Other Ways of Seeing

September 18, 2012

Why are we identical and why are we so different?

The Genome project has given us incontrovertible proof today that genetically we are all identical and that we have a common ancestor and that all our ancestors smoked ganja on the plains of africa.

This puts paid to the notion of caste, of pure breed, Aryan, Brahmin etc

Have you ever wondered why homo sapiens is just a single species, while two tropical birds of the same size, living in the same tree, more or less feeding on the same worms, cant intermarry.

Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man and in Le Milieu Divin seems to indicate that ‘migration’ is the single most important feature that has kept homo sapiens a single species. That puts paid to all notions of ‘mool nivasi’ we are all migrants and drawing artificial chalk lines only limits the possibilities.

However when that single species put down roots and started to own immovable property, caste, creed, race, economic station and other forces started to claim its own right to uniqueness, mythologies, ‘identity’, ‘culture’ and psyche. Culture is an amorphous term that seems to define our aesthetic. Is our culture different from the Japanese or Alaskans, despite our common 23 pairs of chromosomes?

Or when a country gets geographically isolated (Madagascar – Australia) fauna and flora take on its own genetic twists. Are we global citizens because we can BBm each other, Skype or even travel frequently?

Does the suicide of farmers in our own state really affect us? Does Tiananmen or  Tahrir Square really touch our global lives. Do the travails of tribals in Chattisgargh dislodge our air-conditioned lives on pneumatic tyres?

. The notion of what is pure – Needs questioning. Nothing is, we are all a fantastic goop of a rich mix.

Yet some of us are blond and blue eyed, others have mongoloid features and many of us look distinct. This singularity and plurality is central to understanding the way we see, and negotiate our worlds.

Does the prithvi, vayu, tej and akash (elements) not influence the way we negotiate the world? Does the desert and the jungle, Siberia and the Thar not influence the way we dress (fashion).

Should it not influence the way we ‘see’?

. We trust our ears, our sense of smell and our hearing.

music can give you involuntary goosebumps more often than any painting or photographs. The spoken word, a book, theatre, cinema at its best can do the same.

. And yet, still photographs more than any other form of communication, have made cataclysmic changes to state policy. The Nick Yut photo of the Mylai massacre is attributed as one such photo that changed American policy over the Vietnam war.

. People buy art with their ears.

. what is the proof that light exists?   

our eyes

. We do not trust our eyes.

In the nature of light (light fantastic BBC) a mere 3000 years ago, our ancestors  thought that we saw because particles were emitted by our eyes much like a beam from a beacon, or a flash light.

We are determined pretty much by light/heat, dark skin, fair skin, the angle of light (latitude) and its intensity ipso facto governs our aesthetic. Europe is 50 shades of grey, mommy porn not withstanding. Exit Schiphol airport and you see a mass of people wearing black and grey. Their fashion and aesthetic has a hard time with colour. Their understanding of colour is very different from ours. They will tell you academically what does not ‘work’ in terms of primary and secondary colours, stripes and checks. They will condemn you to ‘wrap around lighting’.

Enter India or Africa and there seems to be an ‘overload’ of colour, smell and taste. Everything in these parts seems ‘hyper real’, exotic, vivid or even vulgar to a foreigner. To us who live here bhel puri and pav bhajji has the pungency that is what it is. A life of boiled potato or cabbage will only indicate that you are an invalid in India.

. The trouble is that all the great established institutions are in the west, the universities, the publishing houses, magazines, festivals, fairs and Biennales  and to a great extent the galleries, the critics and the ‘market’. The other trouble is that magazines like Vogue and all the others that set up in India are brands, cookie cutters that force feed an ‘aesthetic’ to fit that ‘brand’ profile. That makes us see a certain ‘Vogue’ way and if fashion is the leader then obviously Vogue is not fashion but about the business of fashion. Marketting people have forced content producers, writers and photographers to see only certain stories and not others that they cant sell. Tail wagging the dog scenario.

. The other aspect of seeing is that we have categories in India which we have locked into water tight compartments. Fine art photography looks down on commercial photography that looks down on editorial photography, that looks down of photojournalism that looks down on wedding photography that looks down on portraiture. And all this looking down has only economy and day rates as a yardstick. Avedon, Lachapelle and Penn move effortlessness from one to the other. Its going to be a very long while before an advertising photographer can show in an art gallery in india. Hans Neleman fights the good fight in the west. But who of us is championing the cause in India. It affects the way we see because we then wear our fine art hats, or our commercial hats and never the twain shall meet. Its nonsensically artificial.

. Unless we have home grown institutions we are not going to be able to make an impact.

In India we should be extremely sensitive to colour as just about everything including colour is coded. Haldi and Kumkum are not mere yellow and vermillion, Jaswand and gendu are not merely Hibicus and Marigold, they have semiology built it, a peacock and a tiger are not merely birds and animals but are vahans of gods and godesses. Nuts and fruits, trees and seasons, including drums, are coded, a certain drum is played only at a certain festival etc.

From this perspective the only indian fashion designer who explores india in a global way is Manish Arora, it is no surprise that Pacco Rabanne grabbed him as the next IT thing.

My desire is that as photographers we do for photography what Manish Arora does for fashion. Its quirky, its international, its surprising, its fun, its wonderful, its fashion, its joyous as it can be dark and its inspiration comes from an aesthetic that we from this part of the world can clearly identify with.

. What is the fundamental difference between : Camera and a Gun (Bresson/Barthes/Sontag), and between  Photography and Photorealism?

We forget that LIGHT itself has been making gestures on our planetary system from the time the sun was around, from the beginning of time itself much before we arrived and learnt how to make a camera obscura, let alone film and CMOS. So photo-graphy – light gestures, has been around forever. Its light that goes into the camera that makes the significant difference from a gun that emits a bullet with report, there is also the question of ‘intention’, the camera can be a gun when it is used to violate, the gun is built to violate, its intention is in its design. It is astounding that Barthes and Sontag got away with it, its shows how heavy duty NY Times intellectuals can intimidate. It’s also obvious that Barthes and Sontag could not make a photograph between them to save their skins. Its the outside looking in which sometimes fill their  observations with mendacity.

. Black and white photography has an etymology, a history and a practical quotient. It also became an instrument of abstraction in the west.

National Geographic put a moratorium on b/w photography not without good reason. The real world is in colour, 4D (space/time).

But from an indian/asian and I daresay with some caution, African point of view, where colour has syntax, metaphor, mythology and semiology built in, would a photojournalistic photo , that commits to representing the truth not be telling an untruth in b/w. Would it not be fraudulent in this case, making an ‘aesthetic, artistic’ statement for the photographer rather than the subject.

For me the most poignant photos are when the photographer disappears.

. when was the ‘star’ born?

There were great actors since the time theatre and troubadour performances were held. But there were no ‘stars’  till the camera got invented and was mobile enough to make the subject ‘larger than life’. The camera suddenly affected the way we saw and communicated.

. placement of the lens?

The microscope and telescope – both make the invisible – visible, the telescope reversed makes distant objects more distant.

Where do you place your mind’s eye, the camera lens? What is the arena of contact and engagement? Depending on how far  you zoom in or pull back, the perspectives, both visual and psychological change.

The wonderful closing shot in Men In Black has a continuous  camera zoom out from the hideous, monstrous alien creature that Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith shoot down, CGI notwithstanding to seeing a blue planet in orbit to finally a dot of no significance.

While in Fantastic Voyage – Raquel Welch  zooms into your aortic valve at sub cellular environments.

The west is like our left brain, the east, to oversimplify is the right brain, which brain is better? The moment we start to moralise these differences we have wars on the cards.

Men are said to be left brain, women right brain and so the metaphors can go on and on. Which eye do you place your camera at can affect, maybe the way you see, there is an optic chiasma where the left eye is connected to the right brain and vice versa.

Being conscious of where your photographs are coming from is crucial to the process of seeing and re-seeing, respect. Does the external, the magazines, the viewership, the hits on a photo-site determine the way we see? Are market forces determining our colour palette and our choice of subjects? Do our photos come from a place of integrity?

We have never seen ourselves, we have seen at best the tips of our noses and that too out of focus, we have seen virtual/mirror or photographic images of ourselves.

And yet everything that we look at deep and long enough can reveal, reflectively our true selves. Sometimes maybe we need to shut our eyes and sense the heat of light as the visually impaired often perceive.

When in doubt take two steps closer.

Bibliography:

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

LIght Fantastic

Man and his Symbols – Joseph Campbell

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida – Death of the Author – Elements of Semiology

Susan Sontag – On Photography

Geoff Dyer – On going Moment

Bresson – The decisive moment

photography – philosophy – Will and Aerial Durant –  Slavoj Zizek

Purism – Teilhard de Chardin – Man’s search for meaning, Le Melieu Divin

Malcolm Gladwell – 10000 hour rule

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2 Responses to “Other Ways of Seeing”

  1. Cedric Serpes Says:

    Thank you david. Insightful as always.

  2. Dd Says:

    thank you baba


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