Multiple portraits in one

Napoleon de Delhi
Napoleon de Delhi

This was made in Old Delhi in 2006.  I was walking around the narrow streets as I usually do when I was drawn to the rather ‘out-of-place’ portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte.  I was aware of the ladder which I thought would be an interesting element to include but it was the painting that was my main focus.  I was using a very wide lens (22mm) on my Canon DSLR. I was also aware of but not really attentive to the men in the shop next door.  I made a single frame and moved on.

Only recently (like yesterday!) have I ccome to appreciate what a rich image this is. How the ladder frames one of the men in a very similar pose to the French dictator.  They both are looking at some unseen object outside the broader frame and their heads are in very nearly identical positions.  Their hair and noses complement each other as well!

You could go even further and argue (and I will) that the frames of both men (Napoleon’s steel bars on top and bottom and the shopkeeper’s twin bamboo stalks on top and bottom) echo each other. And finally, both men rest their right hands on their thigh revealing their fingers while their left hands rest on another prop.

None of this was planned or understood at the time. I just saw something that looked interesting and shot.  But this sort of ‘coincidence’ or symmetry has happened so often in my photography that I am no longer surprised.  I don’t consider myself an exceptionally brilliant or gifted photographer. Just very lucky!  I believe that if this sort of thing happens regularly in my photographs then it is happening in many other people’s photographs as well.    That some deeper unconscious consciousness is at work. Some part of ourselves that is very aware and has acute and precise vision is always active but our poor humble eye and brain can only lag behind.    The multiple echoes or complementarities in this image are just too many to label ‘chance’.

This is one of the reasons why I love photography. Even images that at first glance (or even after hundreds of views) don’t seem particularly compelling can reveal amazing depths when the time is right. There are some photographers, in fact, who advocate that we should never judge or even look at photos for several months after they are shot.  I am not one of those. I’m too impatient. But I have learned over the years to not throw slides away or delete files. I keep them all, precisely because too many images only come to life many many years after they have been made.

Other issues also arise.  What is it that makes a photograph good? Are ‘great’ photographers recognized as such because they are more lucky than ‘average’ photographers? Can we become more aware of and atuned to this inner unconscious vision? How do you read a photograph?  I am delighted when I see details like the ones I’ve mentioned in any picture.  But are they too subtle to be appreciated by a casual observer?  If so, are they really worthy of being mentioned?  Or maybe, photography can only be truly appreciated by people who know how to ‘decipher’ a photograph? Do all good photographs have to be visual puzzles?

I don’t have pat answers to these questions. I certainly don’t like the elitist approach to art, that you have to have special esoteric skills or knowledge to partake.  That’s nonsense.  I think the best photographs ‘work’ on different levels. You can enjoy William Eggleston for his quirky use of color without buying into or understanding his aesthetic vision.  But if you do like to look deeper then I suppose a good photograph is, like a rare friend, one that keeps the conversation interesting.

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