographer; it’s still a mystery why he gave up photography entirely.

Much of what I knew about Ponting was expounded upon and enhanced by the excellent lecture of the evening, given by artist Grahame Sydney. Sydney is a highly acclaimed New Zealand realist painter who has been working in the medium of watercolor and egg tempera painting for over 30 years. While Ponting might have given his experience on the frozen continent as the reason for giving up photography, Antarctica was the reason Sydney discovered photography. Sydney made two trips to the Scott base in Antarctica in 2003 and 2006. He was invited south by the organization Antarctica New Zealand to take part in its “Artist to Antarctica” program. However, Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures during October and November forced Sydney to abandon working with his preferred medium of pencils and paints. That’s when he turned to photography.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

New Zealand artist Grahame Sydney. Branching out from a career as a painter, Sydney has recently taken up photography, and his second book of images will be published in the fall.

In 2003, his camera was a Canon D-SLR. On his next trip, in 2006, Sydney completed his photography book project with help from Canon, which sponsored him with digital camera and video equipment. On both trips, Sydney used a camera to capture the frozen landscape’s endless horizons and the spectacular light of dusk and dawn. The photos from these trips are collected in his recent book White Silence (Penguin Press, 2008). Sydney might be new to photography, but his work presents images by an artist who has spent a lifetime studying composition, light, color and tones. His spare and sometimes stark photography of Antarctica is a reflection of his paintings—the barren landscape of New Zealand’s Central Otago, the home and primary focus of Sydney’s art. My photo here of a sunset on St. Bathan’s Range in Central Otago is the landscape Sydney has spent a lifetime exploring with paints.

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

Keep up with Bill Hatcher’s projects Down Under at and on his blog,

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.