9 August 2017

Thin Grey Line

An essay I wrote for the Taj Magazine.

Is photography a science or an art? And how does a photo change if it is posed or embellished? Is image manipulation part of a larger artistic progression? Trisha Gupta maps the long history of the Indian photograph. 

Waswo X. Waswo, Night Prowl, 2008, Black and white pigment print hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni. Courtesy: Tasveer
Photography is a strange art. After the camera was developed in the mid-19th century, photographs began to replace paintings, especially in portraiture. But unlike the other visual arts (drawing, painting, engraving ), the photograph has always been understood as giving us direct access to the real. As Susan Sontag wrote in her classic book On Photography: “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image ), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.

The strangeness of photography as an art, then, stems from its parallel status as a science: the idea that the camera is a transparent medium, and that photographs actually capture experience –rather than producing an artistic response to it. The history of Indian photography, as the Bangalore-based gallery Tasveer’s recently concluded exhibition in New York showed, is particularly shaped by this split identity–suspended between artifice and reality, embellishment and documentation, theatre and truth.

Photography arrived in India in 1840, only a few months after its European beginnings, and was “taken up with alacrity by amateurs, aspirant professionals, individuals with ‘scientific’ agendas and within two decades, by the apparatus of the colonial state,” writes the anthropologist Christopher Pinney in his 1997 book Camera Indica. The Indian context was particularly ripe for photography’s arrival, as Pinney’s archival sources reveal. British colonisers, confronted with India’s insurmountable otherness and near-infinite anthropological variety, had long been anxious about the accuracy of native reproductions – whether written or drawn or engraved – as a way of transmitting knowledge. Photographs – with the ‘stern fidelity’ evoked by the Reverend Joseph Mullins in his 1857 address to the Photographic Society of Bengal – seemed just the solution. Mid-19th century manuals of medical jurisprudence and criminal investigation alike had already begun to recommend photography as an evidentiary tool that was, like fingerprinting and cranial measurements, “almost absolutely free from the personal equation of the observer”. Photography for identificatory purposes was already understood as a measure of control: “No measure would... impress more vividly, even upon the minds of the ignorant and superstitious common people, a conviction of the difficulty of eluding our vigilance,” wrote Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, in 1856. A century and a half later, by imposing Aadhaar’s non-voluntary photographic and biometric identification upon its citizens, the Indian government is bringing that surveillance state to final fruition.

Yet alongside this history, in which the photograph was held up as the very embodiment of truth, ran another Indian history of photography as art – and this was, more so than in the rest of the world, a history of photographic manipulation. The hundreds of photo studios that had come into being across India by the 1880s often advertised themselves as “Artists and Photographers” – some of them actually put images of paintbrushes and palette on their cabinet cards, like the EOS Photographic Company, or the Vanguard Studio, Bombay. The artistry of these Indian images involved not just studio backdrops and carefully arranged props, but also the application of paint. European photographers also used paint to retouch negatives and enhance colour on the final print, writes Pinney, but painted photographs in India were a whole different order of business. Studios produced numerous images in which paint overlaid and obscured the photograph – rather than merely supplementing it. Given the tremendous popularity of the painted photograph it comes as no surprise that Judith Gutman’s study, Through Indian Eyes, documents some studios as having up to twenty-nine painters “to do outlining, background scenery, retouching and oil painting”. The Indian photographic studio was a successor to the miniature painter’s karkhana.

The new show put on display many such painted photographs – mostly Indian princes and princelings posing for what Andrew Wilton has appropriately called the “swagger portrait”: a style that “puts public display before the values of personality and domesticity.” Dressed in their finest clothes and richest jewels, the princes in these images allowed studio artists to glory in their skilled reproduction of detail – whether it be the carpet under their subject’s feet, the patterned curtain behind him, or the feathered, bejewelled headdresses that propelled their attire from being merely clothes to costume. A princeling in a posed studio photograph had already been inserted into a coded fiction of rulership – the embellishment provided by the painter made that fiction even more elaborate.

D. Nusserwanji Studio Bombay, Rajasthani merchant with his son, 1940, Overpainted silver gelatin print. Courtesy: Tasveer

WaswoXWaswo. Zakir and Tarif Smoking. (2008), Black and white pigment print, hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, 20 × 13 in. Courtesy: Tasveer

But those images, embellished though they were, involved rulers (or rulers-to-be) posing in finery they actually owned, signalling the social and political status they wished to lay claim to. The painted photograph was theatre in whose truth we were meant to believe. In WaswoXWaswo’s playful reimagining of the painted studio portrait, his subjects appear much more clearly to have ‘dressed up’. Whether it is the archly half-turning Chandra “with a Shell Headdress”, or the bearded ascetic in ‘Another Follower of Shiva’ who holds up a trident – painted in tiger stripes, presumably after the photograph was taken – and a bunch of peacock feathers, we are now clearly in a conscious realm of make-believe.

WaswoXWaswo’s images are a homage to the painted photographs of the 19th century Indian studio, and in fact they are the product of collaboration with Rajesh Soni, an artist who handpaints digital photographs. He is the grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni (Verma). who was also a renowned hand colourist of photographs - once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar. Soni and WaswoXWaswo’s images are fantastic in the proper etymological sense of that word: dreamlike, phantasms that take in all possible Orientalist signifiers of Indianness: tigers, peacocks, jungles, tribals, ascetics, maharajas, rural belles. But part of the effectiveness of these images as dreams derives from containing within themselves a pinprick that brings you back to reality. So the peacock feathers which seem to vie with the backdrop for tropical lushness are held aloft by a suspicious looking travelling salesman with a cycle and a Vimal shopping bag – signs of unposh urbanity that quickly unravel the forested dream the image has partially built up. In ‘Zakir and Tarif Smoking’, the subversion is much more in-your-face – the two sombre young men framed against a red velvet curtain and a richly patterned carpet could have played at being princelings, but instead they sit there in plain white kurta-pyjamas, a cigarette dangling from each of their mouths with careful casualness. ‘Tribal Dreams’ and ‘Night Prowl’ escort us into the jungle more mysteriously. In the first image, the subject’s face is hidden – we see only his body, illuminated with golden dots. In the second, too, the body is painted, this time with yellow stripes, to evoke a tiger. The figure is on all fours, staring out at the viewer through the eyeholes of a tiger mask. Masks, of course, are metaphors for many things – most commonly, theatre. The Tasveer show contained another young boy with a mask – in the memorable image shot by the Ahmedabad-based photographer Jyoti Bhatt, the young tribal boy seems dwarfed by the huge earthen mask he holds. The 1934-born Bhatt spent several decades from the mid-1960s onwards photographing folk and indigenous art forms in rural India, and his work is a marvellous glimpse of that archive.

Jyoti Bhatt. 'Three Oriya women in front of their house with a wall painted.' Courtesy: Tasveer
Bhatt’s photographs are the opposite of theatrical. But as he places his shy, mostly reluctant subjects – women and children half-covering their faces, or looking studiously away from the camera, a cow that seems to be trying to curl itself into nothingness – against walls of the homes and barns in which they live, one’s attention is drawn constantly to the traditional artistic practices of embellishment that turn those walls into such arresting backdrops for everyday life.

The work of Dutch artist Bas Meeuws invokes a different Indian artistic history – Mughal floral motifs as they appear in inlay work on monuments, and in the borders of paintings and manuscripts. Meeuws’ digitally manipulated ‘still lifes’ of these individually photographed flowers – poppies, carnations, cornflowers, canna lilies – have a strangely hypnotic quality: petals rich and glossy against a pitch black backdrop, leaves glowing a preturnatural green. The Tasveer show gestures to complex Indian histories of embellishment: either carried out before the picture was taken, or involving the manipulation of the photographic image. The images here declare their created-ness, but we live in a world in which fake images proliferate. Every photographic documentation must compete against the manipulated fictions floating up as fact in the nebulous sea of WhatsApp forwards.

© Bas Meeuws, Mughal Botanical (#03),2015, C-print on dibond behind acrylic. Courtesy: Tasveer
In this post-factual world, the line between fact and fiction can sometime seem a blurred matter of artistic license. Recently, an award-winning photojournalist called Souvid Datta admitted to Time magazine that he had “foolishly doctored images” in 2013-15, infringing on the work of well-known photographers including Mary Ellen Mark. Asked why he had done it, the 1999-born Datta replied: “In part, I was also discovering the technology of Photoshop... and the creation of something new excited me. It felt like a very basic artistic achievement. There are other images... not intended as journalistic work, which have also been altered using post-production techniques... I didn’t understand what a photojournalist was for a long time, let alone the weight of trying to assume that title.” Photography is indeed a strange art. Because it is so often also called upon to be a science -- and the burden of being both is too much to bear.

Published in the Taj Magazine, June 2017 issue.

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