The evolutionary process has steadily given the biological organism increasing control over the environment. The number of sensory organs, the power of motor action, the quality of the co-ordination effected by the central nervous system all these go on increasing as we move up the ladder. The development of the thumb which could work in opposition to the rest of the fingers was a great event in mammalian history, for it stepped up enormously the prehensile capacity of the hand. Physiological evolution however has stopped at this point. But, aided by the mind, the hand goes on fashioning tools and instruments, which are in fact its agents by proxy.
The hand intimately reflects the quality of the mind, becoming taut and tense to strike a blow or relaxing to make a caressing gesture. The tremendous progress of the machine has made humanity forget that in order to achieve the purpose for which it is fashioned the machine has to be similarly controlled at every stage by the mind. The faith that technical progress is identical with genuine human progress, generated by the Renaissance, cannot survive long now, in the intemperate climate of the atomic age. The machine works efficiently and automatically. But the use to which it is put is not automatically decided. That decision is the heavy responsibility of the mind, with its consequences trailing out into the farthest reaches of the world, dense with toiling humanity.
We can apply this analysis in the realm of art. The photographer and the painter both work toward approximately identical results. But the fact that the former uses a highly perfected instrument makes many people regard him as far inferior in creative quality.
Foto, the German magazine from Munich, published some time back of photos taken by the box camera. They were equal in aesthetic quality to the results from the costliest cameras, because they were handled by artists. The contribution to the final result made by the camera is not far more significant, in the last analysis, than the contribution of the brush or the chisel in a painting or a sculpture. Whether the upshot of the whole business is a masterpiece or an atrocity depends less on the tools than on the mind behind them. In one sense, the artist with the camera labours under greater difficulties than the artist with the brush. The painter solves problems of composition and light and shadow, not arbitrarily, but far more easily than the photographer, because he can create his patterns from within. In a study of light and shadow, he need not search half the world or keep a vigil for the immaculate hour so that he can get a model in nature. But the photographer has not only to envisage his compositional scheme but search for it in the world outside. This brings out the hollowness of the accusation that the camera merely copies, for what it copies is decided by the artist who varies his own position vis-a-vis his subject until his subjective dream incarnates into an objective reality. The essential delicacy of this adjustment is brought out by a little verse from Japanese poetry, which has greater visual sensitiveness than any other poetic tradition.
Now I hung the moon
On the pine
Now took it off the tree.
Hokushi is here shifting himself like a man with a camera in order to bring all the elements of his picture into perfect relation. With a shift of every degree of the compass, you will find the composition changing subtly and new, dominant pictorial motifs emerging.
Artistic control does not end, but actually begins, when the camera has clicked. Possibilities of further perfecting composition emerge when the image is projected on the easel of the enlarger. Tonal rendering can be retained as originally registered by the lens or patterned afresh by controlling the exposure on the enlarger. Finally, there are the problems of texture to be solved, by then use of diffusion filters, texture screens, various printing surfaces. The gum and bromoil techniques, elaborated by Ponton, Pauncy, Poitevin, Rouille Ladeveze and C. W. Piper made impressionist effects possible, while the strong realism ushered in by the Neu Sachlichkeit in Germany realised its fondness for rendering the texture of skin etc. by means of using material whose sensitiveness had been perfected by men like Scheiner, Diffield and Vogel. Thus, today in every field of photography, whether it be portraiture, child life, landscape, genre study, pattern or montage, there is scope for the highest type of artistic imagination.
In portrait photography, the outlook has changed radically since the olden days when people dressed up as solemnly as for a funeral and the photographer slaved himself to death to transform a Quasimodo into a Don Juan. The reaction against this began as early as 1889 when P. H. Emerson thundered in his Naturalistic Photography: "When it comes, by means of retouching, to straightening noses, removing double chins, eliminating squints, fattening cheeks, smoothing skins, we descend to an abyss of charlatanism and jugglery. That such things pay and please vain and stupid people, no one denies, so do jugglers and tight rope dancers and such like; but all that is not art." Duhrkoop and Lichtwark vitalised portrait photography by rejecting the professional and adopting the amateur's outlook with its informalism. Today star portraitists like Yusuf Karsh combine the informalism of the amateur with professional dexterity in the use of light and a psychological treatment of anatomy. Memorable is his treatment of the hands in the portraits of conductors like Reginald Stewart and Leopold Stokowski. Tribhuvan Prasad Jain's portrait study reproduced here effectively uses a prominent anatomical feature like the aquiline nose and would please Andre Breton, the philosopher of Surrealism with its evocative composition.
There was a certain amount of sadism in early child photography when kids were perched on tables, sandwiched between vases and books or manhandled into Cupids. A torturer's handbook of 1881 gives instructions regarding this particular type of fiendish perversion: "In the centre of a piece of cardboard, burst a whole large enough for a child's head which is pressed through and the head rest fixed. A small paper or real wing may be pinned to the background in such a way as to indicate connection with the shoulder. The contrast of the rounded features of a young child against the broken and torn edges of the envelope is very pretty." This gruesome practice has disappeared with such things as the ferocious gladitorial games of the past and today star photographers of child life like Kuno Reitz believe in letting the child be himself and catching him in his most unself-conscious moment. N. S. Vaidyanathan’s Lunch Hour has this quality of informalism. In I heard steps the treatment is narrative quality and episodic, the expression andgesture ofthe child swiftly evoking a sense of the dramatic.
Landscape photography allows the cameraman as much as freedom as a musician who builds up rhapsodical varitions on any given theme. This is because through the use of filters the mood of nature can be subtly changed. Summer clouds against a light blue sky can be dramatised to look like heavy dark sky. Haze and fog can be penetrated, retained or accentuated. The composition can be deliberate, even academically tight, taking in a complete vista as in Kerala Backwater or reticent in presented material and rich in evocation, with poetic overtones as in Ram Lal Lekhi’s spring. As Walter de la Mare would say, the pageant of earth’s beauty is meaningless without human presence and simple landscape elements can be given classical dignity as compositions by the introduction of human figures. In The Angler, R. P. Dhamija has built up an impressive frame, out of very simple ingredients. The expanse of water which almost fills up the picture is rescued from monotony by its flawed surface and lines of foam which give dynamism to the picture. The whole weight of this torrential water is balanced by the human figure with its fishing rod, stretched boldly across the frame.
Genre studies give the fullest opportunities for the expression of human sympathies. In the finer efforts of this kind, we find a poetic transformation of the things of everyday life, its thousand inconsequential details. The more profound the sympathy, the more genuine the transformation. It is mainly through genre studies that photography as an art forges its strongest links with life. The flash photos of night life by Jacob Riis initiated the movement for slum clearance and the textile factory pictures of Lewis Hine played a memorable part in abolishing child labour. C. J. Bhatt's Fair Gleaner and Kasi Nath's superb study After the Day’s Toil help us to regain our lost love for the peasant and the worker, who are flesh of our flesh. It should be noted that they do this by means of succinct and definitive pictorial statement and not with the help of adventitious literary associations.
Patterns have a perennial attraction for the cameraman because the frame of the picture with its variability between the horizontal and the vertical, the ease in the choice of perspective and other features allow endless possibilities for organising rhythms.
Human interest can occasionally heighten the artistry of pattern pictures. A new type of pattern is emerging with the advent of the stroboscopic flash. Gjon Mili staticises in the same frame the entire series of postures involved in action, as in the case of a girl doing the rumba or a man striking a golf ball. Higher speed photography also makes possible such lovely pattern pictures as Mili’s Knife Cutting Water.
There is one technique which gives the photographer the freedom of creativity which the painter possesses. This is montage. Montage is the superimposition of different pictures by multiple exposure, or by cutting, pasting and rephotographing, or by combination printing. It is a technique with endless possibilities. In Derrick Wollcott’s Moonglow, different exposures of the moon and of cherry blossoms were combined to make a lyrical tableau. In Moths Pierre Boucher combines transparent insect wings and a magnificent evening sky to create a fantasy. And the Chinese artist Chin-sang Long use the technique to build up landscapes with the vision of the great Sung painters. The greater advantage of montage is the packed brevity, the Condensation of significance. The January 26, an effort has been made to give a symbolic depth to the idea of jubilation, conveyed by Republic Day illumination, by combining it with a blossoming twig and the uplifted face of a citizen of tomorrow.
The role of the Tenth Muse as the handmaiden of the other muses is a very fascinating subject for study. Take sculpture for instance. In a painting, the structure and relations of the optical planes built up within the frame by the laws of perspective are constant wherever you view it from. But sculpture is three dimensional and with every degree of shift in the view point, new rhythms, brought about by the convergence or divergence of lines, result. This infinitely plural beauty of a sculptured piece escapes the casual observer. And he is immensely helped by the imaginative photography of details, which fixes for his leisurely contemplation these myriad aspects. In Amazon, Ramnik Lal has conferred on an equestrian statue a greater dynamism than it would seem to possess to the observer who views it from conventional angles. And by comparing the Bronze Goddess with its detail, it can be seen that the unusual angle of the latter projects the figure forward towards us, giving to the perfect but cold and withdrawn beauty of the Chola Bronze the warmth and intimate attractiveness of a living women.
Published in Roopa-Lekha and illustrated by Annual Art Journal, 1951