Down on the corner

A widely held golden rule of photography is: move in close.  The closer the camera lens is to the subject, we are told, the better the picture. Or at least the greater the chances of capturing a good picture.

Like all such rules, though they are often true they also deserve to be broken or ignored in the right circumstances. Like this scene of a Calcutta street corner I happened upon in 1989.  In normal circumstances I would have zoomed in on one or two of the faces in loyal involuntary obedience to the golden rule. What would have resulted would have been a unremarkable portrait with nothing much to distinguish it from the hundreds similar images I’ve managed to collect over the years.  For some reason (I think because my eye caught the artwork of the Gemini Circus, India’s premier tent show, which tapped into some deep vein of childhood memory) I stopped on the other side of this side street with a 100mm lens and framed this scene. Over the years it has become a personal favorite of mine exactly because it does not adhere to the dictum: move in close.

What makes this picture, in my mind, is that it captures what normal life looks like on an ordinary street on a regular day in India. A subject that, believe me, is quite hard to photograph.  But luck was on my side for this 1/60th of second.  Let’s start at the top.  Of course the Gemini Circus hippo poster is a classic that adds a touch of humour and incongruity to the urban landscape. Moving across the top, there are more movie posters, this time for the camp British spy/sex/comedy Carry On series of films from the 1960s.  These films which show Lady Tarzan very ‘daringly’ and are restricted to Adults Only, were the closest thing to porn that rickshaw walas could access in those (now seemingly) hoary days.  

Attention is drawn to the group of men in the center plane. Only one knows I’m taking a picture, the proprietor of the paan and cigarette kiosk and he’s looking straight at me. The others are watching something else or simply passing by en route to other destinations.  It is a nice natural group portrait. Another subject that is more difficult to capture than you’d expect in a crowded city.  Finally, what I like about the picture is the grubby, run down shop fronts, with their advertisements for detergent, a small wooden stool and various pieces of cloth hanging off of various places.   

If you’ve never been to India and wanted to know what the ‘real’ urban India looks like, here it is.

In another part of Calcutta I captured another street scene. Again, this was from a distance but one that is more focused than the corner shop above.   Strangely, the background is far busier than the other scene but really this is a portrait of one thing, the wall.  And I suppose I like it because it tells us quite a bit about that street and wall and India.  There’s an election on and we learn that the Communist Party is contesting it and is against the Congress party. Rajiv Gandhi is lampooned in several places on the wall. We learn that for many in this creaking metropolis, bathrooms are public and infrastructure old. 

In both these pictures I’m glad I didn’t come in close but stood back to see a bit more of life on the corner.


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