Tall pines soaring upwards in clean verticals frame the landscape of a Himalayan foothill range. Splashes of sunlight on the textured bark of the stems, lacework embroidered by pine needles in the foreground, the foliage of the trees in the middle distance registered in heavy in heavy tones, while in the depths of the picture loom the hills bathed in a soft, luminous mist.
The camera caught this vision. And to some people that is the end of the story: the tool doing the job by itself without direction from the mind behind. On this analogy, anyone who can handle a brush will be a Rembrandt, anyone with chisel a Brancusi.
As a distinctive art of the technological age, photography offers a wide range of technical choice: in the focal length of lenses, filters, exposure goods, emulsions of film and paper, textures of printing surfaces, processing techniques. The essential creativity of photographic art lies in this very fact: nothing is automatic: a choice has to be made at every stage and the choice has to be guided by the values sought to be realised.
Today photography has become the most effective artistic medium for recording the human condition.
The child with the spontaneous expression, the youth with his dynamic urges and enthusiasm and the old man nearing journey’s end, can all be caught by the camera in moments which are most eloquently summative of the dominant qualities of their particular life phase.
When photography was young, cameramen did not believe in such spontaneous self-revelations. The child’s head was pushed through cardboard cut like a halo, paper wings were fixed to the shoulders. These terrible practices have been given up today and the infant sitting in the tub of water on a hot afternoon indicates how she appreciates being left alone.
The sensate culture of today has tried hard to peg photography to its inferior possibilities, like glamorising the human form. Curvaceous figures, ample torsos and shapely legs crowd the view finder of today’s cameraman.
But old age is also beautiful, though in a different sense than ebullient youth. Great painters have immortalised the beauty of youth. But they have also cherished the furrowed visage, the mane of silver grey hair, the tired but tranquil eyes. Among the loveliest of such studies is Rembrandt’s portrait of Francoise van Wasserhoven. Birth and death are the two terminals of the parabolic curve that is life. Man comes into the world trailing clouds of glory and in the twilight of life his eyes look beyond the panorama of the earth, eager once again for some limitations of that glory.
The crest and trough of the rhythms of human life are formed by work and relaxation.
When life’s boat sets out to see, it will have to ride many high waves. There is peril and in that peril is an intimation of the highest reach of our destiny. For life always moves against the current, against the slack and downward pull of inert matter, towards active adaptation and conquest and away from passive adjustment and surrender. The hero faces tragedy with a smile because to him it is means of self-affirmation. The saint transmutes tragic experiences into values. But courage is not the exclusive distinction of these two archetypes. It is shown by the humblest and often in the routine processes of living.
Flecked by churned sea foam, the sea puts out avid tongues of waves. But the boat, worked by a team of comrades, rides the crest to move into the open sea.
Life reaches its high affirmation at those peak points in the rhythm of work where purposeful action detonates, where it meets the resistance of the environment in a crucial impact. But it is in the quiet hour that follows, in leisure richly earned after the stress of work, that life reaches its fulfilment.
In a paved alley of an old Indian town, men relax and children are at play: life seems to have flowed into a quiet lagoon and gone to sleep. But this is not a stagnating pool. It is a quiet stretch of the river which will move on to encounter rocks and difficult terrain. Rest is an epilogue to task achieved, prologue to tomorrow’s travail. Work is not forgotten but prolongs in rest, like the lane of light from the bright, busy outer world that reaches into this shadow shelter to give it its depth, both pictorial and symbolic.
From the sunlit, terraced gardens of the earth, light impulses reach the retina and travel to the brain as electric pulses. But, as Sherrington said, it is a far cry from an electric person in the brain cells to the glowing firmament and the myriad sights beneath.
Advanced physiological research has shown that a mere stimulation of the optic centres of the brain cannot produce the sensation of sight. The stimulus has to be related to the deep lying centres that are concerned with self-awareness. The stimulus can cross the threshold only if the self is interested in it and welcomes it. The subject is thus active even in routine perception. The classic distinction between subject and object is no longer valid today in the higher reaches of modern science.
Art is the perception of things by a richly endowed subject. The imaginative vision transforms the things of everyday, a sunflower, a chair into significant patterns, into values. Art transforms matter, as Archipenko says, into immaterial, spiritual phenomenon.
Technique gives the assurance that is needed for confident self-expression, smooth, unhindered aesthetic communication. Photography is painting with light and the cameraman should have a profound intuition of the magical transformation of everyday things by means of the miracle that is light.
The patterning of light in these two pictures has close affinities. But the picture on this page goes further, in telling a human story. The scene is the Rang Mahal of Shah Jahan’s fort in Delhi. Three hundred years ago, when this beautiful pleasure palace was young in its age as it is still young in its looks, a stream of water, called a Stream of Paradise, flowed through this channel and as the swirling water passed over the basin further down, inlaid with mosaic flowers, the roses and jasmines would seem to nod bright welcome at the fair faces of the ladies of the imperial seraglio leaning over the rim on hot summer afternoons.
Like the time signal in the last stanza of Keat’s St. Agne’s Eve, the placing of the figures, in an attitude of reverie, suggests an immersion in the past, gives the right recession in the vista of time to the theme.
But the artist today cannot tarry long in the pleasure domes of Xandu. If he does, the stream of his life also, like Alph the sacred river, would flow into a sunless sea.
Research in technique cannot be condemned as retreat to the ivory tower, because technique is intimately related to expression and an increase in its flexibility implies a widening of the range of possibilities of expression. It is when art stops at technical researchanddoesnotbringthe results of its heightened capacities to the service of life that it becomes desiccated, precious.
Pure pictorialism has always been denounced by right thinking cameraman. Edward Weston used photography to record the friendliness of the great earth, to which human life is umbilical. Eugene Atget recorded the rhythm of life in Paris and Lewis Hine’s pictures of child labour initiated legislative reform.
In tribute to these dedicated spirits, let us conclude our story with this picture of a refugee boy. The all-out effort which India has been making to help the eighty-one odd lakhs of her brothers and sisters, over whom nearly two hundred and twenty four crore of rupees have been spent, is rewarded by the optimism radiated by this citizen of tomorrow.