The Dream Collector

October 26, 2012

A long time ago in 1979 I got really lucky. In those years you were more likely to get serendipitous when browsing the book stands near Flora Fountain. There were some genuine beauties you could buy easily on a collegian’s pocket money, that is if you saved up instead of the wada pavs and movies. I was obsessed with books and still am but it gets harder each year with the devaluation of the rupee and printing costs and things going through the roof. Also work is getting slicker and more finished, wonderful print values and superlative form but don’t you get the feeling that ‘content’ is sorely lacking. Everything looks like a mass make over. So Arthur Tress comes across even today as enriched uranium.


His early book called The Dream Collector is a documentary, social commentary and artistic rendition of the subliminal, the unconscious, the REM and the John Fowles of the visual world.



The most wonderful part about Tress and all subsequent work that he has produced is his effortlessness. The Dream Collector is all about children enacting their fantasies, making real the virtual, making surreal the obscure.


Tress goes (because ‘went’ is so past tense and ‘done’) about recording on a tape machine, children’s dreams, believing that dreams are telling us about ourselves, that they are an indicator of what we are concealing, putting aside, not dealing with, in other words dreams are playing out for us a script for action to be taken, the past, present and future becoming one homogenous continuum.


Arthur Tress ‘renders several dominant themes in his photographs, the child’s expression of fear combined with intuitive curiosity his hands reaching, exploring shape and texture; and the emergence from darkness and light’.  He gets on amazingly well with children which may account for the ease with which they can relate to him. He has a child like quality that they intuitively understand as genuine.


The foreword talks about the easy conversational, non threatening style that Arthur Tress has that children trust, that he takes them seriously must throw them off. He is never disparaging or dismissive or patronising. He shows them respect and in return they give him a dream for his collection. He then plays the dream back for them and initiates an enactment in a setting and backdrop that will lend itself to the mood and the sentiment. Then he waits patiently for that flash of inspiration when the child does something spontaneous and beguiling and then he knows he’s collected the rare species in a jam jar.


The photographs are rich in photographic skill and temperament.  The images are disturbing in large part due to the illusion becoming tonal and bromide.  Like Fowles it is unnerving to see dreams like butterflies in a display case impaled on a pin. The ambience is largely desolate and lonely.  There are monsters looming out of children’s heads. He employs the diptych in many frame, the top half revealing one reality, the lower half another. If one becomes introspective which is what the book is ultimately seeking, you begin to see yourself as a child might see you, it can be ugly and cause you to stop, think and feel. Each image is a surprise as dreams are generally. Each dream is visually explicit and in black and white. The dreams connect literary to the audio which is connected to the smell to the texture and the sensation, the emotion and the intellect. What dreams are saying are seldom the obvious.


Tress is a versatile photographer a couple of his other books are available with homoerotic overtones and generally the macabre. His exhibition called Fantastic Voyage ran at the Piramal gallery for photography in 1995 and was a treat to behold, there was humour and exquisitely crafted prints. Tress is not as well known as he should be. But look out for his work which is loaded always with surprise and adventure.

There is a very large book available in book shops near you and if it isn’t then it is well worth your while to order it. Here is the good news, its discounted for us in India and makes a, must buy.

 At any price Jeanloup Sieff is well worth the money, when its a retrospective of a 40 year backward glance, in large format, beautifully produced, thick, and ‘on special’ then you have no excuse.

 Jeanloupe Sieff is an icon born of Polish parents in Paris. But Sieff is timeless and a cosmic being, like a quasar or white giant, you can claim to belong to him and simultaneously he IS, unique, by himself, enigmatic and elusive.


Sieff’s work in the 50s looks fresh and contemporary even today, there is no patina, it seems to have slid off his Rolliflex this morning, he is not an imitator and simply follows the dictates of his own aesthetic which is always 10 steps ahead of the rest of the world. He is known to be a fashion photographer even when he is not shooting women and clothes. His work is fashion, and fashionable, eminently copy able. He creates style that people follow.


When you read the forward, and you must read the forward always in a retrospective, looking back, you get the feeling that this is a man with enormous life experience, a man who has travelled within and without, a man who has tasted and a man who has loved. What is most endearing is his literary je ne sais quoi. An easy walk down the Seine and insane, a glimpse into the artists mind and really his heart.  There is a wonderful humour, self deprecating at times. The captions to the photographs are like haiku, pithily joining the visual with the verbal. Sieff has considerable verbal agility, an ability to make simple the profound. He claims that there is no art only artists and their work.


Even when he was hired by Elle and was riding in fast cars with beautiful women he began to tire of what he calls ‘the frills and furbelows of fashion and that trilogy of the superficial: models, couturiers and hairdressers’, so he ‘took the holy orders of photojournalism and joined Magnum which was austere and photographically and politically committed, presided over by the Cartier Bresson and Marc Riboud, Ernst Hass and other warrior-monks’.


Jeanloup Sieff is deep. You can’t help but be affected by his work, which he tries hard to distill from the ‘oeuvre’ and edifice. His images have a direct quality that communicate swiftly. However there is always something to return to, a nuance, a twitch, a premonition. You have no choice but to own this book, possess it and let it possess you. It can’t but affect the way you breathe like an asana that gives your lungs more capacity to find oxygen in a polluted world. His images can be caressed visually and for the visually impaired no doubt running your finger tips along the bromide must set you tingling.


He pioneered the use of extreme wide angle lenses for fashion and used it with such elan making the distortion work for him. Sieff likes to send no silver into the hypo, all his prints are heavily burnt it, his skies in grey Europe all have a halo, much of his work has a thick, rich quality. All his images look like they have been shot in available light, there is a wonderful juxtapositioning of elements in his photographs. His images have strong graphic quality even in crowded scenarios.


‘A Portrait is normally made by representing a face or a bust. The face is the most exposed, visible part of the body, the part most used in social life. It has become a hypocritical mask which can be made to express whatever one wishes; it can laugh in sadness, seem interested when frightfully bored and remain impassive while one seethes with passion.’ This is the reason why Sieff has a fascination for bums, he wishes to one day make a book called ‘Homage to a hundred and twenty seven bottoms, chosen for their plastic, intellectual and moral qualities. He even finds bums that are contemplative’. The french have such a wonderful word for the tush, derrie´re,it is as sophisticated as de´colletage. He thinks that ‘bottoms for the most part are covered and protected, it retains its childish innocence, it faces the past whereas we advance inexorably into the future, it looks back over the way we have come. Some are strictly functional, for sitting or crapping, they represent little interest to Sieff who finds them resembling the faces of their owners. Others seem neutral or neuter and therefore boring. Finally there are the rare, elegant and aristocratic bottoms that transcend their function, become works of art, masterpieces, miracles of nature. They are Romanesque vaults of corporeal architecture. He feels that so unique are these bottoms that they almost deserve to have no arsehole.’


The book is wonderfully and intelligently laid out in four sections representing the four decades. The facing pages work fabulously, images are chosen with thought. If you are a budding fashion photographer or a full blown one, if you are a landscape photographer or just a photographer, then you need to study the likes of JeanLoup Sieff and see where the energy, intelligence, creativity and wit come from.


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.


Sheetal Gattani’s paintings at first make you wonder where the painting is. They are subdued, reticent, squares of texture in the true abstract mold.

When the figurative moved to the abstract, it was in fact rendering form and function to its essence without the intervention of the recognizable to make us feel comfortable. It sets  the viewer, you, with as many questions as does the painting provide answers.

It is in the nature of the viewer to ask the work of art a question; and the author – the painter despite trying to stay invisible begins unhesitatingly to be the oracle. The politics of art might suggest that there is an assumed hierarchy between the viewer and the Artist all the more orchestrated by the hushed, forbidding, white cubic interiors of galleries that have become cathedrals or mausoleums. To view a Sheetal is to be asked questions and the viewer then is empowered with the ability to find a response, enabling a reverse polemic.

Sheetal’s works are discreet and in some sense, self effacing, to provide a brush stroke could enable forensic researchers enough study material to determine, age, gender, strength of character and indeed your romantic inclinations. The process gets    harder when the criminal wipes off the fingerprints or any trace of their intervention. Sheetal uses a brush but there are no brush strokes, the paintings almost paint themselves, she merely is the handmaiden providing light, space and passion. There is a bit of unspoken comedy and drama that happens too while painting and mythic heros of constellated spots and supporting casts compete for orchestration, the brush then decides whimsically whom to amplify and which tiny recess of colour to soprano.

They used to start out on black chart paper with watercolor used like oils, thick and viscous till practically no background was visible, paint would flake off and a second run would happen, changing, shifting, the strengths to a corner maybe, more and more paint would be applied till the painting itself determined it was done in a completely, spontaneous, self fulfilling, prophetic mode . Sheetal then frames and signs it at the back so as not to desecrate that space with anything that can be referenced nor reverenced.

Some might call her work minimalism, but it could be seen as maximalist too, the layers upon layers of treatment sometimes completely hiding the layer below might indicate extravagance, with only a hint of the undercoat visible as a clue to the process.

You can tell that Sheetal is a quiet, reserved person, her ‘breakthroughs’ are when the canvasses, now, tear themselves slightly at neat right angles, then they repair the wound surgically, leaving a hint of a keloid scar upon which paint builds creating an altered, textured look. it appears that light and shade flow through the cuts making the planes sculptural. If you squint at some of the works you can swear that you can see a different colour, it can be as illusionary as real, light turns to gradation ever so subtly. Her latest breakthrough is in 16 bit mode.

The works are never titled so as to restrict their significance to a name, but it is entirely possible that when you live with them, they could be family.

In the gallery the works bounce off each other in concert where the bass and treble are attenuated to symphonic precision, and when you take one home to hang on your wall, you are possessed by the eternal Såå.

When you look at a Sheetal you are reminded of a lichen covered rock, a rusted pipe or a peeling wall only because we, not it, seek the familiar. It is the nature of Sheetal’s work that can take us back to cave paintings, the first expression of human graphic, visual communication, they have to ability to oscillate you back to the future.

If our DNA is a repository of all our histories then these works could be called Re-membrances – to make whole.


Rameshwar Broota is a fine artist and that would it seems be enough credential to explore other mediums and the message. This, his first show of photographs is intriguing. There are aspects to the show currently on at Sakshi Gallery which tie in the painter Broota with the photographer, the metaphors of man and man-made re surface.

The exhibition as a whole is graphic and impressive, impeccable prints, clean mats and aseptic white frames retain prints that go all the way up to 130”. One can forgive the bruises some of the prints have received in transit.

There seem to be at least three types of images and the connections between them seem tenuous and fragile at best. The strongest work is where Broota goes back to his flaccid phallus though he seems to have lost it in one of his self portraits. Where through digital fragmentation an illusory piece of hirsute skin lands up in the receiving hand at the crotch. Penis envy takes on a whole new meaning. The machine gun toting soldier morphs into a phallic canon’s plunger.

The finest and most powerful image is the one with ducts sucking in a genuflecting Broota. The diptych is effectively crafted, digital skullduggery not intervening in the illusion. The negative space, graphic diagonals, textures and subtle colours of skin and tin are gorgeous. In the same room, is an image of a man wearing an ominous, Hitlerian, uniform in the foreground of an a deserted beach, with Panzer like impressions on the sand, scrutinising a swimmer who has just emerged dripping, with sexual innuendo. There is the viewer, the voyeur and the spectator all being examined. Censorship is implied in one of the images with a braided cable stay running diagonally across the portrait but the cable is pixillated and is so amateurishly cut and pasted to the point of discredit.

Broota is fascinated with his fingers, he shoves his phalanges into all sorts of orifices playfully making flaccid penis’ and if that was not enough producing mirror effects of the same. The photographs with the stretched gummy fingers are just plain trite and woefully executed.

The urban portraits from travels abroad with partner explore the surreal. The man in aviator glasses suddenly at the horizon develops a flurry of skirts, this sort of Ardhanareshwara is old hat and juvenile.  Most of the portraits are completely avoidable. Then out of blue pops a pink pony in a meadow. The role of the gallerist/curator is not evident.

Digital image manipulation is an awesomely powerful tool in the hands of the deft and creative. Where it is best used is when it is least noticeable. But where it shows up is when it intervenes in the process and the practice. The image at the entrance of a ships bulkhead door is a clean, white abstraction of fresh paint and haiku shapes of handles and hinges. Whether the saturation tool or contrast sliders were twiddled is immaterial, the image is glorious for just being.

Broota has concern for a universal ideal of what might constitute ‘quality, without which a work of art ceases to exist’. From at least the time of Fiboacci to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosophers and mystics like Thomas Aquinas have alluded to Integrity as being that corner stone.

There is a old adage that is familiar to photographers, when in doubt, blow your images up, size does matter.

Many fine artists today think they can get away with dabbling with a new medium in the hope of being a renaissance person. But especially with the established, the scrutiny should be more exacting and demanding.