“Devil in God’s own country” – wings Flapping of Migratory Birds in an Anarchist’s Fingers

Johny ML is an art historian, cultural critic and curator. Born in, Kerala, he has three post graduate degrees – Creative Curating, Art History & Criticism and English Language & Literature. He has curated numerous shows and is the founder editor of two online magazines on Indian contemporary art. He also directs documentaries on art, translates international literature into malayalam and is a blogger (http://johnyml.blogspot.in/).

In Abul Azad’s visual dictionary the word ‘still life’ is elaborated as follows: the objects related to and resulted by a person’s life and these objects are seen arrayed in a certain fashion as providence would suggest and these objects would remain in the same way as if they were caught in and frozen by time. Their stillness shows that the person who has caused such an arrangement is equally still or methodically careless.

Perhaps, the birth certificate of still life as an artistic genre, written in fourteenth century does not agree with what Azad’s not yet written dictionary says. Still Life as an artistic genre while capturing the beauty and mortality of life also highlighted the skill of the artists who excelled in this genre. Primarily a western religious artistic mode, Still Life became an unavoidable philosophical visual motif for many European artists during the renaissance and the years that followed. When it came to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Still Life had become a medium of scientific experiments in art, which later crossed over to the modes of conceptual installations.

Hari Narayanan / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 2013
Hari Narayanan / Photography (C) Abul Kalam Azad / 2013

Visit the percussionist, Harinarayanan’s room. What you find there is a total commotion of daily objects used or rendered useless by or even emblematized by the anarchist artist Harinarayanan. Azad trains his camera at these objects and the framing itself edits out the wanted from the unwanted. Unwanted here is the space as Harinarayanan occupies a space that is object infested; his tea glass which has not been washed for quite some time, empty cigarette packets, papers, cigarette stubs and so on. When the space is edited out by the eyes of Azad these objects assume the shape of a Still Life, which simultaneously speak of the life of Harinarayanan and narrates a story about the time in which he lives.

Like Harinarayanan, Azad too lives a life of a nomad, an eternal wanderer. While Harinaryanan travels in his subconscious through nicotine and alcohol or weed induced euphoria, Azad travels in the physical space constantly capturing the displaced images that create meaning out of ironic associations. Nomads are dangerous people as they defy settlement and refuse to enter the mainstream life. On the contrary the mainstream life protected by state is always watchful about the nomads who the state believes that are in a perpetual preparation of war against it. An anarchist and nomad who live within the mainstream society in that sense is a threat not because he causes physical danger to others but because his life style itself remains as a constant critique of the normative life values. It tends to threaten the complacency of the people who live in illusionary sense of conformity.

Harinarayanan is a percussionist par excellence. While percussion is mostly related to temple based classical art forms, Harinarayanan operates from outside the religious structures. He has always been a fellow traveler of other anarchists and creatively mad people like late filmmaker John Abraham. In Abraham’s hallmark movie, ‘Amma Ariyan’ (For Mother’s Information) Harinarayanan plays the role of a tabalist who commits suicide. His friends gather from different places and they together go to his mother’s place and slowly the mother becomes the leader of that pack of anarchists who in fact moves against the mainstream values of life. Harinarayanan’s character has become one with the character that he plays in the movie. A friend of many like-minded creative people, Harinaryanan still lives the life of a non-conformist in the city of Kozhikode.

When Azad captures the objects and presences in Harinarayanan’s room devoid of Harinarayanan’s physical presence, they in a way tell the story of the person who lives there. In the moments of revolt and self-induced pain and angst, Harinarayanan writes slogans of revolution on his walls. They remain like graffiti written by a revolutionary in exile. Though Still Life connotes the beauty of life and the imminent death, here in Azad’s vision, these photographic still lives emblematize the life of a person who refuses to die and prolongs his life through anarchistic life style and thinking. One cannot forget the lives lived by late John Abraham and A.Ayyappan or D.Vinayachandran, when we look at these photographs. When Azad registers the still life of Harinarayanan we feel how moving a life it is. At the same time that life poses before us a critique of our own lives.

There is a sense of strong identification between Azad and Harinarayanan. In his autobiographical series called ‘My Anger and Other Stories’ Azad brings out a series of still lives from his own life that has brought in anger and pain, love and denial in his own life. Harinarayanan in that sense becomes a surrogate for the artistic self, a character which could be interchanged in subtle ways. Azad’s spiritual seeking at Thiruvannamalai also gets reflected when Harinaryanan writes on his wall, ‘Who am I?’ Such resonances make this series worth pondering. In a sense, each photograph belongs to the genre of still life but the intentionality of the artist transcends it into the zones of documentation, biographical registration and a critique of life, rather than a caution about death.

Disclaimer: Photographs and text published in this post is 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 admin@etpindia.org



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 admin@etpindia.org


R Nandakumar on Photography – between reproduction and representation

Photography (C) TS Sathyan / Image taken from internet

{ 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. }

Umrao Sher-gil
Photography (C) Umrao Sher-gil / image taken from internet

The art enthusiast who is confirmed in “his ability to adopt the posture socially designated as specifically aesthetic” (Pierre Bourdieu’s words), often feels let down in his self-assured aesthetic gaze while watching a photograph, whether documentary or the so-called art mounted on the walls of a gallery. While studying the aesthetic attitude of various classes of people to the photographic image, Bourdieu found that the value attributed to the photographic image as an aesthetic object corresponded to the value attributed to the thing of which it is a photograph. That is to say, people found many of “the objects unsuitable for being transfigured by the act of artistic promotion performed by photography.” What exactly is the nature of this artistic promotion performed by photography that transfigures objects? Or, is there any, for that matter? A photograph of foot prints on the sands is just that – the sign of somebody having passed through the sandy stretch before the camera – until a certain metaphorical intent as articulated in the field of discourse of the aesthetic is appropriated by the visual referential of the image which would have us take it for “the foot prints on the sands of Time.” For many, the photographic image is too real, too mundane and too immediate to evoke the psychic distance called for in the traditional aesthetic gaze that would assign it to the culture-neutral domain of rarefied aesthetic. All the more so when the content of the image would have implications of a non-art kind that cannot be wished away under the rubric of the aesthetic. I mean, political implications. Even those aesthetes would be increasingly aware of the difficulty in distinguishing between the aesthetic and the informative at the level of message as the affinity that art has with information and communication is ever more becoming a matter of course in any contemporary experience of the environment that is all but an aestheticised simulation of a spectacle. It is the simulacrum of such an environment that configured through the representations of photographic imagizing, but still in the offing in the fifties of the last century, that Richard Hamilton alludes to when he said:

In the fifties we became more aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us, a synthetic ‘instant’ view. Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers flood the artist with a total landscape and this new visual ambience was photographic, reportage rather than art photography in the main.1

What is to be noted is that photography has already established its coexistence with the systems of information and communication, making good its own susceptibility to be manipulated by words – by way of captions and accompanying text. In fact, Walter Benjamin seems to have been aware of what the caption can do to a photograph when he asked whether the captions would not become the essential component of pictures.2

Photography (C) Raja Deen Dayal / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Raja Deen Dayal / image taken from internet

That is one side of the story. In spite of such common attitudes, however, what is amazing is the amount of theorizing and philosophizing that is going on about photography which only shows how the academic enterprise is still at a loss to come to terms with the aesthetic rationale of photography even as it has outlived in practice the situation in which theory still tends to circumscribe it. The two issues that figure time and again in the ‘great photography debate’ running the whole course of the history of the medium and getting into the conceptualizations of early film theorists like Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, are centred around the notions of the authenticity of the photographic image and its ontological status. (In fact, Rudolf Arnheim titles one of his essays of 1993: “The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media”3). All through this century-old polemic the unstated reference points are those drawn from the system of binaries of mind/machine, or art/fact, or representation/indexicality that keep changing only their terminological garb according to whatever is the current intellectual vogue. A look at some of the leading Anglo-American academic journals of art-theory and aesthetics over the last couple of decades will show how a speculative and hypothetical method of theorizing combining empirical reasoning and argumentative logic is pressed into service to score a point and make a case in defence of photography. The logically clever resourcefulness of those arguments that apparently have some claims to be formulating their views along the lines of the super-genre of theory veers between an apology for and a defence of photography for not being art: “Representation, all right. But reproduction, all the same!” Here is an instance of theory becoming redundant and out of step with the context of practice of what it theorizes as embodied in the new experience of the medium. Only very few of them show a different conceptual orientation informed at the same time by a new sensibility that can renegotiate the older aesthetic concepts in the light of the new experience of the medium.

Such discussions are quite often centred on the construction versus transcription paradigm where each term is defined along premises that would enable it to be pitted against the other in a traditional system of binaries. But it is the latent dualism of the photographic image between construction and transcription that endows it with its peculiar aesthetic rationale, as it is rooted in its very visual mechanism. Because of its counterfactual dependence on the motif depicted it is a transcription and at the same time, by virtue of the manner in which it characterizes the motif subject to its given methods of depiction, it is a construction. Even when a photograph looks unmediated, without human intervention in the realization of its image, and hence signifying the absence of the author, the absence itself is a construction. This also causes a peculiar ambivalence in the relation of the viewer to a photograph – in the casual and undemanding identification of the viewer with it. In the Albertian perspectival system the fixed point of the viewer is a metaphor that is presupposed in the organizing principle of the painting that lends credence to the depiction of the pictorial space as closed, centred and contained within the frame. But the photograph, however more organized it is than normal vision in terms of the perspective orthogonal and provides more visual information than a perspectival painting, does not have an interior perspective that conforms to any purpose and in that sense affords only far less a grip on the depicted world, as Max Kozloff observes.4 That is to say, unlike in the case of an Albertian perspectival painting, the viewer does not find himself being addressed by a photograph and is not invited into its space. The characteristically unstable relations among the various elements of a photograph’s optic array that results from this, even when it is a ‘composed’ one, are suggestive of a state of flux, a continuum as exists outside and independent of the frame which it is only a segment of. The composed optic array within the frame and the randomness which it suggests of the physical disarray outside the frame are bound by a causal symmetry and yet are different, creating a subtle imbalance that is built into the optics of the photographic image. The fact that this is not an empirically given precondition of perception, in the sense in which it is characterized as a message without a code, but something we have learned to read through cultural conventions, is relevant for any understanding of the signifying process of the photographic image. This in fact accounts for what Irving Singer refers to as               the wonder that we all feel in the presence of realistic photography. He says: “What looks so much alike is nevertheless so different – not just different in some attribute, but also ontologically different.”5

Photography (C) Sunil Janah / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Sunil Janah / image taken from internet

In as much as the optical mechanism of the camera obscura could not do away with the perspective orthogonal, it can be said to have anticipated photography via the Albertian perspectival painting. It is only a happy coincidence that the pictorial conventions initiated by the European Renaissance were to have anticipated the aesthetic rationale of photography coming, as it did, four centuries later when those very conventions have ran their course and were on the retreat. The normative preconditions that those conventions set for certain perceptual modalities were found to be concurrent with the more empirical processes of image-making of photography which in a way helped put the real back into the gross matter of reality. That is, the gross matter of tangible reality that makes up the phenomenal world as engaged by the human perceptual apparatus and mediated by the human consciousness but at the same time, is independent of the perceiver as attested to by its empirical existence. This is a status that man-made image in its whole history of being either a projection of himself on to the external world or an appropriation of it by him, did not have so far. Images which as Arnheim says, in the course of our civilization we have come to use as tools of contemplation.

We have set them up as a world of their own, separate from the world they depict, so that they may have their own completeness and develop more freely their particular style. These virtues, however, are outweighed by the anxiety such a detachment arouses when the mind cannot afford it because its own hold on reality has loosened too much. Under such conditions, the foot-lights separating a world of make-believe from its counterpart and the frame which protects the picture from merging with its surroundings become a handicap.6 [emphasis added]

The square or rectangular inset of the frame that closes in on a segment of the visual field does not simply present that visual field but it represents that visual field by qualitatively modifying and characterising the spatial relations among objects by introducing new dimensions in the relations between the figure and the field, figure and the ground and, by eliminating the ambient peripheral vision, between the figure, the field and the frame. Here things are cut at half-length by the edges of the frame and they spill out not contained by it. In other words, they do not follow the inner logic of any organizing principle to form a coherent, stable inner order, however ‘composed’ the frames are. Nor does it enclose a closed, centred spatial field contained and held together by the frame as whatever is within it is only consistent with all that is beyond it. This particular relation of the frame to the ‘unframed’ view of the camera was not something unknown to the artists as, for example, the plein air painters and artists like Degas who got the better of it. In any case, the image that freed itself from the protective limits of the frame, thus enabling it to merge with its surroundings and ceasing to be a tool of contemplation, was closer in the experience it embodied to a contemporary reality perception.  

Photography (C) Kishore Parekh / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Kishore Parekh / image taken from internet

From the foregoing it is hoped that the aspects of the orthogonal, perspective, frame and so on are shown to have a distinct nonpainterly, anti-graphic orientation in photography and have a value of their own in photogenic imagizing. So far so good. That said, it may sound to be falling for the argument that these elements go into the making of a universal ‘language’ of photography, if language that be. Now, in the present day practice, as the way it has come about, the photographic idiom surely has more than a touch of the international about it, though. But this is in sharp contradistinction to the early practice of the medium, especially in many non-western cultures. An interesting case of photography when it arrived for the first time in India in the pre-industrial, pre-modern era is studied by Judith Mara Gutman who argues that “a Western role, function, and use of the camera” did not enter the world of Indian photographers. In denaturing the specific attributes of optical realism of the medium, especially in the use of space, their methods were more in line with the norms of Indian painterly traditions, she observes.

Indian photographers followed in the painter’s foot steps, often flattening a picture’s space, creating a field of interest with multiple pockets of interest, no one pocket any more important than another. Sometimes, they created two planes in a photograph, essentially negating a middle distance, thereby emulating a favourite pattern developed by Indian painters. At other times, three horizontal planes, as so often appeared throughout Indian painting, appeared in their photographs…Adapting, rather than adopting, the Westerner’s equipment, the Indian photographers used the camera to reflect and extend an Indian conception of reality…These images did without vanishing points, for instance, just as the great store of Indian paintings had. Several pockets of interest ranged across a picture plane in such a way that they seemed to expand the picture’s space and run out to the picture frame’s edge, or even beyond it.7[emphasis added]

What strikes us as different about those photographs is in fact in their very manner of being more or less artisanal in moorings, having had close affinities with the pre-industrial craft traditions of the country and not the product of any self-conscious hankering after style to vindicate their Indian ‘identity’. What is equally important is how such early practices gave way to a standardized formal procedure of an international idiom subject to the compulsions of the techno-industrial environment of photographic practice dictated by trans-national capital, finally making those early works look naïve and unsophisticated through our cultural unlearning. One is also reminded of an early Japanese film maker like Mizoguchi who had adapted the cinematographic idiom to be more in tune with the pictorial conventions and spatial organization of the traditional Japanese horizontal narrative scroll painting.

Photography (C) Raghu Rai / image taken from internet
Photography (C) Raghu Rai / image taken from internet

Richard Shiff argues that in the historical situation of photography in which it has come to appropriate all claims to reality, it does so by virtue of a character of what he calls catachresis. The propositions on which he argues the case are:

[…](1) at any moment in history the value of all representation depends on the existence of some representation that can be regarded as transparent, realistic, or natural; (2) during the modern era photography has provided a kind of fabricated image that can successfully masquerade as a natural one; (3) as such, photography plays the role of a proper (but not literal) term in opposition to painting’s figured term. A rhetorician would say that photography plays catachresis to painting’s metaphor…We can accept the photograph as “natural” by comparison with other kinds of images and see how deeply implicated in a system of arbitrary signs it is.8

According to Shiff, though photography is not itself unfigured, it renders all other forms of representation more figured than itself and in the process becomes the ‘proper’, that is, the acceptable norm of all image of the real. Photography achieves this, he argues, through phototropism – photography’s peculiar turn or manner of figuration – by subverting the sense of proper representation. “The photograph is neither proper nor figured, neither properly documentary nor properly art; the photograph is a catachresis.”9

Photography (C) S. Paul / image taken from internet
Photography (C) S. Paul / image taken from internet

This is the point of the paradoxical relation between factuality and artifice or, put differently, between simulacrum and point of view – a relation that is positioned between the optic and the visual as the paradigm of perception in photography. It is commonplace to say that the camera is only recording what there is for any one to see at the time. And what one sees will be informed by what one is looking for as much as by what one brings to bear on what is thus seen – whereby the notional subject becomes content and the content becomes form in the image of the representation (remembering the oft-heard saying to the opposite effect). Though unreflective, unfigured and unrepresentational (that is, not informed by representational thought, a la Roger Scruton10), the photographic image, in the way it materializes, involves a multiplicity of processes of selection and omission guided by conscious decisions and unconscious predilections of the person who handles the equipment. In other words, the apparently transcriptional nature of the image is itself the result of artifice. The subtle dualism between the all-at-onceness of the counterfactual dependence of the photograph on its object on the one hand, and an artifice the transparency of which made it possible, on the other, creates an unsettling ambivalence which is inherent to the aesthetic context of the media’s realism. The stronger the artifice, the stronger is the transparency and never the other way round. In his introductory essay to Richard Avedon’s portrait photographs, Harold Rosenberg notes: “The nineteenth century made the revolutionary discovery that artifice – or, if one prefers, metaphor – is inherent in things; in short, that there is a truth of surfaces…In the nineteenth century, the secrecy of Being is dissipated into patterns of unprivileged data.”11 That the genesis of photography coincided with such a notion of the truth of surfaces as a function of artifice, made the artifice of photographic realism less problematic. It is only that the causal and counterfactual identity between the thing-in-itself and the image as sign in relation to the content of the thing, of which it is the expression, was perfectly tenable with the cultural conventions of the nineteenth century life world.

Photography (C) GG Welling / Image taken from internet

However, the artifactual transparency of the photographic image has more to it than this. The imagized transparency of the photograph is, in fact, endowed with the primal opacity of the object-in-itself as engrained in the “optic unconscious”12 that is constitutive of the domain of photographic realism and the peculiar perceptual modality that it entails. This primal opacity of the object is the attribute of its materiality in the state of immanence in time, which it withholds from being engaged by the human consciousness at least momentarily. This takes us close to the observation of Siegfried Kracauer who after distinguishing between the two spatial appearances of objects – ‘the natural’ one and that of the object permeated by cognition – 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.10 [emphasis added]

If the phrase “This likeness refers to…” in the sentence quoted is to be taken to mean not as the word ‘likeness’ alluding to, but rather as the aspect of likeness signifying – it makes an interesting proposition. In that sense, it is not that the aspect of likeness achieved by photography is to be equated with the look of the object or that it evokes the look of the object, but that it only signifies the look of the object. Which is to say that it is a representation (subject to the media-specific conventions of photogenic imagizing) of the idea of the object and not (the reproduction of) the object itself, however illusionistic a replication of the appearance of the object it is. This look of the object in the likeness of which the photograph imagizes it is the irrevocable icon of the object-in-itself in its unmediated state of being as it precedes human cognition in the interactive process of perception-consciousness, as what appears to be given to perception is itself a function of perception. Photography retrieves this fleeting opacity of the object that is lost to consciousness as a function of the truth of surfaces – but as truth that is lost in the transparency of fact.


Photography (C) Kulwant Roy / Image taken from internet
Photography (C) Kulwant Roy / Image taken from internet

Now, I come to the last part of my argument. Taking the cue from Kracauer and extending his argument, is it that the artwork (painting, for our purpose) that concerns itself with the transparency of the object has at its disposal only the fact that is a leftover of truth? Without getting into the painting versus photography wrangle, I would like to suggest the possibility that the very basic difference between the two is that of an aspect of the faculty of perception. In the natural binocular stereoscopic perception the perceiver is always placed within the field of perception – he sees the world as himself seen within it and sees himself as seeing the world in a primal subject/object relation, with the spatial and temporal reference points being himself as the perceiver. It is around such a sense of the self on which the spatio-temporal reference points of the act of perception converge that the endless multiplicity of fragmentary visual stimuli is organized and oriented into the dimensional and directional experience of an unbroken perceptual continuum (temporal) and an engulfing perceptual ambience (spatial). The experience of such a unified visual field is rendered possible only by a perceptual apparatus in which is engrained the experience of space as coinherent in and coincident with that of time, the unconsciously perceived reference points of which are integrated into the sense of the self. As Edmund Leach has once observed in passing: “…we manage to recognize things as things and events as events by refusing to recognize the spatial and temporal boundaries where one chunk of space-time merges into the next.” And he goes on to add immediately that this is what cultural conventions are all about.11 The welter of superimposed sensory stimuli that crowd in on our visual perception – which hypothetically would be a mass of disparate ‘snap shots’ – is integrated into the spatio-temporal matrix of our experiential world by this unconscious refusal to acknowledge them individually. It is against the latent background of the ego-centred vertical/horizontal axis that these disparate ‘snap shots’ are integrated through what in phenomenological terms is called the “etc. principle” to define the events and the existents in terms of their continuity in time and extension in space. The sense of the self is that which is realized by the vertically oriented viewing subject (related to the complex psycho-physical make up of evolutionary bipedality and the emergence of the brain/mind/self constellation) against the horizontal directiveness of the physical, terrestrial lifeworld which latter is internalized as the unconscious symbolic axis of all syntactical connectedness and associative linearity of cognitive processes. Painting articulates the dynamics of this subject-object relation in the act of perception which inevitably has to embody the dimension of time as duration in its visual ontology.

TS Sathyan
Photography (C) TS Sathyan / Image taken from internet

But how does painting achieve this? The mediated and reflective language of representation of painting, in the forbiddingly precise formulation of Leo Steinberg, is “the fashioning of graphic symbols to act as analogues for certain areas of visual experience which are transmuted and reduced to symbolic pattern.”12 Among these areas of visual experience that Steinberg mentions, which are more than that evoked by the object sighted, not the least important is the unconscious experience of the act of seeing (itself involving time) through the constant scanning of the visual field by the shifting of focus, turning of the eye and the head and the sensations of the ocular muscles in controlling the eye movement – all that ‘little sensations’ of Cezanne. The experiential context in which each painting is located involves the triadic relation between the perceiver, the perceived and the act of perceiving. To take one example, the isotopic homogeneity of pictorial space of a typical Renaissance painting that is defined by the simultaneity of momentary views accommodated within it (in relation to the spatial location of the viewer which it presupposes) is collateral with the continuity of linear time as a serial passage (in relation to the temporal present of the viewer) defined by the succession of momentary points along the durational aspect of time.

Now, coming to the photograph – in materializing its image the photograph takes the percept out of this event-existent correlation and divests it of the temporality of its being-in-itself. The monocular, enframed and projective space of the photograph is that in which the object existed in a particular chunk of space-time from where time has ebbed off. In the normal perceptual experience this chunk of space-time has its boundaries lost to consciousness in the continuity of the object’s existence in time and the extension of its existence in space that is basic to the perceptual experience of the object in space. This, I maintain, accounts for the often felt timelessness of the photographic image – the kind of deja` vu that one experiences before the prints of Eugene Atget that haunted the imagination of the Surrealists.

(*Published in Nandan: An annual on Art and Aesthetics, vol. 23, 2003, Department of History of Art, Santiniketan, Visvabharati University. An earlier version of the paper was presented at the seminar on Photography, The KHOJ International Artists’ Workshop, Bangalore, November 3, 2002.)

Notes and References

  1. Richard Hamilton, Studio International, March 1966.
  2. It will not always be possible to link this authenticity [of the photograph] with reportage, whose clichés associate themselves only verbally in the viewer. The camera will become smaller and smaller, more and more prepared to grasp fleeting, secret images whose shock will bring the mechanism of association in the viewer to a complete halt. At this point captions must begin to function, captions which understand the photography which turns all the relations of life into literature, and without which all photographic construction must remain bound in coincidences. Walter Benjamin, “Walter Benjamin’s Short History of Photography”1), tr. Phil Patton, Art Forum, (February 1977), p. 51. See also for a discussion on the relation of the photographic image with the caption: Nigel Warburton, “Photographic Communication”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 28, no. 2 (Spring 1988), 173 – 181.
  1. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Two Authenticities of the Photographic Media”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 51, no. 4 (Fall 1993), p.537 – 540.
  2. Max Kozloff, “The Awning that Flapped in the Breeze and the Bodies that Littered the Field: Painting and the Invention of Photography”, Art Forum, vol. 20, no. 1(September 1981), p. 53 – 60.
  3. Irving Singer, “Santayana and the Ontology of the Photographic Image,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 36, no. 1, (Fall 1977), p.39 – 43.
  4. Rudolf Arnheim, “Art Today and the Film”, Art Journal, vol.25, no. 3 (Spring 1966), p.242.
  5. Judith Mara Gutman, “Through Indian eyes: Indigenous photography in the subcontinent”, IMPACT of science on society, No. 168, (vol. 42, no. 4) 1992, p. 347 – 48. Gutman illustrates her essay with six chosen photographs with captions like: ‘Prya Lal’s son,’ ca. 1885, ‘Nizam’s noble’s with Raj officials,’ ca. 1880, ‘Landowner who loves music,’ 1870, ‘Party after Shikar,’ ca. 1890, ‘Police unit,’ ca. 1900 and ‘Transporters’ from Marwari census, 1891.
  6. Richard Shiff, “Phototropism (Figuring the Proper)”, Retaining the Original: Multiple Originals, Copies, and Reproductions; Studies in the History of Art, vol. 20, ed., Kathleen Preciado, University of New England, 1989, p. 161 – 179.
  7. ibid. p. 174.
  8. Roger Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, no. 3(Spring 1981), p.577 – 603.
  9. Harold Rosenberg, Portraits: Richard Avedon, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976.
  10. Walter Benjamin, cit.
  11. Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography” (1927), Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, (1993), p.421 – 454.
  12. Edmund Leach, “Profanity and Context”, New Scientist, London, October 20, 1977.
  13. Leo Steinberg, “Eye is part of the Mind,” Other Criteria, Oxford University Press, (London 1972), p.293.

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