Sunday, July 12, 2015

Remaking the Ajayab Ghar



If you walk into the National Museum in fall and winter, you will a sight that is less reminiscent
of a place that houses over 3000 years of cultural heritage, and more like a prisoner of war camp.
School children squatting down in hundreds in front of the entry, in lines, arranged in class and
uniform, waiting to enter the museum. In the museum, they are chivvied along by a guide; in a single
line, on an abrupt tour of the museum. The disinterest of the students is evident, as they chatter among themselves in front of sculptures of Buddha and paintings from the Mughal era. A reprimand from the chaperone silences them for scarcely a minute, and they are back at it again. We can scarcely blame them, for the blame lies on the museum professionals and the educators, who can not engage them enough. Parents in India often complain about the spoon feeding of students. A visit to the museum is ample demonstration that they are not being spoon fed, they are being force fed.

Educators frequently talk about a need for holistic education for the newer generation of Indian
students, to free them from the tyranny of rote learning and regurgitation of facts. An important aspect of creating well rounded students is an appreciation of culture and the arts. Sadly, we as a nation have dropped the ball completely on the matter. Departments of museum studies in universities all over the country talk about the “new museology” and investigate the role of museums in the modern society. However, the practitioners, and by extension, the institutions of cultural heritage that they run, are still trapped in the hoary days when the museum was an Ajayab Ghar, a house of curiosities.

A museum is more then that. It is a space not only for curation, but also for creation of culture.
We should not forget that the British Museum was host to the leading minds of the 19th century. Marx wrote Capital almost entirely in the library of the museum. The Smithsonian is not only the haunt of the cultural elite but a publishing house of valuable texts ,music and photographs. The Louvre and the Vatican Museum are must see affairs on any tourists itinerary. This is so because the museum serves an important role for all sections of society. For the academics, it is an invaluable resource of objects and information; for the children and visitors, it is their first exposure to culture, art and beauty; and for the jobless, it it a wonderful opportunity to spend time in air conditioning. Purveyors of cheap air conditioning is the most charitable thing that can be said for most museums in India.

A museum should grapple with the creation of the cultural identity. An ideal museum and its staff should not only curate, but also aim to engage and educate. And of course, because all these things
are done with the implicit support of the museum and all its backers, the museum serves as not only as a repository of culture, but also as a mascot and promoter of the culture and the people it represents. If applied to the museums in India, Indian culture to an unbiased visitor of our museums will appear half baked and poorly thought out.


I have spent a good chunk of last year at the National Museum in New Delhi, and have seen a
fair amount of how the museum functions. The place is a wonderful showcase of all the bad things that can happen to a cultural institution. 
There are galleries at the museum that are state of the art, with lighting that accentuates the
objects, and audio-video resources to provide context to the objects. Recent short term exhibitions even feature resources in Braille for the visually handicapped. And right next to them are galleries that smell of mold, with fluorescent lighting, old paint, poor seating, and decaying objects. I still remember when I brought a friend from Nepal to the museum, and showed her the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, a touchstone of Indian cultural history. In the next vitrine was a toppled terra-cotta sculpture with what appeared to be blue-tack on the base.

This institutionalized neglect is partially due to bloated bureaucracy. The National Museum is full of government servants with guaranteed term, and no motivation to apply themselves more than mandated in their job description, if they do even that. The National Museum Institute, a part of the
museum, has 4 professors for 3 departments, and administrators in the double digits. The same can be
said for the many wings and departments it has. The need of the hour is energy and drive, but the red
tape hampers the forward movement of the National Museum. The government that proudly puts up
billboards announcing “Make In India”, doesn't really expend similar energy preserving and displaying things that have been made in India.
It would be uncharitable to say that the National Museum hasn't been taking strides into the right direction in the past two years. Recent exhibitions on art from the Deccan, and musical instruments of the Indian east, have been spectacular. A summer program for children has also been started. These were put into being under the administration of Venu Vasudevan, whose unceremonious removal, (over a year before term,) was in the news recently. 

Venu, and his dismissal is symptomatic of the malaise that strikes deep in the bureaucratic cultural complex. Generally, the directors of the museum were drawn from the Archeological Survey of
India, or were art historians. The ASI is the poster child for a moribund governmental organisation that has shown no energy or inspiration since it was formed, well over a century ago. A good metric of the culture of a place is the guidelines on how work is done. The ASI is still using preservation protocols proposed by Sir John Marshall in 1923. An audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India says it all:

“No mandatory requirements for inspection by Superintending Archaeologist were prescribed, Non preparation of inspection notes after site inspection, Absence of complete documentation of the works estimates, Faulty budgeting of the conservation works resulting in inclusion of extra items, Delays in completion of works and Non preparation of completion reports along with photographs after conservation.”

With such an entrenched culture of institutional lassitude and incompetence, it is fitting that the ASI
offices are right next to the National Museum.

Venu was different, because he was not of the ASI, and nor was he an art historian, enmeshed in and co-opted by the system. He was a Secretary in the Ministry of Culture, an IAS officer from the Kerala cadre. He instated institutional oversight on all departments, and suddenly everybody had to hand in weekly reports on work done, which were not only read, but often sent back, with corrections

I remember hearing scuttlebutt that in one case, a department head was called up to the office and told that not only were there factual errors in the report, there were multiple spelling mistakes. This
approach of due diligence and energy turned the museum around in the space of a year, and made Venu the darling of the press and the culturally inclined. It also made for a lot of internal resentment against an outsider who was coming in and making waves.

At the same time as Venu was being feted by the press because of the successful shows at the museum, he was also being invited to foreign symposiums, talking about public engagement processes like Yuva Sathi, a volunteer guide program, and the National Museum Institute, an institute of cultural and museum studies inside the museum. Yuva Sathi has been a widely celebrated program, drawing in volunteers ranging from college students, to retirees, and training them to be guides for the general public. Engaging the general public rejuvenated the museum and the increased visitor numbers were proof of the success of the program.

The National Museum Institute was, on the other hand, not such a glowing success. In principle,
getting students of museum studies to engage with the museum during their studies and serve as
sources of critique from within is a step in the right direction. Founded in the late 80's, it produced most of the practicing conservators in India, and a large amount of museologists and art historians. However in 2010, the NMI was in the list of 44 universities that were recommended for de-recognition by the HRD ministry. The Ministry in its report said that the universities were offering courses “fragmented with concocted nomenclatures” and taking on more students then their actual intake capacity. They "neither on past performance nor on their promise for the future have the attributes to retain their status as deemed to be universities". Even now, the three departments have only 4 professors teaching over 60 students and supervising additional PhD scholars.

Venu, of course, was the vice chancellor of the NMI, so it can be assumed that most of his energies were occupied in the matters of reigning in the rampant inactivity of the museum, otherwise in his characteristic fashion he would have turned the NMI around too. I am in no position to state whether his transfer to the sports ministry was politically motivated. I have talked to many people with
opinions on both sides, but what I can say is this. The amount of control the present government is
exerting on institutions is telling. The situation at FTII are enough proof that there is a deliberate
agenda to mold cultural institutions to the party line. It is likely that Venu also fell victim to this
Modification of Indian culture.

Much can be said for the propagation of a monolithic cultural ideology, and how it affects the real
culture of a country. I still remember getting copies of Wendy Doniger's book on my email after it was banned in India, and reading about the protests against it. In taking to a hardline and foisting a
saffronised version of our past on us, the government is doing our country a gross disservice. So how
does Venu fall in this scenario?

I have a pet theory. I firmly believe that institutions of culture, like museums, archives, theaters, concert halls and art galleries serve not only as places to transmit culture, but also to show people a different reality then what they are exposed to. Going to a museum or a gallery, you are faced with an object that forces you to engage and think critically about what the object entails and what created it. This also on occasion makes the viewer question the dominant narrative.

How do you stop that from happening? You could conduct Fahrenheit 451 style book burnings, or you could just make it so that that reading books is not an enjoyable experience. I feel that what Venu's work was doing was making the National Museum an engaging place where culture, and possibly dissent, could be had in the company of like minded people. Removing Venu made it so that the museum would drop back to the doldrums and stop being a place that could question the monolithic history and culture that is being foisted upon us. A wise man once said that an age is called dark not because the light stops falling, but because people refuse to see it. Maybe the powers that be are taking this to the heart.

Regardless of why Venu was transferred, the question here is can we learn from the things that he did in his tenure that did good for the National Museum. Having defunct galleries and being a glorified warehouse of antiquities was what the National Museum was known for, and in a short while this troubled institution was taking steps towards recovery. This was abruptly curtailed, and the future looks bleak.


I might have written a lot about the National Museum and Venu Vasudevan here, but this piece is not about them as much as it is about the museum movement in general in India. You can easily replace National Museum with the Salar Jung, the Indian Museum, the NGMA, or of your own city museum, and see the same problems, and come to similar conclusions. Mediocrity and bureaucratic inactivity are destroying the very concept of a museum as a place of cultural and civic engagement, and rendering them into mausoleums of cultural heritage.

I still remember to this day my trip to the Guwahati Museum. The building looked vaguely colonial and showed its age, and there was a ill maintained garden in the front. As I was passing through the musty galleries, an old Harappan pot caught my eye. When I was right next to the mirror looking down on the pot, I saw spirals on the inside. These spirals, called throwing marks, are the impressions of the potter's fingers formed on the insides of the pot as it is made on the wheel. I was suddenly struck with the thought that around 3000 years ago, there was a person, holding and manipulating a hunk of clay to make a pot. The pot probably shattered somewhere along the line, and by the time a conservator joined the pot to put it on display, all traces of this person; home, family,possessions, memories; all were lost. All that was left were imprints on a clay pot.

People often think of museums as places that serve as memento mori, full of remains of the past and of things of greatness that passed. I remember talking to a fellow of an advanced age who refused to enter the National Museum on the grounds that the place reminded him of his own mortality. A large
part of going to the museum for me is not only going into an envelop of beauty and greatness that our collective humanity can achieve, but also coming to terms with the fact that even the great and the good can fall, and be remembered by nothing but scraps and remnants.Shelly's Ozymandias comes to mind.
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Of course, museums all over India are not only full of things dead and decaying, but they are in a state of advanced decay themselves, and if we and the powers that be don't take action, with swiftness, energy and zeal, we might come to days when we ourselves may see our museums and
places of cultural activity, and despair.

It is fitting that the National Museum is on a crossroads, between the Janpath, and the Rajpath in New Delhi. A place where the paths of the people and the government meet. Its blame for its state lies not only on the government, but also on the people. We all have let our cultural institutions down by being complacent about them and how they are run. And by letting them down, we have let But again, the crossroad metaphor comes in. We as a people are on this crossroads. It is on us to engage with our cultural history and the institutions that curate and mediate it. We can make a conscious choice to go the museum, to the archive, to the art gallery, and truly engage with it. And if we see something that is not up to the standards that the place deserves, we do something about it.

Complain to the curator, and the director of the place. Even the red tape ridden babus can not ignore
irate museum goers picketing their offices, writing letters to the editors and sending in complaints to
their bosses by the dozen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Protest at Shastri Bhavan, or A Comedy in three parts.

It is a welcome sight to see in Delhi, that the powers that be still care enough about the people so as to provide them with entertainment on the streets. I was myself witness to one of these “happenings” today at the FTII student's protest against Gajendra Chauhan's position at the institute. It was for all practical purposes, a wholesome piece of family entertainment, with drama, pathos, comedy and a successful resolution for your narrator. It was even in three acts. Here is the comedy of The Protest at Shastri Bhavan.


            It is 1:30 pm at Shastri Bhavan opposite the press club, and the protesters are trickling in, in groups of  ones and twos. Some hold placards, some come with bottles of water, and one hirsute fellow is holding a drum. Some are drinking chai and smoking cigarettes, taking care of nerves. I am off to the side, smoking a cigarette, wearing corduroy pants and a panama hat. Observing and looking good  at the same time comes naturally.
           
            It is sweltering as only the sandstone jungle of the central secretariat in the high noon sun can be. People are talking amongst themselves and making introductions, while the CRP wallas sit  in the shade, armed with clear plastic lathis, looking at the protesters-to-be with beady eyes. As time goes on, the amount of protesters builds up and soon there are around 60 odd folk armed with placards, while a drummer holds his drum on the ready.

            There are journalists around interviewing the folk, asking them about their opinions on everything under the planet, and coming back to the topic of Modi and FTII. The scene is set for a protest to begin. Camera crews are on the ready, and the CRP Jawaans start limbering up. Lathi-charges are always fun when you are on the delivering side, and you don't want to pull a muscle.
In one collective movement, the group moves to the entry of Shastri Bhavan and stands on the ready, throats are being massaged, drums tightened, placards adjusted.


            And then It begins. Strangely silent. I move forward, and realise that the It is actually a photoshoot, because the TV crews are giving the press photographers some time to do their work. Professional courtesies go a long way in the business of making news. When a suitable amount of of photos with the protesters looking justly miffed, angry,  and protesting are taken in rapid succession, then the TV crews move in.

            The chants start from one side, with the usual “hamari maangein poori karo” starting it off. The protesters build up a momentum and the chanting becomes faster. Out from the back come members of the youth parties, and they start chanting on the other side.

 “INQLAAB ZINDABAAD; ZINDABAAD ZINDAABAD”

            Suddenly a wave develops with sides alternating chants and outdoing each other on volume. Newer and newer chants of “Halla Bol” are screamed, and more and more complex lines are yelled. The rest try to keep up. It seems that the various groups are trying to gauge the other groups in the protest and their volume.
           
            For the convenience of the general public, the separate groups are colour coded. The comrades are wearing red kurtas and jeans, holding drums with the hammer and sickle spray painted on them. The youth party members are wearing t-shirts and jeans. The JNU students are in a motley array of ethnic and western clothing, united in the disparity of style. The FTII alumni are gaudy and multicoloured, distinguished by their aviators and other accouterments of sun protection. The colour coding shows that while the FTII wallahs are shouting for the FTII rights, the comrades and the youth party members are shouting against the party in power.  
           
            The drummer suddenly hits the groove with the party wallah chant leader, and the chants turn into songs rather then screams. The crowd moves in making it a circle, and in the middle are the TV crews furiously taking interviews upon interviews with the people on the front line of the protest. The chants change, from ones demanding the rights of FTII students to chants against Modi and Arun Jaitley, loudly inviting him out to meet the protesters. One side drowns out the other, and the other side tries to come back with renewed vigor. The protest has turned into a sauve qui peut and agendas are pouring forth faster then the drummers and the TV reporters can keep up.
           
            Suddenly, out of nowhere an empty Delhi Transport bus emerges. It has been but 20 minutes since the protest started. There is a line of CRP jawaans on the gate blocking entry. More CRP Jawaans come from the side, and suddenly the more aware members of the protesters realise that their goose is cooked. I see the cops moving in, and I nonchalantly start moving back and stand to the side. I have never been to jail and have no intention of being taken into custody today.
           
            Suddenly CRP wallahs rush from my side, and the older members of the protesters start making everyone sit down. Hands are linked and the Delhi police steps in, pulling people up and into the bus. It starts off slow, with people fighting and screaming, but soon more people join into the fray. People are being pulled by their clothes, kicked, and dragged kicking and screaming. The ones inside the bus are poking their entire torsos out of the windows and chanting and beating on their spray painted drums. Flags are waving everywhere as the crowd sitting slowly dwindles, more and more are forced into the bus.
           
            There is a rotund fellow with his handlebar mustache askew, who is gripping to a pole on the pavement with all his might. Three Delhi police constables physically pry him off the pole and carry him horizontal to the bus, and for a instant he seems he is crowd surfing. The effect is ruined because he and everyone in the bus are cussing out loud at the cops.
           
            People are now jumping on the bus on their own volition. It seems the entire party is on the bus and the protest just got a moving platform to parade around the area. Some people are screaming obscenities against Delhi police, some are smiling for the cameras, some are chanting for FTII rights, and there is a fellow still banging on the drum.
           
            The bus peels away and the chants from the bus fade into the distance, and an unnatural quiet surrounds the area.

...

            I am standing on the side, stunned, my cigarette hanging dumbly from my lips, and I see a small group of the senior protesters on the side. Grey haired and dressed well, they saw the whole protest happen, and their presence was tacit support. They are one member short, the rotund fellow with the askew mustache is already on his way to the police station.
           
            They accost an inspector of the Delhi police and start telling him off. He responds by saying that section 144 was put in action, and the protesters needed permission and were violent. A matronly old lady with steel gray hair starts chastising him. “The protesters were anything but violent. This is a miscarriage of justice”. He keeps on repeating that they needed permission, and from behind me a fellow wryly admits that the permission granting authorities were the ones against whom the protest was. Neither the older protesters not the cops are making any headway, just repeating the same thing over and over. “The protesters did nothing wrong” “we are just doing our job. You have a problem, talk to the boss.”

            I knew the mistake the protesters had made. If only they had dressed up like Mahabharat characters and  used Molotov cocktails, then the entire police brutality would have been worth it. What is the point of being hauled in for a simple protest? If you have to go, go in style. As I am musing on more entertaining strategies for protest and institutional critique, another bus pulls in, this one empty too. A police constable grabs my arm and tells me to start walking. While I tell him that I was standing and just smoking a cigarette, he turns around, and catches another fellow around my age by his scruff. We both are ceremoniously dumped into the bus. I call the cop a crypto-fascist, but he does not register.

            At this time I realise that this is not a time for wry observations and distant cynicism, so I call a friend to come and get me, and post bail if needed. The folk in the back are loudly discussing what is going to happen and what has been going on. As I settle down into my surprisingly comfortable chair, comes the cavalry. Out from the market in front of the press club comes a group of 5 people with red stars on their flag, a big banner proclaiming support and a drum. Their chants are new, and fill the silence of the area.

            Without missing a beat, the policemen turn around and push them into the bus. They gladly step in, and poke their torsos out of the windows and gaily fly their flags high, singing songs and calling for “Inqlaab”. The bus starts moving and gets to the Parliament Street Police Station. The CRP starts moving out the protesters, and I am the last to move.

            As I near the driver, he stops me, and asks me what was wrong. I tell him I was smoking and got picked up. He tells me to stay quiet and sit down behind him as he turns on the engine. A couple of cops come in and ask me to get off, but the driver protests my innocence. He is convinced I am on the straight and narrow because of my pants and the hat.

            The CRP cops outside, 5 of them, with vicious smiles on their face tell me to come out. I protest  that I was just smoking. They tell me I can smoke inside, they will even provide chai. While I am tempted to take them up on their offer, I am aware that police chai generally leaves a welt or two on the backside.

            I have no choice, I start walking towards the station.

            There is no one around me, but I am walking towards the inner gate of the police station. If the fashion is to court arrest, who am I to stop? When in Rome... I turn to the gate and see the protesters in a courtyard. There is a tree with ample shade, and they are in a circle, chanting, flags flying high. They are letting lose with the chants, sparing no one. While the radical bonhomie and protesting in unity and comradely good fellowship is a charming thought, I decide that I would do better not in the hands of the police. Self preservation wins out. With a smart about turn, learned through years of marching in school, I turn around and start walking out of the station. A cop stops me, and before he can say anything, I pull out a notepad, and ask him how many did they get. Over a hundred, he replies. With a nod and a tip of the hat, I walk out, free. It has been less then an hour since the protest started.



            I get back home, and take a bath, because it was hotter then the hinges of hell in the bus and in the protest. Call  Kislay, one of the leaders of the protest. As of 6 pm, they are still in the police station, detained for breaking a law they didn't know about, by law enforcement doing their job with perverse gusto, ordered around and dissatisfied by a government hell bent on enforcing only what it thinks is right, and crushing down dissent with an iron foot.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jammu and My Inheritance of Loss

 J&K channel is playing on the television as I write this. I am slowly trying to come to terms with the reality of Jammu, versus the image in my head, which was admittedly dripping with nostalgia.
The question comes to mind, what makes a culture? A society with history and tradition to back up its present? Or the relentless sociocultural construction and destruction, driven by conspicuous consumption and the accoutrements thereof?

Ever since I left Jammu 7 years ago, I have been trying to come to terms with my identity, or lack thereof. Was I a Brahmin, because I was born into a Brahmin family? Was I a Dogra, because my parents spoke Dogri? Was I an Indian, because I had an Indian passport and I could recite the Indian national anthem by heart? To a teenage mind fuelled by angst, belonging to something was important. How else would I place myself in the world?
I was an apolitical atheist, so the Indian Bhraminical edge was gone. I had the Dogra card going pretty good. There was enough space to be tortured about my identity in a manner that was socially acceptable and also socially beneficial. I was born in a Dogra family, and I was constantly told by people that my mother's Dogri was beautiful. My parents and grandparents all spoke Dogri exclusively at home. The only problem was me. I was always talked to in Hindi and English. I never ended up learning the language, the language of “my people” from my parents.
What all I learnt of it, at the age of 15, was from the people on the streets, a uncouth mixture of Punjabi and Dogri, with none of the grace and delicacy of either and cusswords from both. How could I connect with the Duggar folk, when I didn't know the language, the idioms, the songs, the stories, the aphorisms?
The linguistic identity route was pretty much buggered, so I was left to the place. My earliest memories were of the court complex of Mubarak Mandi, the historical courts of the Dogra rulers. I grew up in the court chambers there, where my father passed judgments for almost a decade and a half. My mother would tell me stories of how she gave her exams at Mubarak Mandi. My grandfather, famously litigious, would be a constant fixture of the courts. I still remember rows upon rows of typists, armed with an umbrella against the noonday sun, typing and notarizing documents furiously on 5 rupee sheets of stamp paper.



View of Mubarak Mandi from Demolished Solicitors Offices

I remember the grandfather, before he went senile and started telling the same story again and again, telling me about the days when Jammu was still a monarchy, and how no one was allowed in Mubarak Mandi without something covering his or her head. I remember hearing about the spectacle of the festivals in the Mandi, and about the court complex and the monkeys who would terrorise it, and rip apart the Indian flag on the pinnacle.
The Mandi had become a symbol of Dogra identity for me. It was fitting therefore, that it had become dilapidated, near collapse, populated only by snakes and monkeys, with errant police wallahs hounding out kids sneaking in to smoke cigarettes and chillums on the sly. Somehow, to me the decay mirrored the decay of the Dogra identity. It became a ritual for me to commune with the Mandi every time I would come back to Jammu, to take in as much of what was left of it, before it all went away.
Which brings us to today.
I went to meet a gentleman who had a couple of old cameras he had on sale. One of them was a 100 year old camera, which I was very excited to see. As I made my way down to the fellows house in the old part of town, I was struck by the sight of town. Gone were all the old shops, and I was familiar with the part, mind you. Instead of the barber who cut my hair til I was 8, there was a shop of cell phone accessories. Next to a banyan tree, still wrapped in red thread, was a off brand clothing store, trafficking in Pooma shoes, and Bay Ran glasses. I still remembered that there was a old store that used to supply all the newspaper wallahs in that area, where the Bay Ran shop stood.
I reached the designated place to see a dilapidated structure that served as the persons print shop and home. A rickety table stood encased in piles of books, business cards, wedding invitations. In the back was a case of geological specimens, and a photo of Rafi, a popular singers in the days gone by. The shop reeked of days gone by, and stale gold flake cigarettes. Illuminated by a single yellow lamp sat my perspective seller. I sat looked around, and pulled out a beedi. There were ashtrays on every other pile, and the piles were less piles, and more prodigious mounds of ephemera.
I was offered chai, which I gratefully accepted. We started talking and discovered that we had a mutual circle of acquaintances. The arts scene in Jammu is miniscule, and everybody knows everybody. I looked at the camera and the lens. It was of middling value, and I promised that I could find him someone who would want it. He sure could use the money. He then started telling me about how he got the camera.
Thirty years ago, I had a fire in my belly to do something with myself. I had just quit my job in the geology department in the Jammu university, and started graphic design and a print shop. I heard that there was a whole plate camera on sale. I could use one for my engraving work, so I went to Raghunath Bazaar, where next to the Amitabh Bacchan pan shop I stood waiting for my friend. He came up the stairs leading down to the mohalla with a box in his hand, and a lady wearing the white clothes of a widow. She was in her 50's and looked stricken. I paid her some money, and took the box containing the camera. I was about to walk off, when she stopped me. In her arms was a bundle which she carried like a child. She opened it up layer by layer, and in the middle, was the old lens. She was not strong enough to carry the camera, but she had taken out the lens, the last vestige of her husband. As she handed me the lens, her expression was as if she was handing me everything that was and would ever be of her and her marriage.

I saw visiting cards for the justices in the J&K high court lying on the side room, and so went into investigate. There was an entire room dominated by a 5 ton press, with multiple silk screen frames and old zinc plate etching baths sitting on the side. The ubiquitous ashtrays were now on mounds of darkroom chemicals and plumbing tools. In an alcove on far right was a small shoddily constructed darkroom containing a small red light and brake wires for motorcycles and an arc welding rig.
The fellow told me that he was fixing motorcycles and plumbing to make ends meet. Printing and design were no longer worth the effort to do right when people were easily satisfied with stuff coming out of small shops on every galli. So he was liquidating everything and thinking of what to do. I kept on trying to talk him into using the print shop as a base to teach the younger generation the old trade, lest it be lost.

I had a kid who was sent to me a couple of years ago. His father was a bus mechanic at a yard somewhere. He had done his BFA from the institute of music and fine arts, and his teacher told him that coming to meet me would do him good. I couldn't teach him anything, but we stayed in touch. He got into NID Ahmadabad. They asked for 6.5 lakh. He couldn’t afford it. Tried next year too. Same story. The last I heard, he is trying to drum up some collateral for a loan. I would have helped him, but then...

From talking to him, it was obvious to me that here was a thinking man, deeply sensitive to the goings on of the culture and the arts. He also talked to me in Dogri, so I figure that I liked him because of that too.
As I was on my way back from his place in the local bus, I was reminded of this one person who was a constant sight in my youth in Jammu. Bald on top, long shoulder length hair on the side, tall, lanky, cadaverous, hooked nose, bright eyes, beard and mustache. Always sat at the news paper shop near the parade grounds. This time, I didn't see him. I went to my usual chai shop and asked the kid who served me about the guy who I always saw and never got to know. He had died sometime in the last 6 years I was gone.
As I sat reading the newspaper from the day before and drinking chai, as is the way of things, a friend from my theater days popped in, Chai shops are the last bastion of the gainfully unemployed and the terminally lazy, and one is wont to always run into people one knows, as is the way of things. Over chai and navy cuts, we started talking about the changes since I had left town last. I asked him about the lanky fellow. He was an MA in English literature from the 70's. He maintained that the last pure thing Indians had written was the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Everything else written by Indians was a product not of the Indian voice but of a mixed voice. Mughal, British, German. He wasn't against literature of the mixed people, but he maintained that Indians are only fit for telling and retelling the same stories over and over in multiple iterations. Never anything new. Disillusioned, he remained to the end of days, sitting on the same chair outside the news paper shop near the parade grounds, reading the news paper. And then he was gone.

I remember walking down residency road with my mother, who would tell me about how Mallika Pukhraj was a courtesan on the kothas on residency road. How going up from that road, you would come to Rajtilak road, where the king was crowned. The road was so crowded, if you wanted to get from one end to the other, you just stood in the middle. You would get jostled, and pushed, but you would eventually get on the other side. On the left was the road to Sabzi Mandi and to Pacca Danga, where she was born and where the entire family was raised. My grandfather had a shop there, binding books. He passed his matric, which was such a big deal that he was sought after even by the people who wanted their PhD thesis bound. You would go straight up that road and hit the Sangeet Vishvavidlaya, where my grandfather would play tabla with Zakir Hussain's father, and my mother learnt classical music. You kept on going and you would reach the Manda forest. My grandfather used to regularly cycle to Sialkot before partition. He would tell me that coming back he would sometime hitch rides with trucks, loaded with people, coming to spend nights in Jammu. The nights were famously cool here.
And from Manda, you would go down past the palace of the king, and hit Mubarak Mandi. These days, surrounded by rubble, you see cricket games. People take walks in the scenic piles of 150 year old bricks. The cherubs in the fountains are green and don't piss out water, but at least the fountain has water in its base. You see the rainbow shimmer on the surface. Some civic minded citizen has thrown some kerosene in the water to stop mosquito. People make do.

View of Buildings Leading up to Temple in Mubarak Mandi

Once in a while, the city has a Dogra festival, with singers getting called in from villages in the mountains where Dogri survives alongside poverty. They still wear the pink turbans and dance to the old songs. Every year, two men still come to my house and sing the baakh, a style unique to the hill tribes. The baakh they sing is a song of the names of the months. And while the two men with drums and a harmony reminiscent of Appalachian bluegrass singing, or when the villagers from the mountains in their pink turbans dance, it seems for a fleeting instant that the Dogra people are still Dogras, and not just an anonymous mass of rootless folk. But then it goes away, not to return until next year.

Every alley of the old city is full of cell phone shops and shops selling off brand clothing. And the halvais making matthi are selling chowmein in air conditioned shops with a smaller footprint than a public toilet. And that is ok. I will not be the one to stand between the right of anyone to make money howsoever they see fit. But I do see it as a sign. The chowmeins and the bay rans and the cell phone cases do not make a city. For a city to be, it needs a cohesive vision, a direction. Otherwise it is a village. That is what has happened with Jammu. It was a city before partition. Now it is a village with no direction and no culture. The best and brightest leave for greener shores. I did, as did most of my high school class. All those who stay are the Mahajans who have shops and factories to run here. Turns out, you don't need education and culture to make a living. Peddling rice and shampoo is enough.
Maybe my fixation with Mubarak Mandi is still based on that need to belong. Maybe it is the weepy nostalgia for the pomp and ceremony, that wasn't even there in my days. Maybe I am a sentimentalist. Maybe Dogra culture is dying. Maybe the language will go away. Maybe I am just bellyaching about inconsequential things. Maybe I am just the joker, and the joke is on me. Or maybe all I have is an inheritance of loss.


Monday, June 23, 2014

On Dead Things and Scannerwerk

Looking at Hanne Sharkey's Scannerwerk, (http://trashcanfires.tumblr.com/)   (I have decided to call it that, without consultation with the artist.) the first question that comes to mind is how to place the images. They are all in blank space, hanging in the void, except the image of the mouse held in Hanne's hand. I shall come to that in a while. Looking at the remaining three, hanging dismembered and obviously dead in the void becomes an intellectual exercise for they are like insects encased in amber. One does not wonder how they died, or how they ended up hanging in the void. They are presented to me, and I look at them as such.


Hanne Sharkey Scannerwerk, Exploded Bird (?)

The question then becomes, to what end? Is it an exercise in composition? Is it a statement about life, or worse, about the artist's life? Since I am not a psychoanalyst, and don't really care much for unloading my interpretation of symbols on people, unless terribly pertinent, I shall look at them as platonically removed from ideal form. For example, look at the image with the bird and the feathers strewn around it. If the bird was not obviously flattened, one would almost argue it was flying, with some vigor, since it shed feathers. Let us go further down the platonic path.

All images, and indeed all artwork, are like onions (all good ones at least). They have many layers, meant to be analysed, consumed, wept over, in succession. You can not claim to reach the middle before you have consumed the first layer. Here, in the work, looking again at the Exploded Bird (for a want of a better title, since none were supplied), the first layer we see is that of a bird, almost in flight, or at the moment of its death, like Robert Capa's image of the dying spanish loyalist.

Robert Capa; The Falling Soldier

The feathers at the same time give the impression of movement, even though they are static (most probably because the bird is in such a dynamic pose), but also of clouds in a starless night. It is as if the image was taken in the wild, using an extraordinarily large flash, while trying to hunt the bird with ack ack guns.
The second layer we see, is of the bird, preserved in death, like a memento mori. It is dead, and now embalmed, preserved, in the photographic amber. Its death, as its life is commemorated surprisingly sympathetically. (for the scanner's light is passionless, cold, and objective. It refuses such artifice that a camera operator could use, like lighting set ups, and expressions.)
The third layer is that of platonic forms that the bird strikes. Is the bird the perfect bird? For only the perfect bird would deserve to be commemorated in life and death by such an image. It seems the bird was such a perfect bird, for it is reproduced in such detail. The bird has become a scientific specimen, for study by undergraduates in coldly lit biology labs, smelling of formaldehyde. Is the Sharkey Scanner such a lab? A biohazard site that dissects roadkill for the progression of art?
The fourth layer is that of the compositional forms. The image can be reduced to abstract forms.
The compositional weight on the lower left of the quadrilateral is balanced by the overextended speckled line, whimsical, that extends to the top right. The red and yellow circle in the the quadrilateral is mirrored by the speckles in the line, almost desaturated versions of the red yellow circle.
So on and so forth do the layers progress.
In such a manner, can all images in Hanne Sharkey's Scannerwerk, and indeed all image be analysed.



What strikes me is the singular image of the dead mouse held in a disembodied hand. I invite you to peel apart the image onion here. Do it for your own edification.


Done? Ok. Now what strikes me as intriguing, and possibally as a progression from the other three images, is the use of the hand, which supposedly belongs to Hanne. We can't know, and we don't really need to know (atleast for this analysis. A critic who works with the theories of Lacan, or a surrealist would have a field day). What is important here is that the hand grounds the image. The rat is no longer in space. It is held by a hand. It is held tenderly, in an almost motherly manner. The blood could have buggered that impression, but it is not the hand of the murderer that is holding the mouse. It is the hand of the person who interred it. The image no longer feels like a lab tray, reeking of formaldehyde. Now, it is a intimate sight. The grey aura that surrounds the hand before the black field has permeated the mood of the image, while the slightly nicotine stained nails speak of sadness that permeates the to be funeral. It is as if in its final moments, the rat curled up in the hand for warmth. Of all four, this is possibly the most emotional photo.


The question now becomes not one of merit, for it is obviously there, but of how. The use of a scanner versus that of a camera is interesting, and indeed pertinent to the discussion. Arguments, valid, could be made that a scanner is a camera. It is, but a camera less mediated by a human. It is cold, objective. It supplies its own light, doing away with the photographers tricks of modulating light. The light is cold, straight, direct and revealing. A scanner's camera, with its constant movement is like a scalpel, cutting the image into sections, recording it, and then mashing it together to create the finished image. In doing so, it brings about an image that is more then the subject. It is a mechanically examined image, that puts the subject to closer scrutiny then the naked eye can provide.
The scanner photography project comes to mind1, where the image is not only a record of the subject, but also its motion, vis a vis time. Inadvertently, the scanner has granted the image another dimension. Some might argue that the same dimensionality is also given to a camera image after a long exposure, but that is not the case. Possibly the closest analogue  to photographs taken by scanners would be images of racing cars taken by Lartigue, with the oval shaped wheels2

Jacques Henri Lartigue

It then becomes a question, whether Hanne, by using a scanner, is a photographer, or something else. By loose definition, I could concede that yes, she is a photographer, because she is creating images using a camera. However, I would argue that the images are photographic only in the “look”. In the sense of creating images, she is not a traditional photographer. She arranges the subject on a surface, and then lets the technology take care of the rest. That in no way is me denigrating her process. It is instead, an alternative avenue to image making. The image making process is mediated by a machine, that has no emotional bias (the question of whether it is biased towards one subject or another is a separate topic, and in short, I think, Yes. More on that in some other essay.) Thus, the image created in this man machine interface, while separated from the artist's intent by the machine interface, gains a life of its own, precisely because it is separated in such a manner. [More on this topic in later posts. Still developing this idea. Look forward to thoughts on a scanner vs a camera, and their artistic potential, used separately, or in conjunction.]
As for the four photos, I would argue they have merit individually. As a group, there is only trivial coherence, due to the subject matter. Simply putting dead things together not a series make. But I have a feeling that this is not a series yet, but a group of images, that are a work in progress. And a series of work that shows much potential.


1http://golembewski.awardspace.com/photographyGallery/oddities/index.html

2http://www.photoplaza.nl/lindolfi/Lartigue1.jpg  The oval images were because of the shutter, which would lead to different parts of film being exposed at different times

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Towards A New Photographic Theory: Arguments in the Fine Arts Photography Context




Preface
I have been told by many that I am an exceptionally verbose writer. Going on tangents, however informative or uninformative, is a particular hobby. I looked forward to writing a hundred page thesis, which would be self indulgent, and would entertain more then inform the reader.
That was until I came across a blog curated by my academic colleague Stephen Anderson. An essay caught my eye, mostly by its terseness. I was working on a series of abstract forms in photographs at the time, and so was Stephen in the studio next to me. Having a meeting of minds, I decided that I will blatantly steal his technique of essay writing for this thesis.
When you go onwards from this page, you will find bullet points upon bullet points, and a new chapter every ten or so lines. Think of it in this manner. Look back to your math classes in school, especially the geometry and algebra classes. You would lay out your givens. You would progress an step, and step by step, in a logical progression, you would build upon the givens, until you reached the final proof, or answer.
Think of these arguments in the same line. Each point of the argument is reduced down to a succinct argument, and then progresses, until the argument has culminated. There is no time, or space for droll observations on how visual puns are analogous to verbal puns, but triter, or rants on the French landscape photographers and their inferiority to eastern European photographers. All those things were written down, and then mercilessly edited out, creating this new form. In a manner, the thesis is also minimal, like the work Stephen and I were doing. Stephen helped with the editing, and with hashing out the arguments, and for that, I am eternally thankful.
Rahul Sharma
2014





On creation of a new photographic identity/ work.
  • The camera not only elevates 1the subject, it elevates the operator.
  • The very act of taking a photograph is a concrete act2. (of course the concreteness has been weakened in the digital age. Refer to snapchat thesis)
  • Because the process of taking a photograph is so irksome/ hard, each photograph should have merit3.
  • If the merit is not instantly visible, it has to be found in it, subsumed in the image. A mundane image can have many obscure layers of meaning, to be peeled apart like an onion.
  • This scrutiny of the work necessitates scrutiny of the operator.
  • The operator himself thus becomes a part of the work.
  • A Minor White photo taken by Ansel Adams would thus not be of the same merit, because the approach to image making of the operator adds to the aura of the image. Adds more layers to the onion.
  • By the study of the operator we gain a better insight into the image-onion.
  • The operators life thus comes into scrutiny.
  • Living the most mundane life, or the most exciting life thus comes to same end. The life of the photographic worker thus becomes a performance in its own.
  • For the common man, an exciting life, and exciting work is more easy to connect to. It caters to aspirations, and desires. Hence every amateur photographer's dream to be a national geographic photographer.
  • A mundane life, a staid life, equally reflects on the work. It of course does not mean the work itself is mundane and staid.
  • Thus it is the prerogative of the operator to make work that reflects his way of living.
  • Alternatively, the operator can construct a new life, for photographic work.
  • All these choices contribute to the work of the operator, not only in documenting what he sees, but also in documenting through what he sees, of himself.
On the importance of process
  • Photography is equal amounts of art and craft
  • Indeed art and craft can not be separated. It could even be argued that all good art is based on good craft. (Or lack thereof. But true craftlessness can only be achieved deliberately, with due knowledge of good craftsmanship.)
  • To achieve proper technical sophistication, or lack thereof in a work, one has to know the process backwards and forwards.
  • Not only is the knowledge of the process important, so is the knowledge of what supports the process. The history, the conceptual framework et cetera
  • An analogy can be made that the knowledge of the process and the knowledge of prior history is the base, and the concept behind the work is the superstructure. Without both, no work is complete.
  • We can furthermore use this analogous separation to come to two terms which can encompass all the driving forces behind a work of art. Techne, and Episteme. These words are taken out of their Greek context, but as I will show, can suffice in a grander theory behind the work.
  • Techne is (in the new framework) the craft, the knowledge of the past, and the knowledge from previous work that informs the current work of the artist.4
  • Episteme, on the other hand, is the concept behind the current work. It is the idea that informs the work and is anything that is not techne, whether it be the usage of a specific process (not informed by the rules of techne) or the style of working.5
  • Take for example, the work of photographer Crewdsen6, which shall inform the binary of Techne and Episteme.
    Uses film and large format cameras. Uses cinematic lighting and movie studio style crews to create the image. Creates emotionally evocative environments. Heavy usage of post processing work.
    If we try to separate the various forces and what drives those forces in his work, we can see these components.
Usage of Large format cameras. Why?
Control over the image.
High resolution of film.
Cinematic lighting and high budget movie crews. Why?
Ultimate control over the image as visualised by the artist.
Create an environment suited to his conception.
Heavy post processing work and Usage of Hollywood studio style work flow. Why?
Optimal control over image.
Creation of in depth images, fully under control of the artist.
Recreation of the idea of the movie as escape, the cinema paradiso concept.7

Of all these reasons, the majority are informed by
Techne. The only motivator informed by Episteme is the text in italics.8
  • This overarching understanding of the interaction between the binary motivators gives a better understanding of the work, and makes for a fuller reading of the text that the artwork is. Yes, Crewdsen's work stands exceptional on its formal merit (Techne), however the appreciation of the interaction of the Techne ,and the driving motivators of Episteme give us a more overarching understanding of the work.
  • I have established that the understanding of the binary is important to all artists. I go on further and say that for a photographic worker who wishes to create pieces that stand the test of time, this understanding is paramount. 9
  • The important question then rises. Is it Important to the viewer?

Subject, Object, Audience and the Creator.
  • Looking at a photographic work as a play is especially revealing.
  • The camera operator is the director. The subject is the script. The image is the performance. The viewer is the audience.10
  • The object is just an object, albeit one selected (by the operator) to be interpreted by the operator. The operator uses the camera to capture it in a moment in time. Thus, the operator interprets the object to form an image. This is analogous to the relationship between the director and the script.
  • The interpretation, after all the technical due diligence, is the finished product. This is akin to a performance.
  • The audience, based on the cues it is offered, also interprets the finished piece.
  • The net result of this process is an interpretation of an interpretation of an object, all under the veil of photographic realism11. After all “the camera never lies”12.
  • The concept of a subjective, partially occluded truth, that pretends to be absolute, is in effect, the nature of a photographic image.
  • There are multiple levels to this “truthiness” of the image. They can be broadly be divided by three motivators.
Operator's Intent and interpretation.
Viewer's Interpretation.
Mutual Gestalt between the viewer and the operator.
  • As reiterated multiple times, the object is just an object. A Tabula Rasa. Various intents and motivations are placed upon this, and the final image is made. Arguably, the object is mutually manipulated by the viewer and the operator.
  • Ethnographic portraits are a good example of this framework.
  • Ethnographic portraits were made with scientific intent. A portrait of a Bantu tribesman from Africa was in the same conceptual framework as a photograph of a Monarch butterfly on pins in a natural history museum.
  • Today however, the image of the Bantu will elicit a different reaction then that of the monarch butterfly. Post-Colonial Outrage, would be a motivator for such a reaction. Indeed, Indian photo artist Pushpamala N.13 did a series as a reaction to these portraits.
  • The question then becomes, is a photograph just a document of reality? I would say vaguely. It is more like a mirror that looks both ways. The past (Object) and the present (Viewer) interact and create a new narrative reality, shaped by all the motivators that go into reading the image.14

On the Contemporary Popularity of Antiquarian Photography1516
  • Digital Photography has been a disruptive innovation in photography17.
  • The democratisation of photography and the apparent ease by which a person can make a competent photograph, has resulted in dissatisfaction in certain circles with the status quo.
  • This, and the current post-modern inquiry into the past gives a practitioner of fine art photography18 with certain avenues.
  • Contemporary Hypertechnicality: Using cutting edge techniques post the camera operation to create distinctive images.19
  • Antiquarian Hypertechnicality20: The school of thought whereby old processes are recreated and then extended using techniques offered by modern science.
  • Antiquarian Fetishization:21 Recreating various historical processes, using period correct equipment and techniques.
  • Active Reactionism: whereby doing the exact opposite of the contemporary doings, just to have a contrarian approach.22
  • Status Quo: This group of practitioners continue to take photos in the same manner as before introduction of digital photography (the conceptual approach to image making has not changed). This would be the largest group of camera operators today.
  • These subcategories collectively produce all the work made in the fine art photography world today. Other categories may exist, however looking from a process based approach, these categories suffice.
  • Looking at antiquarian processes, and the images made, the processes themselves have innate qualities which leads to three further categories of work.
  • Printmaker-esque: gum, albumin, carbon, salt, uranium, platinum/ palladium printing are some of the processes that exhibit these tendencies.
    This is a process based approach akin to printmaking. Attention is paid to the proficiency of the technique vis-a-vis image quality, such as image tonality, colour range, saturation,
    et cetera. The printed image gains precedence over the image captured by the camera.
Another way of looking at this, as that all these processes relay on multiple intermediary steps, and thus the final result has print like tendencies.
  • Photography-esque: wet plate positives, Paper negatives, polaroid, pinhole, infrared/ ultra violet photography are some of the processes that exhibit this tendency.
    Attention to the representational image and its photographic quality over the process of the creation of the image.
    Thus the Image captured by the camera takes precedence over the printed image.
    As above, a way to look at it would be to consider the fact that the image produced by these processes is achieved as soon as the negative is Processed.
    23
  • Intermediary: Bromoil, Cyanotypes, lumen prints, Chromodekastic Sabbatier processes are some of the techniques that exhibit this tendencies.
    These processes can occupy either sides depending on the approaches of the practitioner.
  • The question arises, with all these possibilities, all of which are more tedious to practice, compared to photography that is commonly practiced by a lay person, why do antiquarian processes have such contemporary popularity, keeping in mind that practitioners like Pobboravsky24 , Scully and Osterman25, Coffer26, et cetera have been practicing and teaching these techniques for over three decades?
  • Handmade aesthetic. Images in the digital world are by design, perfect. They do not leave place for happy accident, and by their instantaneous feedback, they offer the operator a simulacrum of real life. This, contrasted with the antiquarian techniques, which have many process artifacts, makes for a choice for an operator who wants to create an evocative image. Often the choice offered by artifacts intrinsic to the process is a more easily attainable. This would also explain the preponderance of software that simulates the “look” of antiquarian processes with digital images.
  • Tangibility. Digital images more often then not, remain digital and don't exist in solid form. This, compared with an antiquarian image, which is always made by hand, offers a tangible return for all the work, which can be satisfying to the operator.
  • Popular culture. Contemporary culture has been exhibiting signs of dissatisfaction with the increasingly networked nature of modern lifestyle. Going back to the work flow of the past offers a welcome relief to those in this state.27

A Manifesto for a New Abstraction
  • Photography as an art form must be freed from the schackles of the representational image.
  • What separates a photograph from a detailed pen and ink sketch, or a well done oil painting? The optical and chemical process.
  • The base nature of a photograph is the interaction of chemicals on a substrate, and of photons on a sensor.
  • No longer should this interaction of art and science be subjugated to the tyranny of a representaional image. If the image is representational, it is because I the artist made a deliberate choice, and the representation is to be note as such, an important artistic choice.
  • I strive to make an image that has to pretense to reality. An image that reduces itself to a Rorschach like abstraction.
  • I strive for an image that is a tabula rasa both for the artist and the viewer, to make what they want to out of it.
  • This does not mean neglect towards to art of constructing the image. The same rules would apply to this New Abstract Image that would apply to the most pictorial image of a sunset.
  • There will no accidents or coincidence. There will be total control over the visual medium. Each line and mark is on the surface for a reason.
  • This New Abstraction is the logical progression of the art of photography. A panorama, or a still life will have the same merit, and vice versa. The New Abstract Photograph will not pretend to be something it is not.
  • The New Abstract image is a True Image, A Honest Image, a Better Image.






































Suggested Reading and Bibliography

Andre Kertesz: Master of Photography. Norfolk, Virginia: Chrysler museum of Norfolk, 1982. Print.
Abbott, Brett. Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. Print.
Adams, Ansel, and Robert Baker. The Negative. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981. Print.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973. Print.
Bush, Alfred L., and Lee Clark Mitchell. The Photograph and the American Indian. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.
Collier, John, and Malcolm Collier. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1986. Print.
Guimond, James. American Photography and the American Dream. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1991. Print.
Johnson, Tim. Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington: Smithsonian Institution in Association with the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 1998. Print.
Kicken, Annette, Rudolf Kicken, and Georg Kargl. Pictorialism: Hidden Modernism: Photography 1896-1916. Vienna: Georg Kargl Fine Arts, 2008. Print.
Klett, Mark, Ellen Manchester, and JoAnn Verburg. Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1984. Print.
Lombroso, Cesare, and Guglielmo Ferrero. Female Offender. New York: Philosophical, 1958. Print.
Morris, Errol. Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982. Print.
Nickell, Joe. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1994. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.
Spence, Jo, and Patricia Holland. Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography. London: Virago, 1991. Print.
Steichen, Edward, and Ezra Stoller. The Family of Man: The Photographic Exhibition. New York: Published for the Museum of Modern Art by Simon and Schuster in Collaboration with the Maco Magazine, 1955. Print.
Thomas, Julia. Reading Images. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. Print.
White, Minor. Minor White: Rites & Passages: His Photographs Accompanied by Excerpts from His Diaries and Letters. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1978. Print.
















Addendum 1: The Snapchat Thesis
We live in an image driven world today. Constantly bombarded by images, whether still or moving. TV's billboards, computers, newspapers, magazines, all are chock full of images. Some are commercial images, selling you something. Some are reportage, showing you something. Some are memorial images, reminding you of something. From a cursory glance, they all have one thing in common. A camera made them. And the operator of the camera made them too. This paper is about these two creatures of sort. The camera, and the man behind the camera.
The camera occupies a grey zone in our society. It is a tool, a machine. However, it has properties of the human. This cyclops captures the image of its surroundings, and makes it permanent. The camera sees. This characteristic in itself makes it a potent aid for the human who also wants to see. But then, the camera, for all its ability to see, still needs an operator. The operator captures the image with the agency of the camera. The camera sees, but the operator manipulates the seeing. So then, what is the camera? Is it an intermediary in the interaction of the subject and the operator? Or is it a participant in a three way interaction?
Bert Stabler in a recent article said “I see fine art photography as hemmed in by three ‘P’s: painting, poverty, and Pentax28 While he was critiquing fine art photography, I argue that this can be applied to all forms of photography. I might go forward and take the entire quote out of context, and change it a bit too. While “the three p's” is a nice title, I think the characterization would be better with “Power, Emotion, and Technique”. PET has a certain ring to it too. Let us examine this PET of photography. Do keep in mind, while Stabler talked about modern fine art photography, I argue that PET has through the history manifested in photography. In short, photography has always been constrained by PET.
Now you would ask why is such a trite acronym so useful for explaining the history of photography. Well, for starters, because the terms are so vague, that I can pretty much fit anything in them. I will however try and not be too egregious with it.
The biggest problem with photography is its biggest strength. As I said earlier, the camera sees. The camera is a better documentarian then any human operator. While the human observer would gloss over some trivial thing, the camera, with its cyclopian sensibility, leaves nothing invisible. It captures everything, and even a century later shows each and every trivial detail. But this very ability to record everything in exquisite detail is a two edged sword. It records everything perfectly, yet its agency to capture such realistic detail is mediated by the biases and agendas of the operator. Basically, the camera never lies, but at the same time, it does. This very fact leads to a lot of interesting questions I will look at in this paper, all through the constraints of PET.
But lets forget PET and historical photography for a second. I am going to look a lot at historical photography, but I want to start off by looking at something that is a rage among the younger generation. I recently got myself an application called Snapchat for my cell phone. The gist of the app is that it allows you to take a photograph, and add some text or scribbles to it, and send it to someone. Something like a visual telegraphic message. The twist lies in the fact that the image disappears in 10 seconds.
As a photographer, this application was a disconcerting experience. Any “traditional” photographer has a mountain of records. The entire photographic industry survives on it, as do archives and museums. A photographer in Matthew Brady's time would have boxes full of glass plate negatives. Edward Sheriff Curtis had tomes full of negatives, and plates for printing his seminal volumes on native Americans. Magnum Photographs have a substantial collection of film negatives from all their photographers. I myself have over 20,000 photographs digital photographs I have taken over half a decade backed up on my computer, not to mention a shoebox chock full of negatives. Indeed, the storage of negatives was such a cumbersome issue that technology tried to keep up with making it easier. Charney, a french photographer on mission in Egypt, came up with a technique to transfer negatives from glass plates to paper, so they could be transported back to France more easily. But, photography never did away with a record. Photography, at the roots of it, has always been about recording a moment in time, and making it permanent. That, most may argue, is its idée fixe.
In face of all this, being confronted with an image that was truly impermanent, was a shocking experience. In a way, it harked back to the ages when the chemical darkening of certain salts was not understood. We credit Fox Talbot with inventing photography as we know it, but we need to realize that he came up with a way to make images permanent. People experimented with darkening of salts before. Indeed Schulze, in early 1700's figured out that silver salts darken in presence of light. But it was not until the first half of the 19th century that Talbot figured out that the simple action of Sodium Hypochloride would act to “fix”the image2930.
But why was it such a shocking experience? Photography, as I reiterate, and no doubt will later too, serves as a record. When a record itself is temporary, then that suggests that it was willfully removed. Indeed, that is the point, some may say, of Snapchat. Now this willful removal of a record suggests two alternatives. Either the images are a record of illicit activity, or a record of something mundane. A lot of people do use snapchat for sexting, a term used to describe sending promiscuous photographs to other people. Snapchat is an ideal application for that. The image serves to titillate, and then disappears, leaving no incriminating evidence behind. But titillating images have never been outside the purview of photography. Pornographic pictures are on record from the earliest days of photography.

19th century nude by unknown photographer
(Image sourced via wikimedia commons)

The other option we are faced with is the image itself is made trivial. A trivial image need not be recorded for posterity. The triviality of the image is disconcerting for me. Furthermore, it is fitting in the progression of the history of photography. At the start, taking photographs was hard, and dangerous. Glass plates were the negatives. Handling cyanide or mercury to fix photos would frequently kill photographers. So each image had to count. Later, with the box brownie, came the snapshot culture. Still, the camera had only so much film. Each photo had to count. With digital photography, selectiveness still counted, because your memory card has only so much space, and the batteries eventually die. But Snapchat does away with that restriction. No space is taken on the phone. Each photo is deleted anyway. Snapchat makes the image trivial, which has never been done before.
It could be argued that Snapchat Photography could be an art medium, much like performance art, or installation art used to be. It could be said that its very ephemeral nature would be its strength, by removing photography from its documentary raison d'etre but then, the very argument could be extended to say that photographs existed of performances, to serve as a record. What would a record be of something that subverts the record itself?
Some would call out the usual epistemological conundrum of the falling tree in an empty forest, which in this case, would be apt. I would rather not go down that road, but would propose a new form. The form of performance photography. If someone takes a screenshot of the snapchat, thus subverting the process itself (which would be a subversion of a subversion), then only can a record be produced. But if the process would remain true to itself, then the image would stay alive in a small circle of viewers for 10 seconds on the maximum. I feel somewhere, Talbot would be turning in his grave.



1To elevate is to take an object and make it out of the ordinary. To make it not mundane.
2Concrete here refers to the fact that it is a action which has real consequences, vis a vis the process of creation, and is not a frivolous act.
3This merit may be of a personal nature to a photographer, or universal merit in a fine art context. Of course, a photograph with universal merit may have no merit for a person. Here we enter the debate about what defines good art, which is outside the purview of this discussion.
4Knowledge of the past, in this context, refers to the knowledge of what aspects of the image work, and what don't, for example, rules of composition, knowledge of photographic angles, et cetera.
5There are always ways in which the Techne can be subsumed in Episteme. Indeed, a clear delineation between the two is never possible. It could be said that if the work is driven by the process and its artifacts, then the work's Episteme is the Techne itself.
6 Gregory Crewdson (born September 26, 1962) is an American photographer who is best known for elaborately staged scenes of American homes and neighborhoods...Crewdson's photographs usually take place in small-town America, but are dramatic and cinematic. They feature often disturbing, surreal events. His photographs are elaborately staged and lighted using crews familiar with motion picture production and lighting large scenes using motion picture film equipment and techniques (Sourced from Wikipedia) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Crewdson]
7This is somewhat of a more subjective statement, compared to the objectivity (in my eyes) of the rest of the statements. It is based on my reading of the work of Crewdsen, and others might see the opposite in his work.
8This reading of Crewdsen's work is cursory and truncated, however suffices, if only for the purpose of illustration of the binary I talk about.
On being questioned by S.A. about the reason for the single Episteme motivator, I had many responses, but the only one that had any merit in my eyes, and which would satisfy my reading, was that a work of art has many conceptual motivators. However by a process a artistic selection, most are winnowed away, and a grand theme emerges. This grand theme fits most of the artist's oeuvre. Hence the single Episteme Motivator.
9S.A. Posed an interesting query to me as a response to this, whereby the work of “Naive” artists was called into question. The work of Jacques Henri Lartigue immediately came to mind. Lartigue started taking photographs at the age of 7 and take photos for most of his life. Most of his famous work was done in the early part of his life.
I would argue that photography, being an extremely visual medium, while still based on the subject makes it easy for an operator to take dynamic photographs if he possesses a keen visual sensibility. Compositional rules such as the rule of thirds are based on how the eyes see, and one could argue that some people instinctively see better. However, in the technical aspects of photography, a good eye can take you only so far. Cartier-Bresson, who outsourced his processing and printing studied painting, as did most of the early masters of Photography such as David Octavius Hill, and William Henry Jackson.
Also instructive to notice would be the case of David Octavius Hill, who was partnered by Robert Adamson. Hill was a painter, whereas Adamson was and engineer. They collaborated in making images, and general historical consensus is that While Hill took care of the composition and lighting , Adamson did the camera and lab work to make the images possible. Images taken by either on their own do not have the merit of their collaborative work. In this case, Hill was the Episteme whereas Adamson was the Techne of the partnership.
10Pertinent here, would be the fact that Ansel Adams, a great photographic educator also made a similar analogy, saying that the photographic negative is the Score, and the Print is the performance. It might be pertinent to mention that Adams was an accomplished pianist, and studied to be a concert pianist. This might inform the analogy.
11Does this mean that there are no “real” photographs? I would argue not. The most factual photograph would be the one on which all involved parties can agree. For example, an x-ray of a broken bone plainly shows the broken bone. That is outside of interpretation when given to all parties who look at the images objectivity. However, If that very same image is taken outside of its medical context, it ceases to be an objective image. And that, is the very nature of a photograph. Its inherent fluidity of meaning in differing contexts.
12Yes, a camera never lies. It is just that its truth is subjective in our eyes. Scientifically speaking, the camera is the best recorder of truth. It is just that we can not interpret the image correctly all the time. Again, epistemology is not the purview of this text.
13 Pushpamala N.(born 1956) is a photo and visual artist based in BangaloreIndia. Pushpamala formally trained as a sculptor and eventually shifted to photography to explore her interest in narrative figuration. Her work has been described as performance photography,as she frequently uses herself as model in her own work. She uses elements of popular culture in her art to explore placegender and history. (Sourced from Wikipedia) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pushpamala_N.]
14Refer to footnote 12
15 Antiquarian photography can be defined as usage of processes that are generally obsolete for contemporary photo work. Processing such as collodion, albumin, gum, carbon, et cetera fall in this purview, as do techniques such as kallitypes, platinum/palladium, salt,cyanotype, and calotype
I would go so far as to argue that using Pinhole cameras, using film, and paper negatives, and other processes of image making that fall under the banner of Alternative Photographic processes can be classified under the Antiquarian term for the purview of this text. Antiquarian processes are a subset of Alternative processes, but either term suffices, and Antiquarian sounds better then Alternative.
This is not an exhaustive list of processes used in Alternative processes. Indeed an exhaustive list of such processes and their derivative processes would take up at least a couple of pages, and I am of no inclination to make such a list. The Processes listed are the major processes commonly used, and the other processes are practiced by probably under 500 people around the world, most of whom do them as research (A majority of people who use those processes are paper conservators, or chemists who work with silver halide chemistry, possibly with a lot of free time on their hands.)
16All the research for this section has been done with online interaction with practicing photographers over Facebook, and Instagram. Applied Anthropology, when mixed with procrastination leads to useful results.
17This is in the Christensenion sense, where Sustainable innovations are innovations in technology, whereas Disruptive innovations change the market. A classic disruptive innovation would be the development of the Model T to the transportation market, which was earlier full of Horse drawn buggies and hand made motor vehicles.
18I would rather not prefer to provide an over encompassing definition for Fine Art Photography, and would, for the purposes of this text just define it as a photo where the photographer says it is Art, and which was made to satisfy a creative impulse.
19For example, in my personal work with digital cameras, I use techniques used by astrophotographers to increase the signal to noise ratio for long exposure night photographs, which are stitched, using advanced graphical interpolation algorithms, to make panoramas of views around Idaho at night. Techniques such as HDR (High Dynamic Range Imaging), Focus Stacking (Whereby large areas of the photo can be in focus) also fall in this category, as would 3d photographs, and all the assorted computer intensive digital photography techniques.
20An appropriate example of this school of thought would be a wet plate practitioner who I got in touch with over Facebook who explored varnishes for collodion plates. Not content with using traditional varnishes like Shellac gum, and Sandarac Gum, he proceeded to investigate modern compounds such as Paraloid, Tinuvin et cetera. After this, he proceeded to make a system of mass producing these varnishes, using vacuum pumps, centrifuges, activated charcoal, celite cakes, etc. The Varnish, aptly named ÜSB (Über Super Blond) is a shellac varnish that gives exceptional results, and can be purchased for a small sum from the maker (disclosure: I myself have used the varnish and find it exceptional).
21eg. Wet plate collodion techniques were taught to current practitioners by civil war re-enactors. Similarly, people are working on calotypes using the same methods, just because they are calotypes. It is, broadly speaking, a fetishization of the past, and the artifacts that remain. Period correct lenses are on bid on e-bay for thousands of dollars, a price that is out of touch with their utility. This school of thought mixes aspects antique hunting, with photographic gear fetishization.
22The question arises whether to put it in the category of Fine art photography, but I would rather exercise due diligence. The lack of conceptual support to the technical process makes it not good art (in my personal opinion), however many striking images are made by the practitioners of this school, hence the inclusion.
23Indeed in some processes of this category, the negative is not even needed. Wet Collodion Positives, and Polaroids are direct positive processes, and do away with the need for an intermediary negative image.
24 In The Scenic Daguerreotype (1995) John Wood describes Pobboravsky as "the dean of modern daguerreotypists" in recognition both of his pioneering role and his exceptional talent in turning the abandoned daguerreian process into a medium for contemporary art. Irving's first work with the daguerreotype began in the 1960s and continues today. Through his activities in Rochester NY, likewise home to the George Eastman House and its alternative process seminars, Pobboravsky has been an inspiration to many of the modern daguerreotypists who followed him. (sourced from gallery biography) [http://cwfp.biz/pobboravsky/]
25 Mark Osterman is Photographic Process Historian at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY. He teaches the technical evolution of photography from Niepce heliographs to making gelatin emulsions. France Scully Osterman is an artist-educator, and lecturer at Scully & Osterman Studio and guest scholar at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, both in Rochester, NY.  France is recognized for her extensive knowledge of early photographic processes including photogenic drawings, wet-plate and dry-plate collodion, albumen and salt print methods.  Mark's most recent writings on the subject of early photographic processes include the 19th century chapter for the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography . He began research in historic photographic processes while attending the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1970s.  (Sourced from personal website) [http://www.collodion.org/bio.html]
26John Coffer is a wet plate collodion photographer who has been working with the technique since 1978, and traveling around the country in a horse drawn buggy, taking collodion photographs of people at towns he stops by. He refuses to have electricity and internet at his house, and lives an Amish lifestyle.
27This explanation might seem jejune however, it is important to note the recent popular culture choices. Vinyl records are enjoying a resurgence, as are film cameras in a non fine art milieu. Furthermore, an attraction to the vintage, not only in aesthetic choices, but lifestyle is more common. A trite answer would have blamed it on the class of Hipsters, however, I would argue that it is more a sign of a generation that has spent the last two and a half decades in an increasingly networked world, saturated with information, and these choices are just a reaction to the surroundings.
28http://proximitymagazine.com/2009/09/i-dont-like-photography/
29Sturge, John M., ed. Neblette's Handbook of Photography and Reprography. 7th ed. London: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977. Print.

30Indeed, his contribution is immortalised in the history of photography by the colloquial use of the term Hypo, for fixer