An Art Not Yet Established

Photographer Achal Kumar talks about the undiscovered fine art photography in India, and the artistic exploration it allows

LILA: You have experienced photography through both the analogue and the digital technologies. Can you tell us more about your move from the former to the latter? What can you tell us about the nature of both?

Achal Kumar: In my case, the move happened for forced reasons to begin with, when the films, photo-printing papers, chemicals and other various materials became hard to get; not only that, they even turned more expensive. My favourite films were discontinued, or, due to lack of requirement, nobody imported them. There was a photolab in Zamroodpur, Greater Kailash in Delhi where I used to go to get my slide films developed. There was a time when they would ask me to come back another day because their batch of films for the day would be full. However, with the entry of the digital media, they started asking me to come another day because there wouldn’t be enough films to complete a batch. It was under these circumstances that I realised I could not hang on to the analogue media anymore and had to transition to the digital. The immediate challenges of this shift were faced in post-production activities, as well as in maintaining archival standards and quality in digital printing.

Since the technology was new, places where colour quality and printing would be that of museum or collector grade were few. To overcome these problems, I devoted six months to a year learning photoshop, and invested heavily in a museum grade photo-printer, which of course was very expensive. Since I have been a very hand-on artist/photograher who likes to print as per my satisfaction right from my teenage years, I went to the extent of learning this technology – beginning from photo-editing to printing using high-end photoprinters. This all needed a heavy investment both in terms of time and money.

LILA: You mentioned a few types of photography that have emerged in your understanding – photojournalism, narrative photography, commercial photography and fine art photography. Can you tell us more about these categories, and contextualise their presence in the public space today?

AK: There are numerous branches of photography, this is not an exhaustive list. However, lets start with the morning newspaper. What you see in newspapers is photojournalism. See an advertisement in it, that’s commercial photography. Narrative is a kind of photography that lies between fine art and photo-journalism, leaning more towards journalism, where events or people are recorded in various situations – it could be in life, work, or simply a time period. I saw one exhibition of narrative photography which recorded people working in a call center. In each frame was a call center agent who had his headphones on and was busy on the job, talking to people in the US. In a co-joined image the same person was posing in his dhoti-kurta. Whole exhibition was images of call centre agents, comparing their dual life.

Another interesting thing I saw was a feature in a magazine a long time ago showcasing the statues of Baba Saheb Ambedkar in India. Since he is an idol amongst a considerable section in India, many places make his statue and place them on the roadside, in villages, or in residential colonies. So this photo-artist took photographs of hundreds of these statues and wrote a commentary as to how the statue made in South India had South Indian features, and the one in North India had North Indian features, and the statue made in East India had East Indian features. Now this is not art, this is not journalism, but this is a narrative. It is like a mixture of journalism and art, with a slight propensity towards journalism. Like an interpretation of reality or presentation of reality in a broad spectrum.

Another one I saw was a chronological recording of the photographer and his daughter’s life. The photographer took a picture of his daughter and himself every year, on his daughter’s birthday, and the photographs showed how she had grown up, as he had grown old. Now that is again narrative photography. Here the picture is valued because of its photojournalistic and narrative content. A fine art picture is valued purely on its art content. This art content could be abstract, it could be nature and landscape, it could be anything.

LILA: So what is fine art photography, and how is it placed in the country today? Can you share some example to illustrate?

AK: Fine art photography is a standalone picture, which creates a certain mood, or an emotion in you. That is fine art photography. For example, when you see a painting or a sculpture, you feel something about it. Similarly fine art photography is also a piece of art on standalone basis. It doesn’t need any narration. The interpretation is on your own. You see it, and you feel that it is a piece of art. Like the sculpture is a piece of art. So many things could be pieces of art.

Assessing the space of fine art photography in India makes me a little edgy. Somehow photography in general has mostly been dominated by photojournalists. So the awareness of fine art photography is very less. When the thought of a photo exhibition comes to mind, in general the public thinks they are going to see beggars and rickshaw-waalas and images of poverty, whereas that is photojournalism, not fine art photography. But photography in general has got kind of labelled that way.

Fine art photography is like seeing an art exhibition. For example my last exhibition was thematic. The theme was ‘Landscapes in Mist’ in black and white. So it could be a complete series, where each piece is a standalone piece of art. Each picture could be adjudged on its own and the exhibition could be adjudged on its own. Art conveys a certain mood. It conveys a certain feeling. It creates some emotion in you; a certain imagination is created. You enjoy each piece on a standalone basis. 

LILA: How can we introduce and spread awareness of fine art photography?

AK: There is no awareness of this kind of photography, once again, because most people in the name of photography imagine seeing sleeping rickshaw-waalas and beggars on the street. So the concept that photography can also produce artistic results doesn’t cross their minds, whereas in the West it doesn’t happen like that. In the West, it is an established medium of art, a very well respected and very well known medium of art. For example, there was a very famous landscape photographer by the name of Ansel Adams. His photographs are an example of fine art landscape work. Whereas there again has been a very famous photographer by the name of Henri Cartier Bresson, who has done a lot of work in photojournalism, including  some in India. If you follow the work of Bresson, his idea was to capture the moment – street photography – what was happening on the street. His pictures were stories. You see a picture, it was a thousand words. It would give you the whole idea of the terrain, of the socio-economic conditions, a lot of things were poured into it. Whereas the work of Adams was not story-based. He captured the right place at the right light, mostly a landscape, not a street.

To raise awareness about fine art photography, the mindset of gallerists, art lovers and publishers needs to be changed. For example, when I talk to a gallery owner about showing my works, she says nobody is interested in seeing beggars on the street, or sleeping rickshaw-waalas, because that is the thought she had in her mind, that this is what photography is. She was not even aware of the other kind of photography that exists in India. So it is for the magazines and media to give this kind of photography more exposure, so that awareness of this field of art reaches the masses, or at least the art lovers. I make sure that most of my friends over here come and see my work. One of them once told me, “this is not photography, this is poetry. You haven’t used pen and paper, but what you have created is a poem that I see over there. The softness, the innumerable gradations and shades of grey, the kind of soft tones you have been able to work on, it’s so poetic.” So naturally, if you see something narrative, that kind of feeling doesn’t generate in you. I am not against anything. Each thing has its own place, and everybody has their own internal call. My internal call is not photojournalism or narrative unless I am assigned to do it. But my emphasis, my cry from the heart, or my call from the heart, is fine art photography. And that too in black and white.

Gallerist  and media both need to be open to it, and give exposure to it so that if not masses, it should at least reach the art lovers. If print media, or multimedia like TV and all give exposure to it, then and only then can things happen for this form of photography.

LILA: Being an educator, what role do you think education can play in this? How can we design courses around fine art photography itself?

AK: I believe that as many forms of art as are taught in BFA (Bachelor of Fine Art) and MFA (Master of Fine Art) courses, this too should be included.  Within photography, in addition to the classes on technology, we should also study composition and aesthetics that can inform such a practice.

LILA: As we talk about technology, especially in the digital media, how do we understand its role in the forensic space? Isn’t the digital a manipulation of evidence? What is the way out of such a phenomenon?

AK: Forensic photography is where photography is used an an evidence in legal cases. Photography is purely a technical art. It originated because of technology and chemistry. And even today, the chemistry part may have reduced drastically, but the technology part is there in someway or the other. If not chemistry, it is more of physics today. So basically, it is a technological art, right from its inception. Now I’ll concentrate on the analogue medium.

The so-called analogue medium was never an analogue medium in the pure sense of it. How? First of all, our selection of reels – we had various kinds of reels available then, right from low contrast to high contrast, low grain to high grain, the ones that can be used in low light and the ones that can be used in bright light, one which gave black and white results, one which gave coloured result, and one which gave colour results could be for print, could be for print, could be for slides. This was the selection of films we had. We could show our image in any of these windows, or any of these types. So there was manipulation at that stage, the analogue stage. And then we would go in for developing. There were several methods, once again, through which we could develop our films – low contrast, high contrast, high grain, low grain, cross-developed, high saturation colour development, low saturation colour development, and then print and transperancy. So we could represent one particular image in so many different ways to an extent that it could confuse anybody about whether this was the same image. You could show a person in high key, or low key, and it would be difficult to tell if it was the same person. That time also manipulation played a very important part. Then we came into printing of the films, of image. Again we had a whole array of developers. Even at shooting stage, we could have double, tripple exposure. We could expose one paticular frame nine times. For example, juxtaposition of a cat’s face on somebody’s body was possible that time also. I take an exposure of you from here, then I take a naked baba and double expose him on the other side. On the negative, it will look as if you are standing with a naked baba. And we could do this nine times over. Our cameras allowed that this thing could be done nine times over without any issue. So I could have nine different people who were not present there, to be in that frame. So manipulation has been there right from the beginning. What is the difference? That was slightly cumbersome, now things have become easy. Again, when we were printing on a paper, on one particular paper  we could print as many images as we liked. Nothing could stop us. Earlier this was altered chemically or under the enlarger during post-production in a dark room. I don’t know why people are crying about manipulation today.

Fine art photography is a medium of art. It is not photojournalism. An artist who produces something from his imagination, which doesn’t exist at all, it is appreciated. So here, if I am using some contrast, changing the contrast, enhacing the saturation, etc. why are you crying foul? I am never saying this is a true fact. I wanted to produce an artistic picture. A painter produces what is in his head. Similarly, I have produced using photography as a medium what was in my head. So it’s a fine art work. However, if I use the same thing in journalism, then you can cry foul that I am misrepresenting the facts. As far as photojournalism is concerned, it has to be reality. Why photography cannot be art is a mindset that needs to change.

LILA: Can you comment on the rigidity of people trying to adapt to changes in technology and art? What role does nostalgia play in belief-making, and what is the way out?

AK: It is more a question of human psychology where change is always resisted. Earlier, when photography started, the negative plate size was 8 in x 10 in, or even more, and when films came, there was resisitence. When the question of migration from negative size of 60 mm x 60 mm to 35 mm x 24 mm, once again there was a lot of resistence. Similarly, at every change, in every art or even life, there has been resistence. It can be correlated with the change from oil medium to acrylic in painting. I firmly believe that we are here to be creative and produce good imagery and not follow a particular method. To put it in simple words, as long as I am doing good creative work, the means to achieve really do not matter that much. That is where the supremacy of human mind once again comes out.

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