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POSTSCRIPT

TRIBUTE | PHOTOGRAPHY

Framed, Digitally Yours


The power of photographynewfangled digital
or old-world filmlies in its ability to remind
us of the past as well as to capture the quotidian
commute of everyday life.
Nabina Das

icture perfect, goes the saying.


Undoubtedly, this sentence is connected to the
experience of photography. Armed with a camera,
one would look for the perfect subject, the perfect face,
the perfect figure, the perfect pose, the perfect landscape or
Economic & Political Weekly

EPW

NOVEMBER 19, 2016

vol lI no 47

object of beauty, and so on and so forth. Whether the


so-called perfection is related more to recording or to interventionto hark back to Susan Sontags On Photography
must be subjective in these times of split-second digital
showcasing.
I was never really into photography. Not the actual
mechanics of the art where one handles and experiments
with cameras, juggles with complex lenses, sorts out the contact sheets, inhabits the darkroom and eventually, delights in
creating artworks that are photographs.
Shadows, walls, half-light, quick click sounds, peering
through a bulbous lens, and the blackness of a shutter or
aperture. Anytime I handled a camera very early in my life
high school, perhapsit has resurrected images that are
only a blur like distant memory.
More than a decade ago, when my colleagues and I worked
with the very talented and now famous Sudharka Olwe in
setting up his exhibition in Delhi, I mainly saw hands, feet,
grimy cheeks, swirly dress, rain-muddied pits, and parts of
objects such as a broom or a stick as the subject. Not exactly
a portrait. That was perhaps my formal introduction to what
is art in photography. Before that it was birthday cakes,
wedding fashion, festival decoraWhile the old
tions and school or passport dourcamera, the
unreliable narrator, ness of a face.
One evening, visiting Olwe in
began to be
his developing cubicle, I remember
phased out, digital
being engulfed by a shock of darkphotography just
ness as the rotating door swung
changed the way we
close. I was blinded for seconds
saw ourselves...
only to be further cached within
a strange red light pouring from nowhere. This was his
darkroom. This is where photos lit up for the rest of
the world.
Im talking of pre-digital times here. My father had an
Agfa camera, the one thatd be called old-fashioned today.
But that was our memory-keeper. Although even my father
was not a photography buff in the strictest sense, he believed
in clicking pictures of the family and friends for occasions
that would return to conversation in the future. He also liked
to take us to the studios and direct the cameraperson there
about a particular kind of photoblack-and-white back in
those dayshed want to cherish for posterity. My parents
with us as babies and young kids, birthdays, cousins, picnics,
the family car, the house that my father builtall that
encompassed life in general.
This photography, again, was event-specific, if we were
to look at it from the perspective of todays social-mediagenerated frenzy of clicking any and everything, literally.
So, while we have photos from the past to remind ourselves
of a certain time and space that we inhabited, there is
none almost to capture the quotidian in a commonplace
sense of the term. No photos of what we eat on a daily
basis, no photos of random objects on our tables, desks,
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bed, or no photos of our own faces on waking up,


traditional camerawhich we barely took outwe did have
wearing make-up, or in shades of sorrow or making faces
a disposable one. After about 25 photos, as the reel was
to ourselves.
developed, the camera was discarded. The new friends were
What about selfies then and now, one may ask.
pleasantly surprised that in 2002, we asked to borrow their
camera for a weekend.
In an article titled With Rembrandt, the Selfie Takes
That was the onset of winter, our first snow. The day the
On New Meaning, The New York Times poses this question:
flurries came falling one by one, then rapidly like a featherBut does the act of photographing ourselves necessarily
shower, and smothered our tongue and eyes in a rapidly
mean that we are entirely solipsistic, or could it help
fleeting cold press, I wrote a poem, and we ran about the
us learn something valuable about both ourselves and
front lawn like children, clicking photographs of the first
others?.
snowfall. Barely any of it got captured, so ethereal was the
The answers can be varied. The articles author, Nina Siegel,
event. But we got out again that night to take some more
insists that the 17th century Dutch painter can indeed be
pictures of the fairy-ghost spectacle.
called the original selfie master, with about 80 self-portraits
As the cache of digital photography grew, the next year
to his credit, from his youth till around age 63. As for our
and the next, after I acquired my own digital camera, one
current-day selfies, they are far too numerous and random.
night I encountered a poem by Barbara Guest:
Clearly, none of us selfie practitioners aim to record age and
moods as meticulously as Rembrandt.
In the past we listened to photographs. They heard our voice speak.
Frida Kahlo and her paintings, only too well-known and
Alive, active. What had been distance was memory. Dusk came,
doted upon, also come to mind.
Pushed us forward, emptying the laboratory each night undisturbed by
***
Erasure.
Click sounds that linger, a scene within a screen, a few
In the city of X, they lived together. Always morose, her lips
seconds that lend you a possible picture, a blinking green
soothed him. The piano was arranged in the old manner, light entered the
light, and a little square box flickering to show you the
window, street lamps at the single tree.
focus. Digitally yours.
Emotion evoked by a single light on a subject is not transferable to
On a personal level, for me photography literally erupted
photographs of the improved city. The camera, once
in a volley of snapsand I desist calling them photos until one
commented freely amid rivering and lost gutters of treeless parks or avenue.
is printed out or downloaded (when I discovered the digital
The old camera refused to penetrate the unknown. Its heart was soft,
camera). The year was 2002 and fresh off the boat in the
unreliable. (excerpted from Photographs)
United States (US), my partner and I were discovering the
While the old camera, the unreliable narrator, began to be
new neighbourhood in Ithaca, New Yorka stunningly
phased out, digital photography just changed the way we saw
picturesque townwith fresh
ourselves and photographed
eyes. We were housed inside
almost all aspects of our existLAST LINES
the campus in an independent
encethe seasons, friends,
graduate scholar residence
neighbours, wayside happenwhich had deer grazing on the
ings, personal and community
lawns, waterfalls off the roads
events, and even inanimate
skirting the neighbourhood,
objects on walls, floors, corand maple forests winding far
ners and all that is unknown.
off to where a 24-hour shopping
My father, who still clung on
arcade stood.
to his faithful Agfa, faintly
The first friends we made
snickered at the momentousthere was a couple from Tainess. Like a modern-day Sontag,
wan. Kevin and Elysa were very
he surmised that to photograph
friendly and more travelled
people (or objects) digitally is
than we were. And what we
to indulge in chronic voyeurididnt have before we met
stic relation or to violate the
them, was with thema digital
subjects. But he happily accepted
camera. They took photos at
a little digital Canon from us as
home, on walks, in the park,
a gift the very year he sold off
at school, on trips and so on.
our house in Assam and
They took photos of us too and
moved. Erasure.
were surprised to know we
Nabina Das (nabinamail@yahoo.com), a poet
didnt yet photograph digitally.
and writer, shuttles between Ithaca, New
We told them, other than the
York, and New Delhi, India.
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