We girls waited in the car while the men went to fetch tea for us. A man with long curled-at-corners moustache and a protective kaffiyeh-style cloth tucked under his cap approached us, dutifully asking us to park the car in a certain way. He worked as a watchman for the highway café. I was instantly taken by his kind and impressive face. Briefly ignoring his request I brought the camera to my eye, gesturingly enquiring if I can take his photograph. He forgot all about the car and stood posing. With that face, I knew nothing can go wrong. One photo. That was it.
I admired the photo. It was superb. He looked very dignified. He was very dignified. I didn’t know when I would meet him again. I kept thinking I should have taken his address. I at least had his name from his uniform badge. But that was it. Years passed. Then…
2017 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway
Bubbles and myself stop at the same café to have some coffee. I look around searchingly. No sign of him. There were several new shops in that block by this time. I ask shopkeepers, pan seller, shoe mender. They have not seen him, but they knew him. So, myself and Bubbles go into the café to have our snacks and coffee.
Suddenly, outside the glass window, I see him trotting towards us.
There he was…. Ramdeen Singh Tanwar. Same dignified face, gentle and welcoming smile. Same moustache, this time grey. He had aged fast. Life was hard for him, and it was apparent. But he stood a proud man. He even remembered me.
I took more photographs of him. This time against the backdrop of Aravalli that ran parallel to the highway, his home since birth. The only home he had known. He was extremely pleased by my gesture. Kept thanking me. This time I asked for his address so I can post his photos to him. I also told him about the photo from 2012.
He could not read or write, he said. He did not even have a mobile phone. So, he would have to go home to get his son to write the address and son’s mobile number for me on a piece of paper. He disappeared. It was getting later and later. The sun had set by now, and it was getting darker. We could not wait any longer as we still had to drive to Jaipur. I was very disheartened. After all these years, I had found him, but again lost him.
As we sit in the car to drive off, he comes running. Hands me his son’s number and their home address. Seeing his enthusiasm, I almost cried. Perhaps, he cried too seeing mine.
And after all this effort, I misplace the paper after arriving in England. But, I was certain I have not thrown it. I wouldn’t. I’m careful that way.
A year after meeting him the last time, I diligently hunt the paper down. I call his son to tell him that I will be sending his dad’s photographs shortly.
My instincts told me I should not waste any more time. That it was time I posted the photos to him. That if I didn’t send them to him now, he probably will never get to see them. Not sure what it was I was feeling, but without further ado, I sent him his photos with a handwritten letter, apologising for the delay in sending.
A week later, his son called to say that the photos were received and that his father was elated at the sight of them. That he was showing off to all his friends and relatives and telling them about meeting me and my family many years apart.
A few months later, his son, without adding any words, sent me a photo of his father with a flower garland around it.
I immediately called Tanwar Jr. to pay my heartfelt condolences. I was extremely sad too. That’s when I knew I did the right thing by paying heed to my instincts. I had a premonition.
The special connection I had with Ramdeenji was hard to explain. Out of nowhere, he made a brief appearance in my life, and also in my family’s life. I spoke about him to all the sincere people in my life. Those who will understand me, and not mock at my story. This encounter mattered to me, and I’m blessed to have special people in my life who appreciate things that matter to me.
2018 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway
A couple of months after his news, I stop at the same café. Ramdeenji’s son was not in town, so I couldn’t meet him. The café lacked lustre this time. The watchman’s vacancy had now been filled, but the void created by the absence of Ramdeen Singh Tanwar can, and will, never be filled.
I loved poetry from an early age – learning, reciting verses in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian. Partly because it was a compulsory requirement in my school, but also because I enjoyed the analysing and the memory testing process.
I would often buy books by Persian writers. My favourites were Omar Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Shirazi and Rumi. I also read Kahlil Gibran for his peculiar style of writing.
Last trip, I packed some of these books to bring along with me. Loved their aged look (they loved my aged look too). I read them again after a long time. All these men were far ahead of their time. So much depth in those words!
Today is Sufi poet Rumi’s day…..
Fountain of Fire, by Rumi, as translated by Nadar Khalili.
look at love how it tangles with the one fallen in love
look at spirit how it fuses with earth giving it new life
why are you so busy with this or that or good or bad pay attention to how things blend
why talk about all the known and the unknown see how the unknown merges into the known
why think seperately of this life and the next when one is born from the last
look at your heart and tongue one feels but deaf and dumb the other speaks in words and signs
look at water and fire earth and wind enemies and friends all at once
the wolf and the lamb the lion and the deer far away yet together
look at the unity of this spring and winter manifested in the equinox
you too must mingle my friends since the earth and the sky are mingled just for you and me
be like sugarcane sweet yet silent don’t get mixed up with bitter words
my beloved grows right out of my own heart how much more union can there be
come on sweetheart let’s adore one another before there is no more of you and me
a mirror tells the truth look at your grim face brighten up and cast away your bitter smile
a generous friend gives life for a friend let’s rise above this animalistic behaviour and be kind to one another
spite darkens friendships why not cast away malice from our heart
once you think of me dead and gone you will make up with me you will miss me you may even adore me
why be a worshiper of the dead think of me as a goner come and make up now
since you will come and throw kisses at my tombstone later why not give them to me now this is me that same person
i may talk too much but my heart is silence what else can i do i am condemned to live this life
i’ve come again like a new year to crash the gate of this old prison
i’ve come again to break the teeth and claws of this man-eating monster we call life
i’ve come again to puncture the glory of the cosmos who mercilessly destroys humans
i am the falcon hunting down the birds of black omen before their flights
i gave my word at the outset to give my life with no qualms i pray to the Lord to break my back before i break my word
how do you dare to let someone like me intoxicated with love enter your house
you must know better if i enter i’ll break all this and destroy all that
if the sheriff arrives i’ll throw the wine in his face if your gatekeeper pulls my hand i’ll break his arm
if the heavens don’t go round to my heart’s desire i’ll crush its wheels and pull out its roots
you have set up a colourful table calling it life and asked me to your feast but punish me if i enjoy myself
what tyranny is this
you mustn’t be afraid of death you’re a deathless soul you can’t be kept in a dark grave you’re filled with God’s glow
be happy with your beloved you can’t find any better the world will shimmer because of the diamond you hold
when your heart is immersed in this blissful love you can easily endure any bitter face around
in the absence of malice there is nothing but happiness and good times don’t dwell in sorrow my friend.
This morning I was greeted by a friend’s FB post. It contained a reporting from India: “Biker dies after hitting a stray cow. Cops booked him instead of its owner.”
Confusing headline. Booked “him”? Him, who? The dead biker – because it was his fault as he had hit the holy cow? Or the cow – for being responsible for the biker’s death? Him? Its? Should it be his owner or its owner then?
This news can be interpreted in both ways. Cops booked the dead man, and not the cow’s owner (or) the cops booked the cow and not its owner. In both instances, it’s going to be stupid. Ideally, no one should be booked, as one is an animal and the other a dead person, but in this instance, the owner should be booked, because in India, owners of cows deliberately let their cattle loose in order to extract compensation from the drivers should their vehicles collide with their animal.
Reading the news, I was reminded of my earlier blog post about Cowistan. This is exactly what I had addressed in that post.
We cannot blame the cows at any point. Never. They do what they know best. Chew their cud all day long. They have no malice in their nature. To think of it, no animal in the wild has any malice. What they do, they do instinctively. It’s the Man that’s the worst animal on earth. Malicious, dangerous and frightening.
This is why other animals have fear in their eyes when approached by a human they don’t recognise. They are afraid of us more than we should be of them because we will kill them just for our taste, but they will only attack out of defence.
I met this little calf on one of my recent walks in the park. First, it was so frightened that it leapt haphazardly away from me, giving a slapdash performance, but then it slowly came near me, its head lowered enough for me to pat it. It was such a delightful sight as it placed its entire trust in me.
My thought at that point – this infant will soon make its way to the market. One of my kind will hang, draw and quarter it to serve another one of us.
It should not trust me. It should not trust any of us. We are animals.
The memory of stray cows often takes my mind to a funny remark an American friend once made after seeing a photo of a cow on the streets of Rajasthan I’d shared with him. According to him, the only cow they get to see was the one inside the hamburger. He didn’t say it in a uncaring way, because he’s not that sort of a person, but the remark kind of connects my above two accounts, the stray cow and the calf reared for the purpose of its meat.
Unlike my American friend whose comment was said as a joke, my other friend, an Anglo-Iranian-Indian, who I recently met, said that he and his family were “hardcore” meat eaters. Not sure why he used the word “hardcore”. Did he mean they eat more meat than an average meat eater, or they eat only meat at every dinner, or they keep trying different animals, or they go for the kill themselves and eat like animals, uncut and uncooked?
Does that mean that I’m a “hardcore” vegetarian? Because I do all of the above but to greens. Like that cow in my photo.
I am born into a Hindu Brahmin family in India. This statement alone equals to passport to respect, social privileges, and positive discrimination for life. Every single application form asks for your caste and I wrote ‘Brahmin’, unbeknownst to me at the time its importance in terms of being accepted in whatever it was I was wanting to choose as long as I had the right credentials.
So, why in the world would I even want to highlight the wrongs of the millennia-old system, – ‘The Caste System of India’?
The answer is – my conscience does not allow me to continue without questioning.
This world; its system, environment and abundance should also belong to someone else as much as they do to me.
Same as I am opposed to monarchy, which represents all that meritocracy does not, I am vocal about casteism as this too advocates the by-birth rights, undermining the efforts and struggles of those from the ever-growing educated class, some of whom were not born into the upper strata of the caste hierarchy, but qualify only through the constitutional concessions, in spite of having the right credentials. Funnily, this new breed became a target of mockery – ‘educational success because of concessions’.
How can an upper caste person’s access to privileges not be labelled as a concession instead of a prerogative?
So, in some way, both sides of the caste-scale fall under constitutional concessions. One side has all set. The other, not so. If the caste-scale transformed into a caste-balance, it will tip to one side. The more the weight of privileges, the lighter it becomes. Oppositely, the burden of inequality is heavier, which means those on that side will forever struggle to tip the balance in their favour.
Will it ever happen? I doubt it would in my lifetime, for there is a life beyond the educational system. The upper-caste mafia rules the roost in every region, department, field, discipline, branch, sector, and so on. For some have-nots, it is a grim situation of one-step-forward-and-two-step-backwards.
Social inequality is rife worldwide. India, on the other hand, has it etched in its institution of caste. India’s caste system dates back thousands of years. It is much debated, argued and, in recent years, even denied, especially by the “modern” Indians. Constitutionally, caste-based discrimination is abolished, but socially, it is practised as openly, and somewhat shamelessly, as it always has been and reflects a different reality to the radical statement of the modern-day Indian youth.
Having said that, in my experience, the caste-based discrimination among Indians living in the West is far greater than those living in India’s urban settings. The migrators who left the subcontinent decades ago held onto the ancient and un-progressive order they were born into like an infant onto its mother’s bosom. In many cases, minimal to none social integration, or interaction with the indigenous population meant further isolation from the progressive mindset, one which India’s youth wholeheartedly adopted and want to perpetuate. The mindset I gradually started to embrace by mentally shedding the upper caste skin. I don’t remember having interactions around religon or caste. I mildly lived that life in my home, around family who had their own cultural beliefs, but without being imposed upon. We had discussions in the house, but never foisting of ideologies. A pleasantly secular household. I had freedom to make choices in life. I was like a pampered child who was left loose in a sweet shop. Perhaps, that was partly the reason I felt ill-prepared for a world beyond my childhood, a world where freedom was not considered a birth-right.
My friends were from all faiths, castes and genders. There was no fear about anything in my life that was being shaped in the same pre-dominantly Hindu and casteist society. We discussed everything under the sky, except our differences. For a girl like me, stepping into the Indian life of Britain was like stepping into a world I did not grow up knowing. Even my parents did not grow up knowing that world. This might have been a world somewhat before theirs.
British Indian society, I felt, was a sort of strange concoction of desi and fringed native, an impotent east-west cocktail with illogical, uncompromising values at its core. The elders were unwilling to adapt, leaving their offsprings in a state of utter confusion. The result was sheer misery for many. Casteism, plus racism, combined with ever-present misogynistic attitude and double standards. This is not to say that Indians in India do not have these, but they can be excused for not having lived in the West where there is far greater equality. How can one enjoy the freedom that western life offers, but be unwilling to relinquish the life alien to the free world?
Some elders go as far as making their kids feel guilty by loudly reminiscing their own marriages to their uncles’ and aunts’ family relations, skipping one gotra, as they say. If kids had any sense, or freedom to that sense, they would argue back by calling it ‘marrying a second cousin’. So, the elders not only want their children to marry in the same caste, but in the same family too, if they can help it. Familyism?
Intercaste interactions will, despite the brainwashing and emotional blackmailing, occur. They have been happening for centuries. But, somehow, such interactions seem less in a familial situation than in the realms of matrimony or out-of-family friendships. Marrying outside the caste is still seen as an unacceptable, and somewhat shameful, act. One elder actually told me that her entire family had to relocate to another city, cutting off all the neighbourhood ties, because the daughter brought shame on the family by marrying a, what she described as, a lower caste man. This elder would never mention her daughter’s married surname to people because of the shame factor.
This is another thing… In Indian families, even if you leave the caste, the caste doesn’t leave you. It’s attached in the form of your surname. This whole ‘shame’ concept is simply incomprehensible to me, especially when families living in England engage in this kind of nonsense, but I also know that it’s a culturally inherent trait that has to be dealt at grass-roots level. It is almost like no one wants to steer the boat that faces the tide.
Each caste is happily or unhappily a part of this very complex network of occupational inter-dependence. This is a chain where every unit plays a designated role. You break that link, the whole network is affected. So, when the modern youth starts uttering liberal platitudes, he has to think about which section of the matrix he should first snap in order for the system to respond positively to bring about the much-required change.
What remains to be seen is how long can a system, which took thousands of years to evolve and perfect to this degree of inter-exploitation, be changed within the lifetime of any of those alive!
Will that change be internal, or will it only be a superficial victory?
London-born Phillipe had now settled in Back Bay, a suburb of Boston. No idea how he got my mobile number. He persistently called for two weeks until I finally answered. I cannot believe he found me. After agggggggggesssssss!!! But everything is possible in today’s day and age.
Long time!! The usual ‘relocation, life got busy, one went to the West and the other to the East, mobile phones were not the thing thing then’, etc., were used as justifications for losing touch.
London to Providence, RI, and then to Boston, MA — Phillipe made his home, and even purchased a yacht. That was the first conversation, and then…
“Your photography is awesome,” he remarked.
“And you’ve acquired the American lingo,” I replied. How I hated the clichéd ‘awesome’.
He wanted me to visit Boston one day. “I got a wife. Thankfully, English. We have two beautiful daughters.”
“Same here. Two beautiful daughters. But no English wife, thankfully.”
“Yeah, but you have a husband who speaks with the most exquisite English accent.” And then he continued to talk mostly about Vic, until I steered him back to our conversation.
I always remembered Phil’s imitation (mockery) of the American accent. It only made sense that the snob married his own kind. “Lord Phillippe of Chelsea” was my name for him. The prejudiced Londoner would constantly make fun of the “t”-droppers and would laugh out loud at people’s improvised grammar. “Why are they re-inventing a perfectly fine language,” he’d say about the ones who spoke the cockney way.
“You must visit us,” he continues. “My mother-in-law has moved here from London. She too is looking for a property in Beacon Hill, not far from where I am.”
“Oh sure,” that was some incentive. “Of course! I must visit Back Bay now that you have your mother-in-law living there too,” I couldn’t help but joke.
Back Bay and Beacon Hill meant to me what Ambawadi and Walkeshwar meant to him – very little.
Boston Tea Party was my first introduction to the place. British East India Company’s Tea Act 1773 ~ History class, age 13. New England ~ it sounded pretty, which I think it might be. But if I want to see ‘pretty’, then I do have an England. The old one.
Plus, I’ve heard that Boston life is pretty laidback. Those who have frequented the place haven’t spoken positively about it. Their experience gave me second thoughts about ever visiting. A few went as far as calling it backwaters, and weren’t particularly impressed by it. They felt bored as there wasn’t much to do. Some parts were pretty remote and cut-off from the main cities, ‘middle of nowhere’, ‘like a village’ ~ twenty miles drive to fetch groceries – these were some of the thoughts shared.
Then, there was Lowell ~ parts of which are pretty rough ~ some scary stories about that area too. One needs to keep the cars locked from inside when at a petrol station or a supermarket car park. This whole gun culture is beyond me. Why do people in civilised society need guns?
Enough reasons to not add the place to my bucket list. But should I really write it off? Who knows, as a photographer, I might see things totally differently. No place ever really bores me. I don’t know what boredom means. There is always so much to do that I cannot seem to get enough of any place I visit. I do visit Indian villages too, and never get bored.
When I ask Phillipe if life’s really that laidback there, he asks back to not compare it with London or New York. According to him, the Boston experience will also depend on what part of Boston we were talking about. Back Bay and Beacon Hill, he informs, combined elements of historic elegance, modernism and the affluent. He assured he was not trying to be arrogant when he said, “No riff-raff around here. We have social clubs and activities aplenty.”
I am sure he was right. I’ve seen laidback life even in a happening place. So, it really is down to the attitude of people than the place they live in.
I promised him to think about visiting Back Bay one day. I might even muster enough courage to photograph the rougher parts of the State.
Phillipe’s penchant for travel photography meant he could not keep from sharing his recent trip to Turkey. Flying back home just before coronavirus hit the charts. He’s also built himself a studio, and has been developing his own large-format prints since. Nice way to spend the lockdown.
The self d&p got me excited as I’m in the pre-convert phase myself. I had fondly remembered his medium-format work of the 90s. All of a sudden, our conversation that had started with US, UK, accents, India, Back Bay, backwaters, yacht, and so on, shifted to Kodak, Ilford, Durst, Sinar, Hypo, Sepia, and so on. The latter was my preferred conversation. Unlike some people who are never so unmischievously involved as when making/talking/counting money, I’m never so unmischievously involved as when talking/doing/reading photography. It livens up my mood. Lifts my spirit. That’s when I wished the call never ended. But it had to. How else will we have a second call?
The building of his studio, darkroom, developing and printing, discussing, debating and arguing photography. That part was far more stimulating than talking about yachts, mansions and marble statues. And it wouldn’t matter if the studio was in Boston’s Back Bay or backwaters, as long as it had a sink to wash my prints, and some intelligent and enlightening conversations.
By the time the call ended, he was sold on my idea of visiting the Eastern block of the world. Phillipe’s chances of visiting Jaipur are far greater than my visiting Boston. For very good reasons too, for one can find in old England several aspects of the new one, but there is only one India.
Harrison philosophizes Lennon’s death by reciting a verse from the Bhagvad Gita where Krishna says..
“All things must pass. There’s no time when we didn’t exist and there’ll never be a time when we cease to exist. The only thing that changes is the bodily condition. Soul comes into the body and we go from birth to death. It’s like changing from one suit to another.”
I have admired Dr. David Campany since the time I read his book, The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip. Little did I know at the time that he was to be the future teacher of my daughter.
Sophie (Malavika) brings a book titled Photography and Cinema authored by Campany and says, “I am making notes from this book.”
“Oh,” I ask, “What led you to Campany?”
“Campany himself. He taught us today.”
“Of course.” It hit me then. He’s Sophie’s faculty.
THE David Campany is the professor at her university.
These kids are so so so damn lucky. To be taught by him and his colleagues. So much knowledge these brilliant minds have accumulated between them.
Sophie really couldn’t appreciate my excitement. In due course she will. She’s still very young.
The guy is an academic genius. I absolutely adore him. He is famous in not the literal sense of the word, but he is famous in the circle that matters to me. Understated star of the photography’s academic world. Most iconic photographers pale in comparison because they don’t understand the language of photography. They only create captivating photographs. Campany has mastered the language. Photography is more than pleasing photos. It’s a concept, an idea, an exploration.
I wish I were his student. I am, kind of. I regularly read his work. Ask him questions from time to time. He is aware I’m a follower of his work, an avid reader of his books. He doesn’t know his student is that fan’s daughter. Typical youngster, Sophie, wants to keep her personal life away from her peers and teachers. Though, she proudly does end up mentioning and introducing me to her circle as we tend to bump into each other at galleries. They think I am her friend. Campany might perhaps have noticed a similarity in our facial features, and one day he might connect the dots.
In the meantime, I want to share an excerpt from one of his works that I have personally enjoyed reading.
Photographs are unruly, anarchic things. They never do quite what you expect. This may appear an odd claim, given that most photos seem to be so obvious, clichéd even. Don’t they perform reliably enough in advertising, documentary and the family album? Yes and no. In many cases it is really the accompanying words that make them reliable. Captions, titles, commentary. What we read will shape and direct the possibilities in what we see. Deprive images of language and they soon revert to ambiguity. Try covering the text in this magazine and see if it is possible to figure out what’s going on.
Or, take a look at the first image reproduced above. You probably have already. Clearly, it’s not a sunset or a selfie. What are you actually seeing? How are your eyes moving around this image? Are you searching for clues? Is it a landscape? A microscopic view? Is it a document? An artwork? It is almost impossible to know what this photograph is of, let alone what it might mean. In calling for explanation, a photograph like this can make us feel the gap between looking, reading and knowing. I am a curator of exhibitions, and recently I was invited to put together my “dream show”. That’s a phrase to raise the eyebrow of any Freudian, but I took it seriously. What could such an exhibition be? Nobody wants to see artists’ corny interpretations of their dreams. That would be almost as tedious as hearing your partner recount theirs over breakfast (it is for good reason that we pay analysts to listen). Dreams are untroubled by conscience or decorum. You are “innocent when you dream”, as Tom Waits once sang. A dream will defy the logic of time and space, too: things from an almost-forgotten holiday combine with yesterday’s trip to the cinema. Moreover, there is often no obvious connection between what is dreamt and what it might mean. This is not unlike our initial responses to images. In those moments before we switch from free-associative looking to the authority of words, we are free to react as our impulses take us. We intuit that an image cannot carry a message the way a truck carries coal, and so we are not held by rational thought. Why not begin an exhibition with that particularly odd photograph? It’s an image so wide open it could mean almost anything, or nothing. A risky start. I shall tell you a little about the photograph. In 1920, the artist Man Ray was visiting his friend, Marcel Duchamp, in his studio on Broadway, Manhattan. Man Ray had little money and was complaining to Duchamp that a rich collector wanted him to photograph her artworks. He was learning how to use a camera to document his own paintings and sculptures but in his memoir he recalls: “The thought of photographing the art of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist.” Duchamp suggested his own latest, unfinished artwork might be something upon which Man Ray could practise. Duchamp’s piece would become known as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-1923), one of the most notorious and arcane works in all art history. It comprises two vertical glass panels sandwiching a diagram drawn in molten lead lines, and it may or may not be an allegory of sexual relations. But on that day in 1920, it was just a flat surface, covered in New York dust. Man Ray recalled: “Looking down on the work as I focused the camera, it appeared like some strange landscape from a bird’s-eye view.” Relocating to Paris, Man Ray took the photograph with him. Surrealism, with its interest in the unconscious and the uncanny, was blooming. In October 1922, the same image was published in a little journal with a deliberately misleading caption: “View from an aeroplane” (it would later be retitled “Elevage de poussière” and translated as “Dust breeding”). Seeing Earth from above is disorienting, but wartime aerial reconnaissance photographs had already become common currency in newspapers and magazines. Devastated cities have an unsettling beauty. Meanwhile, many avant-garde photographers were starting to shoot unexpected subject matter from new angles, attempting to revolutionise perception itself. Also in October 1922, TS Eliot published The Waste Land. The great dream-like poem of the interwar era picks over the rubble of western civilisation like a literary detective, stacking up quotations and allusions as fragments of evidence. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” warns Eliot. To many writers and artists of the 1920s the ideal of a rational, stable order was looking more like a fantasy. What if The Waste Land and Man Ray’s photograph of dust, appearing that same month, were harbingers of the ensuing century? This would be the theme of my exhibition. Any photographer will tell you that dust has a double-edged relation to the camera. It must be kept well away from the equipment but it is deeply photogenic. Floating in the air, dust motes catch the light, and settle on hard surfaces as a soft glow. There is also something universal about dust. We come from it, go to it and create it daily. So, an image of dust, even one as obscure as Man Ray’s, is likely to have all manner of resonances and associations. Some will be yours only, but many will be shared, from the epic scale of the aerial view and the abstract landscape, to the close-up world of forensic imaging. Beyond these associations many artists have explored the idea of dust as material and metaphor, with its allusions to time, mortality and ruin. For example, in the early 1970s the Californian John Divola began breaking into disused houses and turning arty vandal with knife, aerosol can, string and cardboard.
He would make mysterious, ritualistic interventions in the corners of rooms and then photograph them. Rich in narrative implication, his images slip between forensics, performance art, sculpture and fine art photography. The visual and conceptual similarity to the Man Ray photograph is striking. A little later, the French artist Robert Filliou had himself photographed cleaning (without permission) the dust from 100 artworks in the Louvre.
A Polaroid and a stained white cloth from each painting was put in a small open box and exhibited. Filliou even suggested, teasingly, that the aura of these paintings vanished with the dust’s removal. More recently, Eva Stenram placed under her bed colour negatives of the first images sent by Nasa from the surface of Mars, and allowed balls of dust to gather on them before making prints. The cosmic and the domestic implications of dust are conflated.
Even when images of dust are thoroughly earthbound they can be other-worldly. Jeff Mermelstein is a street photographer in the classic mould: New York is his beat and he’s ready for the unexpected. He was out shooting that September morning when the Twin Towers were struck. His shot of a public sculpture in a powdered avenue near Wall Street is both urgent and entirely dream-like. He wrote shortly after the event: “I don’t really remember finding that statue covered in debris. I’m not a war photographer, so this wasn’t an easy experience for me. The constantly shattering glass was terrifying and distracting, and my camera kept getting completely covered in ash. But because for years I have been taking documentary pictures of New Yorkers out on the sidewalks, there is a way in which I was prepared.”
The most remarkable extension of Man Ray’s photograph was made by Sophie Ristelhueber. In 1991, the French artist visited the deserts of Kuwait. Allied forces had pushed Saddam’s invading army back into Iraq, and Ristelhueber wanted to see, for herself, the traces left behind. Tanks, personal belongings, and long trenches dug into the sand. She photographed on foot and from the air, always looking down as if surveying the ground before her. The resulting photographic series was titled “Fait”, meaning both “fact” and “done”. In a short text, Ristelhueber revealed her inspiration: “By shifting from the air to the ground, I sought to destroy any notion of scale as in Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Dust Breeding’.” It’s a picture that fascinates me and that I kept in my mind throughout the time I was working out there. The constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it is a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing.”
Ristelhueber kept one image back, thinking it looked too much like its inspiration. In 2007 she printed it as a single work, titled “À cause de l’élevage de poussière” (Because of the dust breeding). It is a striking photograph, and its genesis speaks volumes about the unpredictable effects that images can have upon us. An artist photographs an ex-war zone and her visual template is a peculiar, semi-abstract view of a half-finished artwork made 70 years earlier, on another continent. No logic can account for that. We don’t file images in our minds the way they are filed in an archive, or searched for online. Words will not come close to accounting for the madness of images.
I am never drawn to photograph the softer side of nature. It’s plain boring for me. I don’t believe in “making something work” if it hasn’t worked for me in the first instance. There are trillions of extremely beautiful nature photographs out there, but over-saturation is not the reason why I won’t take them. That would be the easiest thing to do. To photograph what one sees. Plus, what can possibly go wrong with something that’s already so beautiful?! I’ve often said that nature, even if messy, is the best backdrop. It needs no touch ups.
The things in nature that are not instantly obvious are the ones I seek.
Pointing my camera skywards, I shoot a couple of images. Seeing the expanse, one that I believed, as a child, was the doorway to heaven, I realised the insignificance of me in the grand scheme of things. I later change it to black and white.
If I do photograph pretty flowers some day, it will only be to demonstrate a new technique I might have employed to photograph them, and not because I thought, “Oooh, look at those! Aren’t they so beautiful!! Bet no one has photographed them in this angle/view/composition.” blah blah. Take it.. someone already has.
P. S. “Beauty” is subjective concept. I use the word bearing in mind the broadly accepted norm, and only as far as photography is concerned. There is, however, no doubt in the therapeutic properties of nature in the development of mental and emotional health.
P. S. 2: Although, I create such images, I would never want my surroundings to look so dreary. It’s a liberty I take because I can afford it. Nature is very kind to me. It is indeed beautiful.