Banish the viewfinder

July 20, 2010

Prabuddha Das Gupta is probably Indias most versatile photographer and has straddled the dichotomous twain of the commercial/editorial and fine art worlds with ease and authority, creating a precedent where for some odd reason in this country fine-art almost by definition cant show a beautiful woman or a Manish Arora product. In the west, Penn, Avedon, Netwon, Bailey, Araki and Lachapelle have no such compartmentalization, free flowing like iodized salt, from one to the other elastically.

Beginning with his last exhibition in mumbai, ‘The Edge of Faith’ had Das Gupta make a leap of faith himself, plunging into hitherto unchartered territories, abjuring the hip, white cubes of south mumbai, preferring a derelict, decrepit  warehouse in a non fashionable, mill hunky district. The exhibition space had a blown away roof, open to sky, it took its Goan inmates to a new metaphoric level. It created easily, a Goan vibe in mumbai and that was no mean feat considering the monolithic abutment of the grotesque Godrej highrise that blocks out the sun at 4 pm.

The photographs of a sort of sad Goa, where das Gupta spends a lot of time, in themselves were typical in their melancholy. You had to peer through fig trees that had, Angor Wat like grown out of the cracks in the concrete to get a glimpse. Friends were messaging each other to visit the exhibition with detailed google map locations and directions, as the warehouse had only a number on a black gate and no other landmarks around. The magic hour (and how photographers love those) started at 6.30pm where there was just a hint of blue in the sky and the incandescent warmth of very simple lighting made the photographs acquire a new and domestic quality. But more crucial to the show was das Gupta thumbing his nose at hoity toity photographers who make a big deal about humidity and temperature control, diva like requirements more suited to growing exotic orchids than for photos to be exhibited. And in one fell swoop rather than making external demands that your work be respected, the courage and conviction of this move made you respectful. To move off the beaten track is the destiny of an artist, to have the testosterone to show in a place that might not get the ‘foot fall’ is a terrific statement that should empower photographers who are tentative.

Das Gupta’s aesthetic can be traced back to European sensibilities, which is probably why his work looks so at home in Vogue. Jeanloupe Sieff is an obvious influence. The ipso facto abstraction of black and white sometimes in this country looks forced and unnecessary. But most photographers succumb, gallerists love it. It is harder to work with colour meaningfully, and in this country especially, colour has its own semiotics and is meaning-full.

His first book ‘Women’ published in 1996 was again a watershed in depicting nudes in what has become a very Bowdlerized India. But the book even then looked immature and naive, a hurried attempt at getting it to market.

‘Ladakh’ his second book in 2000 showed Das Gupta’s other interests, it can loosely be called a Travel book. The photos are all in black and white again and while it is beautiful, it does not engage you with a new perspective or an insight; and yes it does show wrinkled faces and black polarized sky with contrasty white clouds somewhat clichéistically.

‘Edge of Faith’ 2009, far from a ‘tribute’ to Goa, is an edited vision, a narrow, fashionably dystopic prism at decrepitude and de-generation. Its not how the other half lives necessarily but how some people live anonymously; in quiet desperation away from the tourist noise. The works have mood and ambience and disturbingly you want to return to them.

Das Gupta is best know for his editorial work in fashion magazines, and here is the conundrum. Most fashion magazines are ‘brands’ and like all brands you cant tamper with that image, so if you are going to conform to make your photos fit the brand, can it then be fashion? One suspects that Das Gupta struggles with these issues.

If Das Gupta can be guilty of a borrowed aesthetic the only person who can show him an alternative is Laxmi Menon, his muse. Prabuddha’s best work is when he is photographing Menon who can do no wrong, she is the quintessential, modern, languid, strong, dusky, elegant, indian woman and in photographing her comes a new syntax that is perhaps unique, subject and predicate, viewer and the viewed, banishing the viewfinder.

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