The state of the art photography in India

October 20, 2012

In ‘Secret Knowledge’ David Hockney proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Caravaggio and other sixteenth century painters used optical devices to draw spherical objects, perspective and detail, it is also ancient history that with the birth of photography many painters found themselves on shaky territory and either adapted or perished. In India today as in the west it is common practice that painters will use photographs or photographic processes in their work. But not much of reverse osmosis is seen among Indian photography. While the notion of purist can redoubtably be challenged, has Indian photography allowed itself to be influenced by other art forms? It might be appropriate to take an overview of contemporary photography and see how it jostles for space in an increasingly segmented market.

 

More people have access to a camera than ever before especially with camera phones and the sheer choice available.

 

As India was coming out of a socialistic, protective economy to a more liberal capitalistic one, and to make it in the high income bracket as a photographer you had primarily to be an advertising photographer, rich kids were scrambling over each other to get to Brooks in Santa Barbara. Advertising photography was also stratified with fashion being top dog and industrial photography weighing in at the bottom. While any renowned, international, photojournalist would give their seeing eye to come to India. Local photojournalists were sort of looked down upon by the advertising frat and the twain rarely met. If you were a ‘portraitist’ in the west, that would in itself be considered a title. An Annie Leibowitz is sought after and is booked years in advance to have your portrait made. Today in India if you are a portraitist, common perception is that you hang a white curtain behind the subject if it’s for a Saudi visa or a demat account or a red one for a US. Photographers by and large were in it because it made good business sense, not because they loved it, so when the business dried up they would become prawn farmers or run hotels.

 

If you photographed Bollywood stars and your images appeared in Star Dust or Cine Blitz you were also regarded a lower mortal. Like the prize, if it’s the Nobel or Pulitzer, esteem and recognition would be bestowed on its recipient, in reverse, the other kind of prize gets its recognition by being given to someone of esteem. Here too there are direct parallels with celebrity photography, a sure ticket to becoming recognized yourself. But just compare celebrity photography from Snowdon to Avedon, from Lichfield to Lachapelle with local photographers and what they do with bollywood celebrities. Two way problem, 38 year old bollywood stars want eternally to be portrayed as teenagers and photographers have no visionary or creative way of convincing them otherwise. Big B will always be seen with his white goatee and his black weave. So much for originality both ways. Like the Oscars, an award ceremony to celebrate creativity, all the women in Harry Winston’s and all the men in black tuxedos, yeah right…. The only time Bollywood celebrities were shot uniquely and interestingly was for a funny campaign for a funny organization called Home Trade.com. No one ever knew what home Trade traded in,  and eventually it filed for bankruptcy and some scam was uncovered, but the images were wonderful and a blitz during the dotcom boom/bust days.

 

 

Editorial photography is going through a sea change and is catching up while it drags its feet with its western counterparts. The advent of Vogue in India should rattle things up a bit and status to editorial photography will shift. The prime accused in all of this is the editors who believe that photographers, models, make-up artists and stylists should not be paid even while they are. Irresponsible photographers too were queuing up to do ‘free’ work all with the hope of getting noticed. Net result is a magazine that does 3000 copies and considers itself humping. Finally magazines are realizing the potential market and will probably waste 3000 copies on the print shop floor. The Devil Wears Prada even if fantasy indicates the kind of machine, value and money editors are willing to spend to be at the edge of it all.

 

 

A visit to the bookstores only endorses the fact that while Indian writers in English are gaining status and international recognition, Indi pop, indi dance and indi photography indeed are languishing in some black hole. Part of the problem with Indian photography at least is its subservience to a dominant art culture that invariably is North American or European. Since there is this fashion/advertorial trickle down, the Black Book aesthetic gets promulgated and has been the bed rock of advertising referencing for over 2 decades, replaced only by Archive magazine and Communication Arts. What this meant 15 years ago was an art director showing you a dazzling yellow Lamborghini with an equally well featured blond, long limbed, barely clothed babe stretched across its rapacious chassis and wanting you with your Hasselblad to do the same with a Premier Padmini or an Ambassador and a model who barely brushed her teeth.

 

The other downfall has become synonymous with Anu Mallik, the art of ripping off. At last years exhibit A, a photo show expressly orientated to show original, personal, photographic work, a photographer had spent serious money on large photographic inkjet prints to rip off Sandy Skoglund’s Radio Active Cats shot in the 60s. What he did with digital manipulation was not even a patch on her in-camera, analogue work. Femina covers among others invariably have had verbatim copies of PeTA ads, Aditi Govatrikar covered in cabbage leaves. This is a double whammy; it firstly assumes arrogantly or naively that the public at large is stupid and that they can get away with you thinking how creative they are. Imitation is not the highest form of flattery. The Kingfisher calendars with all the hype associated are me-too, struggling to be like Pirelli, or Sports Illustrated and these are all left in the dirt by Lavazza in terms of creative edge.

 

The lack of originality and commitment are serious defects that manifests itself in contemporary Indian photography, the subjects are all tired, re hashed, recycled, work. The other issue is one of the ‘Indian aesthetic’, this is murky territory, an image is an image and should hold its own regardless of nation, gender, age and being hemophiliac but having said that from Picasso to Hussein to Gaitonde, to Rushdie, Penn, Araki and Arundhati Roy have resourced their environment outside and within with a certain geo, social, political orientation. Indian photography is barely Indian, it’s a kind of slick, accurate, technically correct, reproduction of what is available already. There is practically little or no attempt to discover worlds hitherto unexplored, the semiotics in mythology, of colour, texture, shape, the spirituo-religious rubric and the way light orientates itself in the tropics.

 

The only ones to have done this with some degree of international success are Raghubir Singh, Raghu Rai, Ashwin Mehta, Aswin Gatha and Dyanita Singh. The Ambassador by Raghubir Singh, a book published posthumously is perhaps one of the most evocative explorations of an India at the cusp. It holds out yet as a conceptual, modern classic as is the Ambassador itself.

 

The other serious flaw in the engendering process is a lack of educational facilities. It is astonishing that despite India being the major country in the subcontinent, the only school for photojournalism resides in Dhaka, Bangla Desh. Despite the alleged thriving commercial photography business there are no schools for photography, barring a valiant attempt by Girish Mistry with his Shari Academy. But year after year the graduation exhibition looks so black bookish and dated.

 

 

Photographers who could have promoted other photographers via Magnum or international agencies held on to their territory as did happen with play back singing. What is needed is a Bose Krishnamachari of Photography, someone who is generous and willing to promote others while he comes along for the ride too.

 

There are a few photographers who climb on to the gravy train, and become activist photographers, will use words like diaspora, space, post modern, neo colonial, pre nuptial, to describe their work and dot Indian and red Indian to indicate continental drift. Bad photography gets cloaked under the subterfuge of the‘conceptual’.

 

 

The only gallery devoted to showing photography in Mumbai is the Piramal gallery that, despite being in a wonderfully prestigious location has no vision, is bureaucratic and is a mausoleum. Contrast this with 80 registered galleries devoted to showing photography in New York.

 

Cross-over photography, from advertising to photojournalism to editorial or fine art, few have accomplished in any significant way. Faroukh Chotia and Prabuddha Dasgupta are the only two that are orientated this way. And Swapan Parekh was unique in that he took a kind of journalistic approach to advertising. Most often his images were black and white and art directed but looked candid enough.

 

Large scale assignments in terms of what is euphemistically called the ‘coffee table book’ are most often sponsored titles, rarely will publishers do something because it needs to be done or is beautiful in itself, and it invariably turns out to be vanity press.

 

The only area of large-scale visible photography where there is a match between content and audience is with film hoardings much to the sad demise of the hoarding painter. The only people using the vinyl medium with great effectiveness are hoarding photographers who for the most part remain anonymous. The entire package of layout, typography, and graphic design come together interestingly.

 

Media itself is in a tumultuous state, news papers competing with TV. The main news broadsheets being directed to be more tabloid, every square inch of news print is selling or being sold, rarely is there news for news sake, photos for their own sake, some brand, some image, some commercial agenda, the marketing asses dictating content. Print media is loosing advertising revenue to TV. The government now has to regulate the greedy children with the advertising to news ratios. TV is loosing out to cinema where, in-film advertising is becoming creative in Machiavellian ways to sell you more stuff even if all you were wanting to pay for was to see Mallika Sherawat.

Anyone heard of AM radio? Or SW for that matter, only FM and there too the content that should be reserved for SW is on FM. When Bunty and Bubbly were reading news on NDTV that was the last straw. Paid for segments of the news. It’s all about the cash register. But this in a very obtuse way will work itself out in terms of photographic new age ness. Sadly or pragmatically finally economics will dictate who and what survives photographically. It can be predicted judging by the way the fine art market has grown steadily over the years with artists needing to do commercial assignments of murals in restaurants and residences to finally where in their ateliers they can produce the art they want to or the art that is being sought after, photography as fine art will find its own niche and identity. If photographers sought with commitment and dedication their own unique language allowing all that is around them to leak into their work, they would pass on an atavistic response that can only be the foundation for uniqueness.

 

 

The D word is out. Its raining digital, despite the fact that Photoshop, the first and last resort of photographers the world over, is more than 15 years old, there has not been a sudden or significant jump in creativity. Everyone is playing catch up with the latest technologies and paying awesome amounts of money for digital equipment, the primary focus is on repaying the EMIs. It is like the bad old days revisited, when art directors insisted that you were a photographer worthy of his direction only if you had a large format camera preferably a Sinar sitting on a tripod in your studio, never mind that the client was not going to afford the large format film or scanning. Same now, if you’ve got digital you get the job, never mind that your film camera might actually produce a finer result. It’s the herd, its convenient and its instantaneous. in the past all you needed was a camera and film. now when you travel to get an image you need a retinue of slaves to carry your laptop your humongous camera, its digital back, all sorts of batteries to power that, and guess what, a built in 18 month obsolescence.

 

The photographers who get no attention at all though they constitute a significant part of the business are the wedding and event photographers, these have become formulaic with software manufacturers creating masks and vignettes with Om and Shanti and ‘effects’, all the Noritsu machines in the back lanes are churning out 5×7 prints and powerpoint DVDs of Raju weds Rani – swahaa.

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2 Responses to “The state of the art photography in India”


  1. enjoy your writing D. As always. So photographers can write!!

  2. Dd Says:

    I do not know about ‘photographers’ I think most of us/them are quite inarticulate and thats the problem in part, that we cant comment on each others work maturely and ‘objectively’.

    Invariably it becomes a tu tu mai mai, personalised attack that I find abominable. Have decided to write about subjects that interest me and review only those books, exhibitions or photographers whose work inspires me. And there are so very many of those, that I thought I’d leave the crap behind.


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