Paradigms of Perception: Between the Visual and the Optic

{ R Nandakumar is an art historian and culture critic. He has taught art history and aesthetics in various Fine Arts colleges and has been Professor and Head of the Department of Visual Arts in Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. Formerly a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, he has currently been a Senior Nehru Fellow at Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

As an art historian though visual arts is his home discipline, cultural musicology is another major area of his research interest. His works in both have appeared in important academic journals and they address areas of intercultural concern from the perspective of the sociology of culture. }

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

Generally speaking, photography has always found itself uncomfortably placed in the scheme of things of the modernist aesthetic agenda. The aesthetic assumptions and value preferences that fed into a vindication of abstraction in art-historical discourse were mostly in agreement with the prejudices surrounding the debate over the artistic status of photography. This in turn had its terms of reference in the perceived dichotomy between art versus fact, or between representation versus indexicality. It is not without reason that the brand of photography that could strike any kind of a respectable alliance with the fine art traditions of Indian modernism is called ‘art photography’. Thus the ‘art’ in such art photography is achieved in terms of an attempt to mimic painterly modes through a deliberate denaturing of all the mechanistic attributes intrinsic to the medium which are supposedly at variance with art. Soft focus and blurriness, perspectival distortions and angled views, contrast lighting, deep shadows and staged compositions and above all, a pictorialism of the pathetic fallacy kind in which sentimentalised nature motifs are presented – these are still the mainstay of art photography in India.

But photography has outlived this situation in practice by finding new uses, functions and the norms of a new sensibility that it set itself which, as it stands, had marked a break with the aesthetic of pictorialism.  The contra-aesthetic connotations inherent to the photographic medium like its anti-style, authorial absence, its mass reproducibility and destruction of aura on the one hand and the fact of its ideological locus in the techno-industrial environment of capitalism and its nexus with the semiotic systems of advertisement, fashion and consumerism, on the other have all qualitatively different implications in the context of postmodernism. All these have provided the necessary terms of reference for a context of its practice that is in tandem with the conceptual premises of postmodernism, “not as an art-in-itself but an option within an inter-semiotic and inter-textual ‘arena.’”1 And this is crucial to an understanding of the signifying process of photography as a medium in the present world, wherever it is. As Douglas Crimp notes:

The centrality of photography within the current range of practices makes it crucial to a theoretical distinction between modernism and postmodernism . . .[but] it is clear that photography is too multiple, too useful to other discourses, ever to be wholly contained within traditional definitions of art. Photography will always exceed the institutions of art, always participate in non-art practices, always threaten the insularity of art’s discourse.2

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

As “the spheres of art and life, of emotion generated from within and emotion generated from without, or work and leisure, are increasingly indistinguishable”3 in the present-day urban life, so there is a space in the public sphere, in the quotidianness of which the aesthetic and the informational are co-identical at the level of message. By accepting one’s context as that to which culture, communication and creativity form one total perspective, a photographer who is critically self-aware of the aporias of photographic aesthetics and the historicity of its practice, would seek to critically engage this space through his work.

That, to my mind, is what Ramu Aravindan does as a photographer. Ramu’s photographic work has affinities with the tradition of the documentary style (a rather tenuous term) that is traced to Eugene Atget, the turn-of-the-century French photographer who was rediscovered by the Surrealists. The style acquired the cultural and artistic dimensions of social document and initiated a whole new aesthetic in the work of the celebrated American photographer of the thirties and forties, Walker Evans who was a major influence on a generation of distinguished photographers like Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Lewis Baltz and continues to inspire contemporary movements like New Topographics. Evans who was influenced by Baudelaire in spirit and Flaubert by method, brought to bear upon his images a profoundly moral concern and a measure of stylisation that made his style, as is often  said, “the archetypal classicism of the ordinary.”

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

As the choice of subject for any photographer comes as a point of departure for his convictions, so Ramu’s de-aestheticised images in black-and-white of the unprivileged, uneventful and unspectacular sidelights from the scenario of everydayness are informed by a moral conviction and human empathy. A conscious refusal to intervene in his pictures endows them with an aspect of an impersonal, dispassionate stare – the stare of a flaneur (a la Walter Benjamin).4 Even when his images are near-impersonal, as his Calgary pictures mostly are, with their bare, blank streets and open spaces that are totally unpeopled, they are not dehumanised. Instead, traces left by human activity or the left-over of events, like the track of car tyres or melted ice mark a silent sense of human presence with its discreetly off-frame suggestion. In all his pictures there is a conscious avoidance of the narrative-illustrative in terms of ironic juxtaposition of motif or tell-all details as thematic understatement of a literal content.

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

After having graduated from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Ramu went in for his post-graduation at the University of Calgary, Canada where he did his MFA with a photography major. There in Calgary, having been exposed to the works of several pioneers and the different styles (a contentious issue in photography) that put the medium to different uses and the many theoretical implications of the photographic aesthetics, Ramu was increasingly drawn towards the documentary style associated with Walker Evans and its may distinguished practitioners. He found that it has much in common with his own natural inclinations as a visual artist as communicator (more than as creator) and his own attitude as a traveller.

Ramu had shown a series of his Calgary pictures in the exhibition Desert City at Oxford Book Store-Gallery, Kolkata in 1997. One of the outposts for the early European explorers and now becoming something of a boomtown, Calgary has an air of newness about it. Ramu says that he was particularly fascinated by the clarity with which this look of the new was writ large on Calgary’s urban landscape: “I try to use background forms such as signboards, lamp posts, domesticated trees and the pale concrete footpaths to create a ground upon which the people advance. There is an implication of borderlines, particularly between nature and human constructs, in many of my images . . .”5 He had intended them to be seen as a sequence, but the arrangement of the line-up precludes any “juxtapositions that form unintended narrative meaning (as in a film montage that had gone wrong)”, or any repetitive logical order.

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

There is a characteristic sense of place – the look, the feel, the ambience of the place – that is particular to each locale. As it becomes an internalised topography of the mind, it configures in terms of some random details that define the spatial directiveness and bearings of the remembered landscape. More than as landmarks in a factual sense, they are the memory traces that act as orientation points for a mindscape expressive of subjectivity. Ramu’s images have a quality of evoking this sense of place through unexceptional details like a shrub, some fringe plants or a signboard that are endowed with a personal naturalism, having a descriptive tenor with semantic resonance.

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

Generally, Ramu’s images have about them a forthright and stark quality that is heightened by the uniform sharpness of focus and overall flat illumination. Here, the even clarity of the motif that leaves little unsaid is a function of the truth of surfaces that is captured with a conviction that makes these images, to borrow from Harold Rosenberg, the “patterns of unprivileged data into which the secrecy of Being is dissipated.”6 As this clarity gravitates into a certain opacity that comes to equal profundity, the motif sheds its familiarity to achieve a stylisation reminiscent of the “archetypal classicism of the ordinary” of Walker Evans. By avoiding tilted or angled views Ramu achieves a certain head-on, stark frontality of the motif as seen at eye level which also imparts an aspect of confronting it in an unrelenting stare. This frontality of his images is enhanced by its twin aspect of the even flatness of the picture plane. Even when there are steep perspective orthogonals, they do not dramatise space as by the play of light creating volumes of shadow.

Though Ramu spends considerable time trying to get his desired compositions, he feels that much of the thought about it appears rudimentary in hindsight. The various interrelations among the spatial appearance of objects, between object and the direction of its shadow, between textures and surfaces, all constitute a field of meaning that is distinctly antigraphic and at variance with the assumptions of pictorialism.

Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan
Photography (C) Ramu Aravindan

Even when a photograph looks unmediated, without human intervention in the realisation of its image and hence signifying authorial absence, the absence itself is a construction. It is a construction at the interface between factuality and artifice or between simulacrum and point of view; and it is not an empirically given precondition of perception. In many of Ramu’s images, as in the Calgary pictures, the rigorously composed optic array within the frame and the randomness which it suggests of the physical disarray outside the frame (both of which are bound by a causal symmetry) create a subtle dualism. Similar is the dualism between the apparently hands-off, all-at-onceness of his images and an artifice the transparency of which made it possible. Within these dualisms authorial absence is built into the signifying process as a paradox of the very transparency of the image-meaning nexus.

After distinguishing between the two spatial appearances of objects – the ‘natural’ one and that of the object permeated by cognition – Siegfried Kracauer notes:

By sacrificing the former for the sake of the latter the artwork also negates the likeness achieved by photography. This likeness refers to the look of the object, which does not immediately divulge how it reveals itself to cognition; the artwork, however, conveys nothing but the transparency of the object.7

This is also why the primal opacity of the object-in-itself as an aspect of reality perception is something peculiar to the optic ‘unconscious’8 that constitutes the domain of photographic realism. Photography retrieves this opacity of truth that is lost to consciousness – as truth before fact.


Peter Wollen, “Photography and Aesthetics,” Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter- Strategies, Verso, 1982, p. 188

Douglas Crimp, quoted in Jessica Evans, “Victor Burgin’s Polysemic Dreamcoat,” Art has no History! The Making and Unmarking of Modern Art. ed.  John Roberts, Verso, 1994, p. 212

E.J. Hobsawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914 1991, Michel Joseph, 1994, p. 521

Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Verso, 1983

Ramu Aravindan, Introductory Text to Calcutta Exhibition, Calcutta. 1997.

Harold Rosenberg, “Portraits: A Meditation on Likeness,” Portraits: Richard Avedon, Thames and Hudson, 1976

Siegfried Kracauer. “Photography” (1927), Critical Enquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, 1993, p. 427

Walter Benjamin, “Walter Benjamin’s Short History of Photography,” 1931, Tran. Phil Patton, Art Forum, New York, February 1977, p. 47

(First published in Art India, vol. 5, no. 1, 2000)

Disclaimer: Photographs and text published in this post is the copyrighted property of the author. Prior permission is required from the author for republishing and reprinting. For more information, contact Ekalokam Trust for Photography at


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