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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Sikh and ye shall find.

October 26, 2012

Raghu Rai is a photographer of international importance who derives all his nourishment from the land that raised him. From his days at India Today and those remarkable, unforgettable black and white photo features that helped propel IT into the serious content magazine category, his fame is legendary now.

 

His latest book ‘The Sikhs’ along with the redoubtable Kushwant Singh is fresh off the Lustre Press. Roli Books make an impressive large square format documentary on the lions of Punjab.

 

The text has been written authoritatively and with the very readable, simple style that makes Kushwant Singh the icon that he is. It is very clear that the subject is part of KS’s (not to be mistaken for Kamasutra, he writes because a condom for the pen has not been invented yet) blue blood cells. Kushwant Singh weaves his narrative over the history of the Sikhs interlocking its spiritual ideology with the religious rubric. The politics of the Punjab, the dynastic clashes, the fall of the kingdom, the role the Sikhs played during British rule, the Nationalist movement, the Akalis, The Temple and Operation Blue Star. Through reading the text (and its un putdownable) you somehow get to know the author more and how much he loves and admires the people and the land that give him an identity and a voice. He tries to be objective but is any objectivity ever possible? One of the most endearing qualities of Kushwant Singh is his ability to laugh at one and all. There is no malice in the man despite his columns’s claim. There are typically some Sardarji jokes too in the book.

 

But this is largely a Picture Book in gleaming colour fabulously produced, with a clean layout. By any standard it is a beautiful book however, Raghu Rai has to be judged on a standard that he himself sets up and by that exalted benchmark the book falls very short. Raghu Rai has this genius quality of the elements of foreground, background and midground coming together in an almost advertising set up. When you see a Raghu Rai you cant help but be messmerised at how this trained dog and trained cow and trained crow and trained people and sculpted sky and etched tree all come together co ordinated and preordained in the middle of the nowhere.  Or from within the chaos of Chandini Chowk, a pattern, a shape, a form, a canvas emerges. He does this with such uncanny regularity that you would think that he travels with a caravan size prop box and trained extras who pop up like cutouts in the desert. His unique sense of composition leaves you not getting the ‘whole in one’. You need to come back often, mull, savor, get pieces of it till finally the synapses in your head go click and it falls mysteriously in place like a cyberslot machine. The greatest quality of a Raghu Rai is its ability to make you part of the creative process rather than presenting you with a beautiful picture that leaves no doubt as to its origins and destination, a fait accompli. A picture that you ‘get’ at once does not need to be revisited. Raghu Rai’s images have a shadowy, mysterious quality but here he visits his own work like a ghost, appearing sometimes and walking out of his mind at others. The work looks too similar to Rahgubir Singh’s, most of it shot as a observer rather than a participant. Yes if you are a sikh you will definitely want to own this book, but if you are looking to see a Raghu Rai then the book hangs tenuously and it momentarily seems like the plastic credit card is heavier than the considerable book, should you commit the Rs 1975 or not, that act of indecision is where the book loses out. There are books out there that leave no doubt that even if you have to rob your grandmother to own it then shut your eyes and your qualms do it and sit down gently later to explain, and buy your ticket to visit Benares and do Ganga snan too.

The photos on page 43, 51, 54, 75, 77, 80, 81, 83, 84, 92,105 and 115 are purely redoubtable RR and truly marvellous. Some of them do look staged but what the heck, it seems natural and within context. The others are there and have documentary significance, the gaping hole in the golden temple after operation Blue Star is a glaring example, the rest of the images are cold and seem to look a bit tired. The text talks of the diaspora but where are the sikh cabbies and truck drivers? They seem to be on strike. Where is the Sikh Regiment? And the sikhs all over the subcontinent and beyond? Where is Bangra, bangra rap, and hello where is Daler Mehndi and Jaspal Bhatti? Oh they are in the cabs and trucks that are on strike and stranded.

 

Raghu Rai’s style is inimitable though a couple of young photographers try hard, they if they don’t watch out will always be a facsimile. There can be only one Raghu Rai as there is only one Kushwant Singh, but there are many sikhs and thankfully this is not the definitive volume, so take heart. The Sikhs don’t give up their secrets all that easily, maybe they are more democratic in sharing their mystique and wealth than artists and photographers are.

 

 

There is a lesson and a huge one somewhere, Sikhism is a direct reaction against the Hindu caste system, it does occur that if one exchanges  this oppressive social structure for a more egalitarian one or reorganise it to be contemporary then the people of that belief system inherit the earth and the wealth it provides. There are no Sikh beggars, chew on that Yaswant Sinha and Lal Kishan Advani.

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.

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

 

 

 

 

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

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.