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.

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.

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.

Fetishes

October 23, 2012

Perhaps the most haunting book in recent times would be Cyclops, by Albert Watson.

 

How do you define a trend setter? By definition it is beyond definition.

 

Watson’s book is like the Ten Commandments. Thou shall not… It is easier to state what it isn’t and hope that the negative in your carrier burns a positive, dense, deep, provocative, intense, inspiring, bromide.

 

This is not a review of a book of Photographs, but a rounded book of ideas, of travel, of anthropology, portraits of celebrities and of common people. It is about fashion as in the verb. It is about documentation and photoessay. It is about presentation and excellence and most importantly it is about passion and fetishes in the non-pejorative sense.

 

Albert Watson makes distinctive images.

He is beyond being a magazine photographer despite being commissioned by Life, Condo Naste´, Time, Italian Vogue, Stern, Newsweek and Rolling Stone. He is an artist with a camera.

 

Every Watson images is an erosion of the darkness, where the subject just peeps through, all the rules of back light and butterfly light and Rembrandt light all vanish, there is darkness and there is the subject. To say that this is a book of black and white images would perhaps be perjury. This is a book of non colour images. Even the printing goes through it’s gamut to come up with a process of CrystalRaster to render the platinum originals as faithfully as possible. 5 layers of dots, two different blacks, two greys and a varnish make the experience dazzling. Gone is the screen and mesh and the dot size, here all the dots are equal but closer or further apart bringing the tonality of the final print close to continuous tone and silver bromide

 

The book originally should have been called Fetishes because that is what it is about. They are all talisman which when rubbed produces genies, rewind experiences and most magically can translate fast forward some of their potency on to others a world and millennia away. There is from Tutankhamen’s Tomb a golden thumb stall, his carbonised glove circa 1323 BC and an Apollo Astronaut’s glove handshake across time and space.  Chairman Mao’s limousine and a crushed frog share space with Christie Turlington, Jonny Depp, Queen Latifah, Uma Thurman, Bobby Brown, Mike Tyson, Clint Eastwood and a whole bunch of ferocious characters from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the comment is provocative. The seductive, sensuous nude, faces off with a poisonous snake from Marrakesh. The thin line dividing the schizoid self is under the microscope.

The book however is called Cyclops, a veiled hint at the little known fact that Albert Watson has sight in only one eye, it however is single minded and focussed on the job in hand. In the land of the two eyed sighted, the one eyed is king. Watson’s brand new book called Morooc is a continuation of his affair with Morocco and its land and people. He has a home in Marrakesh and spends a great deal of time there.

 

The book has a most revolutionary layout and design. There is no grid lock mercifully and all the books on usage of single major font have been re written. 38 fonts make their way here and used with such great panache and wit. David Carson is a genius, he can make Fuckedskinny (the font, lest you think this is abusive to the anorexic) look sublime, There is no pagination either.

 

This is a book for those wanting or claiming ‘specialisation’, the only specialisation should be left for brain surgeons. For photographers the name of the game should be exploration, discovery, cross pollination.

 

Albert Watson where will you take us next?

Ex Libris

October 23, 2012

You do not  review Ralph Gibson but let him let you into his view and re spect. The word itself means re-view, to re-examine.

If you have the good fortune to meet Ralph Gibson you will know immediately that you are meeting a creative mind, an arrogant, intellectual man and you will come back entertained and enlightened. Here is Ralph Gibson on Ralph Gibson.

‘Context is everything, take the Venus de Milo, a beautiful nude, but if I were to say, there is still no cure for cancer, you would look at it differently.’

‘A missionary threw head shots of himself before he landed on an island, he then landed and the tribe promptly ate him. Either they thought he was throwing them the menu or they had difficulty reading the photograph. I’m interested in how different cultures see.’

‘I went to Egypt, I went up the Nile one man and came down the Nile another.’

….   man ….   woman, rest room symbols, and it is replicated again and again on the dummies in the show room. That forms recur is no mistake. A culture is a sum total of its shapes. Photographers have to see shapes.  I believe that there is a primal set of shapes, organic shapes are continuous, shapes of people, leaves, a smile considerably extend our boundaries, penetrate as an atom, go deep down to come up with a homunculus.  We are seeing human, am I seeing English?’

Ralph Gibson loves books and his latest called Ex Libris, is a book about  books.  He visited several Libraries, saw the Polyglot Bible in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. His fascination for words and what they mean and what feelings they evoke is only secondary to the way they look. Typography is the pre cursor of photography and its use is tactical. The filigree of Gothic and the rectangularity of Hebrew is for him a ‘departure point’. He is fascinated with shapes. He would do the diptych put two images together, a hand holding a gun, and a woman at the side of another picture, he called the picture the Perfect Future.

 

Much of the book Ex Libris is about placement of two images that are unrelated which when put alongside seem to carry on a spirited argument sometimes or a resplendent laidback smoke. The images themselves form part of the Generative System Theory where to start with there may be a painting, then a poster of the painting and then a photograph of the poster of the painting, each time the meaning changes.

He likes the idea of being incredibly arbitrary of where to put the focus, out of focus, or in focus, just to see where it will take him. On the other hand it would seem contrary that he will stick with one lens and shoot everything at a 3 foot distance till he has understood the language of that particular lens. If he signs a print he takes total responsibility for everything. No happy accidents in the background, he takes all the credit or all the blame. His morality is entirely reflected in his work, not in the amount of money he puts in the ‘poor box’ in church.

He decided early on that his life-time tool would be a Leica and he goes on to say that more great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50mm lens than any other camera. He says that camera handling is crucial to the process, that it should be second nature and that if you shoot 10 rolls a day for the next 4 months you will automatically become a better photographer. He practices to stay warmed up, just moves film through his camera and if he doesn’t he fears he may lose his camera handling skills.

In his book Ich Bin Nacht (I am the Night) he worked by night in Berlin where he believes the night begins. He still functions as a street photographer after having dropped out of Magnum where he started out as a reporter, except now he does not want to report anything. He feels no great compunction to portray the whole Brandenburg gate, the bridge where they exchanged spies, the night is just a point of departure, it abstracts things and gets rid of a lot of information and it is a higher form of information.

‘I studied photography, learnt it, then serving it you become Photography, can you deny that Cartier Bresson is not photography? The photograph is always more intelligent than the photographer. The medium is always larger. We realise that the photographer is not the photograph, nor the radio, music. The photographer speaks through the photograph.’

His mission is that nothing comes between him and his work, he thought it was a sacrifice, to give up on time with the family, now he thinks to have done anything else would have been a sacrifice.

There are lots of reasons for making a photograph. Take a nude, you can work on minimal flatness, or as erotica, or to experience tonality, or to explore north window light in your studio, it is just an excuse to know more about photography. He says I want to make a Photography, all my points of departure make a sub text. His father is a diplomat his mother an eccentric who thought all her relatives were on the walls of Pompeii. He wants to look as far back as he can as a contemporary living today. Jews carry that around in them, they are Antiquity.

‘When I make a book, I show how I think about my work and photographs, no one will know more about my work than I. Photographs are objects that lie suspended between the present and the past. Mao brought the watch to China and forced it to measure Time, better than burning candles. Photographers have gone one better in ending time.’ A book publisher wanted to cut one of his images in half for the cover. “We will double your money” they said, when he objected. “Ok double it” I said, otherwise it will be bad for my work, but no cutting the image in half. That is staying pure, I am not going to cut my nose to spite my face’.

‘How you feel is how you determine reality, the only thing real is how you feel’ ‘So long as you want to say something, photography will be around to record it’

Even if you are not a photographer you get the goose bumps listening to Ralph Gibson, there is an insouciance, a take it or leave it style, a panache for articulation and you are touched by the wisdom.