It is an onerous task to review the work of a fellow photographer and when it is Praful Patel of the Piramal Gallery the task becomes more acute. However Prafulbhai as he is affectionately known may have inadvertently provided an answer with his cover collage of cows, holy and otherwise.

 

Here goes:

 

The first impression when thumbing through this modest book is that it is non pretentious which is high praise in a world of wannabes and plastic reality. It is actually quite a simple book and is one man’s journey through photography, from glassplate to digital is its subtitle. Though digital might be a little misleading. Prafulbhai has seen a lot almost encapsulating and condensing Indian history from Independence till today. Some of the images have impact for sheer documentary value.

The opening page with flag raising man can beg the question who is raising whom. The layout of the two photographs on this page is amusing however the layout throughout the book is crowded where more is more. Pictures bleed one into the other making a nightmare visually, if you are looking for a calm-snuggle-into-your-favourite-wicker-chair-bourbon-evening, to recount a Journey, forget it. There is an onslaught of black without relief not one pin head of white  space where the retina can tarry and recharge its rods and cones. You feel you are in Bhuleshwar during mahashivratri each image with pointy elbows is jostling and competing for space and attention, all sans serif text is in reverse white. You could be in a disco. Somehow you get the feeling that this is far away from what Prafulbhai actually intended.

 

On the subject of bleed, everysingle (sic) image haemorrhages but on page 56 and 57 there is synergy in the transfusion, Marine Drive becomes the Gateway, form and function and content merge serendipitously. The double spread effortlessly takes you from eye level to aerial in one fell swoop, where the total is greater than the sum of its components. This seamlessness tries hard on other pages too with varying degrees of luck. Page 172 and 173 makes a statement on ‘concrete jungle’.

 

 

There are several photographs that should have been edited out, a case in point is photo of Parul on page 68 and all the images of Mitter Bedi notwithstanding the dedication to him on the opening pages. Personal is one thing public domain is another. It is practically impossible for photographers to themselves become their own picture editors. Every photo is precious through the viewfinder, each one loaded with ‘the moment’. It is imperative to bring in an objective pair of scissors.

 

Photo on page 119, Village girl student near a board with barakhadi  is perhaps the most beautiful in the book. The look on the girl’s face as she peers into the preceding page is a fabulous comment on where women are going. This is a strong and gripping image if diluted by layout.

 

Where there is so much fear about the book publishing business having lost out to TV and periodicals and being threatened by the Internet Prafulbhai congratulations on Just Doing It.

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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.

 

Coaxed Basalt.

October 26, 2012

Discovering Andreas Bitesnich has been a reward in itself. A tiny photograph by him in a publisher’s catalogue set up the scent. The world wide web never ceases to amaze, the most democratic invention since Plato and Aristotle, no middle man, no guru, no wise man who will part with wisdom for a fee. Information unplugged and now with the 500 bandwidth all of you reading this can go whoopie!

 

Though in the business of photographing for only 10 years now, Andreas has not been to photo school nor assisted any photographer, his art is intuitive and self learnt. His work has the maturity and skill of a longer practitioner. His website : http://www.bitesnich.com is a work of beauty in itself and indicative of his dark style not as in gothic but as in minimal light. The wall paper is a somber slate with graphic patches of a lighter grey on which reside his thumbnails. The site is easy to navigate and has plenty of images to stun and admire.

 

He is a native of Vienna and consequently not know of in India as much as American photographers are. He is essentially an advertising photographer but that might in some ways be a derogatory term for Bitesnich’s work is beyond that, it slips carefully into the world of sculpture in two dimensions. If one were to look at the bit depth of his negatives, you’d be sure to find bas relief.

 

The site has photographs on the left which open into their own windows. On the right you can navigate over the links that go : Nudes, Bio, Advertising, Editorial, Travel, Links, Contact and Home. Most visitors will ipso facto click on nudes because this is where Bitesnich’s true passion is. He is almost summoning you to see his soul laid bare, and be in awe at the bodies and the geometry. It is claimed by National Geographic in a recent issue that the human form has never been in better shape, Bitesnich endorses this. Seeing these perfect shapes male and female makes one guilty of eating that extra laddu, it might have quite the opposite effect actually, it could induce bulimia by giving all that peruse a complex, what is that extra gulab jamun going to do?

 

If you dial in Andreas Bitesnich into any search engine, you will be surprised to find the thousands of references the web comes up with, indicating that this man has a following.

Andreas is not without his detractors, his work though fantastic is not that far a departure from Herb Ritts and Schatz and Albert Watson and Helmut Newton, unfortunately that is the shadow he will always risk being under, however there is plenty of emulsion left in this fine art photographer and he should be the guy to watch out for. Like the above mentioned he does travel and his works in Kenya and Cambodia are again congruent with the kind of studio controlled lighting he is famous for. His portraits seem to be urged non invasively out of black basalt rock, though there is no soft focus (thank god) the images are powdery have almost a charcoal quality. One is struck more by the absence of light as made famous by Albert Watson. His nudes dripping in oil could well be an ad for Servo, every intercostal rib is there in anatomical detail glistening like granite.

 

His first book called predictably Nudes and at $ 52 is well worth owning. He has several books out now several of them in colour.

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

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.