Blossfeldt do you?

October 23, 2012

Can a piece of work be described as Erotic and Devotional simultaneously? The question itself suggests dichotomy. Maybe our perceptions come from contemporary established behavior within temples and cathedrals. That these places are supposed to elevate, to be inspiring, to take us to a higher plane while eros and the desires out of sexual love keep us rooted to our humanity. Duality

 

Can Karl Blossfeldt’s book on botanica ever be termed erotic? Can it be called Devotional?

 

The book simply called Karl Blossfeldt is the work of an artist, botanist, lover, high priest. The book incorporates most of his previously published work ( Art forms in Nature 1928, magic Garden of Nature 1932, Magic in Nature 1942) and some hitherto unpublished photographs.

 

Though Blossfledt died in 1932 all his work here is quite simply extraordinary by contemporary standards. He once remarked any verbose explanation would only detract from the plants themselves. Blossfeldt never had any aspirations of becoming a photographer, his passion was botany and the miniature and what the camera lucida helped him do was show magnified sometimes 45 times, the overlooked, the underfoot and unrecognised. His camera is almost a microscope in unusual formats. The bane of his life was sharpness. Anyone who uses a large format camera with larger bellows extension will know how difficult it is to keep the camera steady let alone prevent your tiny plant specimen from blowing away with the gentlest breeze. He built simple and crude devices to sandwich the plant within two sheets of glass keeping a space between them to keep the plant from getting pressed. This would help his depth of field issues but long exposures would mean that even creaking floors could cause shake.

 

The photographs have no complicated positions, Missionary top down and standard side ways. Backgrounds are either black or white. These were going to be  standard teaching aids while he lectured botany.  Blossfeldt almost becomes accidental, faceless, voiceless, inconsequential. The plants have strong personalities, they have ways of behaving and misbehaving, they have voluptuous lower lips and sex organs. They can remind you of a ‘septre’ only because we are arrogant to think we invented the shape. They look like wrought iron railings. They can be sensuous and emotionally charged.

 

They can be architectural forms, cupolas and pillars. They can have the delicacy of a Rococo ornament or display Gothic flamboyance. They develop Baroque lungs and sing antiphons, they are Gregorian chants, and can be the Vienna boys choir. Then flip the page and the sound they start making are Theravada and grown up and visceral. The plants talk and sing its an audio visual experience. The whole orchestra is there from the snares to the tinkling triangles, from the double bass to the violin, from the kettle drum to the dumroo.

 

Darwin would suggest that all of nature has only one function to perform, SEX, all beauty all shape is there because it helps survival better.  Then could it be that this cosmic conjugating unfolding on the lawn and in your backyard, is a puja to the Lord?Can Karl Blossfeldt’s book on botanica ever be termed erotic? Can it be called Devotio

 

 

 

 

Midnight’s grandchildren.

October 20, 2012

Naveen Jindal has a lot to teach us. And a lot of us one billion and counting have him to thank, that you can fly your national flag with honour and dignity is not a birthright as you might have thought at least until a year ago. It was in 2004 that the Supreme Court vindicated Naveen Jindal’s long battle with the Union of India to his and your rights. This link (http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/jun/13spec.htm) will inspire you as much as the Tiranga did Jindal and fill you with joyous hope that an individual with a magnificent obsession can make a government pennant truly into a national flag.

 

The exhibition Tiranga on currently till Sept 30th at the Piramal gallery might be summed up by a visitor’s comment, ‘good effort’ is generally an enthusiastic put down that tries to sound positive and patronising when one is less than inspired. For the most part the images are cliché despite having some of the more famous photographers participating. Contrasting is the invite which is stunningly graphic.

There are flags being sold in the streets, hoisted over Parliament, painted on the back of trucks and cabbies, saffron white and green vapour trails at fly pasts, the most obvious interpretations, more documentary than interpretive, the only subtle image is by Udyan Sarkar where there is a reflection of the tricolour in a woman’s eye. Ajeeb Komahi is the only one who has tried to make some sort of interpretation albeit amateurish with children holding a bicycle wheel against an orange and white laundry line with foliage foreground.

 

The exhibition however is an important journalistic exercise in recording the use of a national icon. Rajeev Sethi’s quote is by far the most insightful and personal amidst all the patriotic brouhaha. He sees no disrespect in the use of the flag everywhere, for the images of gods are omnipresent why not the flag, he sees the use/abuse and disuse of icons as indicators of cultures. ‘For me’ he says, ‘ the change of icons is not a concern – but the level of faith’. This should come as solace to a fashion designer who recently was upbraided for her politically incorrect use of the tricolour on the ramp.

 

Prashant Panjiar has some images of Jawans raising the flag after a battle but that will forever be compared with the iconic Joe Rosenthal classic at Iwo Jima. The point would be to create images that burn into our own collective unconscious. He has a wonderful image that treads that territory of Mother Teresa’s coffin being covered in the Indian flag and in the foreground are heads of state, Hillary Clinton and Sonia Gandhi, bringing some irony to the issue of nationality by adoption.

 

There are many images of people making flags but the one that might be most prophetic is by Bhomik Shah with disfranchised street children selling flags at the intersection.

 

Ram Rahman might add a visual verse to the famous Sting ballad by being an Indian in New York, his images in black and white of the Indian flag being traded by an American in a flea market and the surrealistic sight of seeing an Indian nationalistic procession in Madison change the context and makes one look inwards to check our own tolerances of how we might reciprocate.

 

If the exhibition provokes us to ask the question ‘who is an Indian’ especially in the context of seeing saffron and green flags flying separately it would have succeeded. White is the presence of all colours.

Not too many people nor indeed photographers in India have heard of Joel Peter Witkin, but he is celebrated in certain circles in the west for his controversial images.

His eponymous catalogue titled simply Witkin is a treasure , it coincides with a huge retrospective on at the Guggenheim museum NY. 

When you look at a Joel Peter Witkin image you are overcome by its technical uniqueness, especially these days when its all instantaneous and digital, Witkin is peerless when it comes to creating a Daguerrotype style image. It is said that he dips his negatives in coffee and then scratches them with a finger nail, makes his own prints, coats them in beeswax, warms and then burnishes them.

 

Whether what Witkin does is art or not will forever be debated, depending on your own sensibilities and aversions of things ‘grotesque’, weird, or ghoulish. In the same tradition of Arbus, Witkin thrives on  transsexuals, or people with deformities. Many of his images are distortions or alternative views of classical paintings and have mythological undertones. While Leonardo’s visits to the morgues might have resulted in anatomically perfect figures, Witkins visits to the morgues in New Mexico results more in a meat shop placement of amputated heads, limbs there by design that challenge notions of beauty and ugliness.

 

Witkin says of his own work that they are spiritual, each like prayers.

I’ve received Bone House recently and shall add  a much large commentary when I’ve formulated some thoughts on this wonderful book.

http://www.zonezero.com/exposiciones/fotografos/witkin/jpwdefault.html

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.

Indeterminate

October 20, 2012

The space between the progressive and regressive, the modern and the ancient are the subjects of Bharat Sikka’s debutant fine art photography show on at the C&L gallery in Colaba. This is an interesting counterpoint to his otherwise well known fashion, commercial photography. There is no doubt that Sikka has a fine eye and technique, his images  here are shot in urban areas where there is large scale development but as most know in this country there is very little finish, conduits, and debris, unpainted new structures and piles of rubble left un cleared all sit around some how becoming the rhinoceros  in the visual ointment.

 

The images are almost without any colour and they are not monochromatic, they come from an unsaturated, smoggy, archipelago that could be a gulag. These are mostly urban landscapes of stadia, power plant sites, fly-overs and movie studios. There are two images that are particularly interesting, most for where the camera has been positioned. There is some precision to the symmetry where parallel lines meet at a vanishing point, forming a triangulation that is beguiling. The other image is shot from the outskirts of a power plant grid, a patch of red earth looks suspiciously, beautifully out of  place. This is not about a decisive moment but a decisive place that is remarkably familiar. There are people but most are unrecognisable, there is life, but just barely, leaving only the vestiges of a lit bulb or an errant street light. A skeletal tree drops onto a playground that seems joyless. 

 

Bharat Sikkas images have been part of a widely travelled show, many of his images are familiar. While one has waited expectantly for a show that would have taken indian photography to another level, a young observer’s comment sort of summarises the exhibition well, underwhelming. Andreas Gursky , Stephen Shore,  Hiroshi Sugimoto and other conceptual fine art photographers like Gregory Crewdson have done this sort of work some time ago. Many indian photographers are exploring this unglamorous urban space but that is telling in its own way.

Is The Space in Between Love and Hate, Indifference?

ART – PORN photography

October 20, 2012

 

At what point can nude photography be considered art as opposed to pornography? Pornography in the pejorative is associated with explicit depictions of the sexual act. ‘Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for’ — Alice Walker.

Having said that there have been ‘terrible’ people who’ve made great art.

 

So that in essence is the polarity. All of us have resident within the human, the animal and the divine or sacred, individual or mob violence is a tendency that comes out of our animal side, compassion from the sacred, staying non committal, neutral is perhaps our human, sitting on the fence, side. The difference and similarity would be akin to Love and Lust. If we can remove morality for a minute, it might get simpler to understand. Human beings have a heritage of making judgments and often what has been handed down as good and bad remain our sacred tenets. Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols exhorts us to examine our values and see if they ring true.

 

A lot has to do with motives. Why are you making the photograph to start with? So even at the concept, ideological, wish level it is crucial to know one’s motives. Before anyone else has seen the photograph it could be art or vulgarity depending on that single test. But that is not the end of the line, just the start. A photograph when it becomes public has to fit into a sensibility. One culture would think a photograph vulgar/pornographic while another may not. Subjectivity comes with its own filters, morality, social mores and prejudice (pre-judgment). The point at which the photograph shifts from art to pornography could be several depending on who is viewing it. A general rule of societal thumb is when a group of people at a certain space/time become offended, the object of their disdain, ‘for them’, becomes vulgar. If a photograph is exploitative it veers towards the pornographic regardless of space/time or society.

 

M.F. Hussein’s Saraswati and Bharatmata along with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ have a common element. The museum in Melbourne was vandalized by right wing fundamentalist Christians, in protest of a not too brilliant image, of a crucifix in an amber liquid. But go beyond the obvious, what if Serrano did not have a title to his photograph, some devout Christian might even have thought it worthy of veneration in their home, what if the image was called Honey Christ? What if it was dipped in Honey and called Piss Christ?

Vandalized Piss Christ

Many what ifs, as the answer oscillates from ‘art’ to ‘offensive’, notice the image has not changed at all. Only  ones perception. It might be crucial to check on Sorenno’s antecedents and his track record, would it change things to discover that he might be a devout and practicing Christian? If you saw a pair of perfect, sensuous breasts in a magazine half the populations could swing either way, but what if you then discovers a sign at the bottom that read, “Early examination prevents cancer”, would the context change the message.

 

Eventually art is not necessarily to be ‘liked’, art and artists roles are to challenge our perceptions of the world and ourselves. It holds a mirror to us and often times our warts and our insecurities show up. Shall we be content to be unaware of our ISness and bury our heads in the sand.

 

Most often historically, it is politics and those vested interests that create schisms and intolerance of one set of people over another. If we could borrow the sensibilities of the ‘other’, would our world view be that much more enhanced or diminished?

 

The nude human form is the most challenging subject there is. Because it’s all to do with perception. The human form laid bare of time and space, suddenly becomes eternal, divested of pretensions and fashions. It’s got the EQ (emotional quotient) that anyone from anywhere can relate to and identify with. The photograph does not need a title and explanation. It might be difficult to get emotional or attached to a pressure cooker, but the human form is quite another saga. How one deals from behind that eye piece with ones humanity is the process to greater potentials.

nude © david de souza

Advertising by definition is entirely attention seeking, if today people are aroused, shocked, jolted by an image, advertising will not discriminate. It is there for that reason alone. So if nudes bring the advertiser its target market closer to the client’s product, advertising will use nudes, but if you were in a society saturated with the nude images advertisers would find fully dressed images to sell their products. What is scary is that all the creative, intelligent people get into advertising; they know how the mind, and senses work and then use images to seduce people. There is a manipulative specter that surrounds advertising. It’s like some foul smelling, long haired, kid getting into your brain and pressing your pleasure centers, without your knowledge and/or ‘consent’.

 

If you have a society that is not squeamish, puritanical, or right wing. If there is a relevance to the product. If the advertising can be aesthetic and uplifting, responsible and have its motives sorted out. If it’s ethical there should be no problem in using the human nude form. Having said that with so many ifs, rarely can you justify using the nude as an advertising ploy in India.

 

There are several countries in Europe and South America and even some in Asia that have pornography channels along with porno magazines and DVDs that are free to view and buy if you are above legal age. Pornography has become so undeniable that reputed universities offer a study of the subject. It is such a far cry from our country where mere ‘sex education’ is such a hotly debated subject in parliament, where the objectors to the education outnumber those who are for it. If a proper scientific, sexual survey was done in our country it would then expose what everyone sort of surmises, that our sexual misconduct and crimes would then show us up and dent our ersatz pride for who we truly are, and that would not be acceptable. Hypocrisy is one of our many legacies.

 

Hypocrisy can be pornographic.

 

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

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.

Fosstering Photography

July 20, 2010

Every photographer in India should embrace the idea that there is now a new gallery in Mumbai that devotes itself to photography, toppling the musty, mofussil and retrograde reputation that the Piramal Gallery might have held for many years.

Matthieu Foss for a few years now has been showcasing indian photography and like a hermit crab has been renting and time sharing space whenever, and wherever it became available.

His swank new, if shiny gallery breathes a sigh of relief in Ballard Estate extending the perimeter of south mumbai galleries in an ever widening orbit.

The gallery opened with photographs (Jan14th-13th Feb) by  Montreal-born Marcus Leatherdale, who lives in India and in one politically insensitive, attitudinal swoop joined the ranks  of magazines like Vogue who launched their Indian edition with Patrick Demarchielier showing the natives how its done. Bravo. Had the photographs of the tribal natives playing their ethnographic sometimes fetishised roles been outstanding the urban natives might have had to hold their heads in neo-colonial shame. Eventually there is good or bad photography, devoid of gender, caste, creed, nationality or economic station.

But let the natives not get ahead of themselves, what they could not do in post independent India, Foss has done with a quiet je ne sais quois.

The second show, Where the City Rests by Shahid Datawala (16Feb-13th Mar) had framed cabinets on the floor looking at spaces used for resting.  At the opening that translated  into where the cities hip rest their cocktail glasses, ironically twisting the idea of Dystopia.

The gallery itself is on Goa street, the narcissistic self portraits and attempted erotica in the current show called Unseen, Unheard, Unexplained by Pat (16th Mar-10Apr) who spends a lot of his time in the place the street is named after might have been better off borrowing from its title. But the upside and there is one, is that Foss is open enough to the idea that you can be anyone without pedigree and an influential art parent to have access to the space should he think you worthy. And that is something most natives need to learn quickly.

3/3/2010

It might be hard to think of a world a mere 100 years ago where colour photography was in its infancy. The Lumière brothers had just invented and patented the Autochrome method which rendered colour for the first time in a hitherto monochromatic, photographic world. World war I was raging. It is not surprising that literature and the arts dealt with war and peace.

Today in the age of digital photography, the Bayer pattern on modern camera sensors ironically most closely resemble, the orange, green and violet dyed potato starch grains on those Autochromes. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Albert Kahn Collection long hidden from public view has become available in a fantastic book by the BBC called the Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. Copies of a section of those 72,000 Autochromes (the largest collection in the world) pertaining to Journeys to India are being exhibited as part of the Bonjour India festival at the NGMA. The brief given by the philanthropist banker, Albert Kahn to two photographers using still and a cine- cameras respectively, was,  ‘photograph everything, to safeguard a memory of civilisations fast disappearing’. That sounds very much like Gilbert Grosvenor’s manifesto to the (National) Geographic. Interestingly they were also told to ‘eliminate any influence of a western occupation’. Often times what you choose to leave out can become the  most significant aspect of the work.

The still photographs made with a large format, tripod mounted camera, by Stephane Passet in Dec of 1913, and the cine clips by Roger Dumas in 1927 between them reveal what might be construed now as the display of arch rivalry between the allies France and England. If India were a French colony and the British a mere side show would the content of the photos be different. Between the second floor displaying the still photographs  and the troisième étage projecting the cinema clips lie some telling truths. There is practically no trace of British colonial rule in the still photos shot even on urban mumbai streets, the camera shows people stopped in their tracks classically posing as was the fashion of the day, (autochromes were notorious for movement). And in the edit maybe a tacit denial.

The cine work shows in great detail the splendor of an obscure Maharaja Jagatjit Singh who ruled the tiny principality of Kapurthala near Julandhar which the wall text says is no bigger than Guadeloupe (a french colony in the Caribbean which to date is part of the European union). The maharaja was a widely travelled man but his undying love for all things french included his scholars translating Victor Hugo. Was this perhaps the big reason why he is made all so significant? In the background are his ostentatious palace built on the lines of palais de Versailles and his summer house called Buona Vista Villa.

Is it possible to eliminate influences of the west if you look at everything with western tinted glasses? The show was tacky in the extreme, poor copies of the original autochromes badly mounted in ugly brass fixtures.

The show was co-sponsored by Louis Vuitton, bon appetite.

ethnographic studies

from cortesan to bride

the yogi - the lesson

the yogi - lesson

In sharp contrast an impeccably mounted show entitled The Artful Pose at the exquisitely restored Bhau Daji Lad museum showed works by Mumbai studio photographers from the Alkazi collection. Most people will be unaware that photography came to Bombay as early as 1840, while we are familiar with Lala Deen Dayal and Raja Ravi Verma and the influence they had on each other, the works of Shapoor N. Bhedwar  (1858-1915) in particular comes as a surprise. His photos from the album entitled Art Studies formed the second section of the show, these photos while pictorial in nature move from mere ethnographic documentations (the first part of the exhibit) to fine-art for the first time, including performance and drama into the narrative. Gool Guli – A Rose Bud and A Page from Shelly, Rahaab Allana tell us in the catalogue, “bridges the world of the wife with the world of the courtesan”, the last section of the exhibition is perhaps the most intriguing and beautifully illustrated, its called the Renunciation series depicting a yogi instructing idle, affluent, attractive, women. The show also complimented the museum’s permanent collection of trades and crafts people in terra cotta.