Where’s the picture?

Once I bought a tape of Tom Waits. But when I peeled off the cellophane and popped it into the little player on my warped desktop I thought he had lost his mind.  His voice sounded like the ramblings of a drunken recluse. The instruments added terror to the mix by apparently being played by some hidden (and untalented) hand.

This morning I woke and grabbed Raghubir Singh’s photo book on Kerala because there were a couple of pictures in it  about which I’ve wondered  in the same way. What’s he up to?  Here was my favorite photo artist including pictures in a major tome which seemed to be distinguished only by terrible light, uninteresting composition and absolutely no ‘spark’ at all. I’ve learned with Raghubir that he likes to make you work on his images. On some of his pictures you have to consciously ‘see’ in a different way…in the way he sees.  And whenever I have done that I’ve been immensely rewarded.  My understanding of camera work always deepens a level as a result.  But these two images have always stumped me.  Where’s the picture, Raghubir?  No matter how many times I’ve studied them I’ve not been able to ‘see’ what he did. And so I always conclude, he must have been mad. Or tired. Or simply human and believing his own press!

I wanted to include one of those pictures today but in a very strange twist they appear to have disappeared out of the book.  Yep, they are no longer there! (But that is another tale for another telling.)

One aspect of photography that continues to interest me is ‘why do we take pictures of certain things?’ And that leads to the question (building on the example of Tom Waits and Raghubir Singh) does a ‘good’ picture have to arose a positive feeling (awe, gasp of wonder, sigh of admiration, a long stare) instantly?  What makes a photograph ‘good’?  If you spend time in JPG or Flickr land or count the ‘Likes’ on Facebook you wouldn’t be  wrong in thinking the answer to that question is a big YES. 

I spent years developing my eye to see according to that supposed Golden Rule.  And ever since I mastered it I’ve wanted to break free of it.  This picture of two brothers in Azad Kashmir (Pakistan) was made in 1989 and illustrates what I always considered to be a ‘good’ picture. Strong composition, up close. Nice balanced light.

Alas, that definition of ‘good’ is pretty narrow. And in the end very unsatisfactory.  Socialist Realism painting coming out of a camera. A part of the tapestry but not the only thread by any means.  

Which brings me to Raghubir’s Singh’s apparent moments of photographic madness in Kerala.  The pictures had NONE of the qualities of a good picture. On Facebook he would garner 0 thumbs up. Yet, he included them in a book with many other outstanding photos. Maybe I just need to rethink my definition of ‘good’.

I have tried to ‘see’ differently for some time and here are two images from recent times that I really like but which, in years past, I would have deleted or filed away in the bottom of some box, embarrassed.  Today I consider these good pictures.  Let me try to explain why.

This was taken in the early morning while walking through the streets of Pondicherry in 2009.  Why do I think it’s a good picture?  First, because it is not instantly readable. There is nothing that immediately catches the eye and says, ‘look at this’. It appears to be a rather dull image of a crumbling wall. Nothing in particular stands out. The posters are too small and the camera to distant from them to be of much significance. I would think most observers would linger a bit and look more intently to discover why this picture is being held up as an example of ‘good’.  Every photographer wants his audience to study the picture, not just click “Like” (either mentally or physically) and move on.  So this is a good picture because for the discerning viewer it causes one to pause.

Second, I think it’s good because it is well balanced. The two wooden doors frame the dilapidated bench, which is the real centre of focus.  When I arrive at that realisation (that the bench is ‘it’) my eye opens to the rest of the scene which is really about decay and rust.  Brickwork is exposed, glass missing from windows, wood worn by weather, posters long ripped off or faded.  Look into the windows at the top of the left door and you’ll see branches of a tree in the background. This house is so abandoned that Nature has reclaimed the space for itself.  So you get a feeling of time. Its length. Its passing. And the green leaves let you know that the cycle of seasons and time itself is eternal.

Finally, (for now) I consider the monotone hues to be an aspect of this picture’s ‘goodness’.  Normally I respond (and look for) deeply saturated colours or a contrast in which a bright color splashes across the image.   But here everything is brown, rust, grey. Only little glimpses of yellow, green and red are visible. This chromatic monotony causes emotions and feelings to arise in my heart. Resignation. Appreciation of the non-immutability of life. Oddly, a sense of being in sync with the ‘Order of Things’. 

Here is a streetscape again. This time 2007. Chennai.  Many of the similar themes and motifs that operate in the Pondy Bench picture pertain here too.  Decay, abandonment, clutter and disorder.  What I particularly like in this scene though is that the doors still have some colour on them. This makes me feel hopeful for some reason. That amidst this mess there are still shades of Beauty.   I like the cart too. Wheels are an essential form that make us think of the wheel of life, the cycle of karma, birth and renewal, eternity. Nothing is permanent. There is always hope that things will change.

What do you think? Are these good pictures or are they simply the fantasies of a man with too much time on his hands?

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