White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica
How does the sustained gaze of the landscape painter, obsessively re-imagining the sun-scorched expanses of Central Otago in a million meticulous brushstrokes, adjust to the mechanical snap of a camera shutter freezing an instant’s photons into a digital memory? It’s a shift not only of medium but also from the familiarity of home to the uncertainty of being a guest in profoundly alien territory.
The 70-odd photographs gathered here are the distilled result of two visits Grahame Sydney made to Antarctica in 2003 and 2006. The book is handsomely designed: wide white margins and blank facing pages with minimal captioning give the images space to breathe, while the preponderant palette of blue-greys and silvers harmonises the diversity of content. Contrast is introduced through the sparing deployment of dramatic black backgrounds for the higher-keyed photographs, while several quasi-abstract effects, such as the rhythmic surface patterns of sea ice, are allowed to flow, unconstrained by margins, to the very edge of the page.
For me, the most absorbing pictures were not the distant vistas of mountains and glaciers – the relatively small scale of the book format detracts from the impact these sweeping landscapes would have when viewed enlarged on a gallery wall – but those with the poignancy of a human scale and presence. Sydney invests the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Base, looming hazily, pink-grey, through a blizzard, with something of the evocative power of a Monet cathedral, embedded in the very fabric of the atmosphere through which we perceive it. Likewise, the ragged pastel shreds of prayer flags, fuzzed with hoar frost and stretched like an unlikely kite tail from the wooden cross of the Scott Memorial, compel attention.
True to his subtitle, Sydney’s thoughtful introductory essay begins squarely with himself, eloquently describing the schoolboy processes whereby the romantic notion of Antarctica as the ultimate Boys’ Own Adventure was first instilled. A substantial portion of his essay is dedicated to potted biographies of three of his personal idols from the “Heroic Age” of early Antarctic exploration – painter Edward Wilson and photographers Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting. Sydney’s enthusiasm for his heroes is infectious: the tantalising reproductions of a handful of their marvellous images sent me scurrying to the Internet for more.
But his romantic nostalgia skews his engagement with present-day Antarctica. For Sydney, “These three cast shadows so long that no subsequent artist on ice has qualified to step into the light, let alone stand alongside them.” He assumes an inevitable degeneration from past heroic grandeur to an unworthy present: there were giants in those days. Other than his friend Nigel Brown, no recent visual artists are mentioned in his essay, and although intriguing flashes of energetic, modern personalities make occasional appearances in Sydney’s captions (for instance he describes a whimsical “No Circulars” sign attached to a letterbox playfully constructed by a remote field-hut), his photographs have the same stolid centrality and eerie, unpeopled quietude as his Otago landscapes.
Nevertheless, despite our inescapably post-heroic age, a growing list of contemporary artists have valiantly tackled the conundrum of our current relationship with Antarctica, none more searchingly than fellow New Zealand photographer Anne Noble. Her iconic Wilhelmina Bay (2005), for example, shows the furnished deck of a cruise ship against a pristine backdrop of ice and sea, its deck rail forming a geometrically precise horizontal dividing line. It’s a beautiful, disconcerting image that poses tough questions with grace and wit. Sydney’s indifference to this sort of ironic quizzicality is fair enough: his mission, he says, was to express “what moved me most,” not engage in conversation. But it does seem to confine him to a self-imposed region of eponymous White Silence.
Stella Ramage is a postgraduate student at Victoria University of Wellington.