Life in black and white

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

"These people live again in print as intensely as when their images were captured on the old dry plates of sixty years ago... I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me "

Ansel Adams writing in the preface of Jacob A. Riis: Photographer & Citizen

IN a society with a long history of civilisation, new art forms often tend to get discounted. Only those arts whose origin is lost in the misty past, such as music and dance, are respected as classical art forms and are eagerly patronised by the elite. More recent forms of art are sometimes ignored and are deemed unworthy of serious attention. Cinema, photography and abstract painting can be included in the category of marginalised art forms. We have not yet developed an appreciation for these arts and there has been little discourse on the subject. Photography criticism is still a nascent discipline. Moreover, technological developments in photography have made it easier to practise photography. In India, this contemporary art form has remained in the family-album stage for a long time. Museums and art galleries are yet to give prominence to the works of Indian photographic masters. We tend to recognise our photographers only after critics in the West have discovered them. Advertising and fashion photography have given some fillip to the field but only in a limited way.

Ironically, photography appeared in India almost immediately after it was invented in Europe. It was hailed as an event whose importance ranked only below that of the invention of written language. The significance of photography was recognised early and it has long found a place in the curriculum of the Madras School of Arts (currently known as the College of Arts and Crafts). The Photographic Society of Madras was founded in 1856 and the association held salons periodically. In the 1870s, the government appointed official photographers for each Presidency. Somewhere along the way the patronage diminished and photography as an art form did not receive the attention it deserved.

It is in this background that we have to judge the masters of black and white photography, such as M. Krishnan, Harry Miller, T.N.A. Perumal and T.S. Satyan, who have held on tenaciously and produced some impressive works. These photographers have been active for nearly a century. Amazingly none of them received formal training. Having discovered the nuances of photography by themselves, they attained a mastery over light and form. A significant portion of their work was done at a time when the facilities were primitive and equipment and film were not easily available. These artists were able to use photography as a means of personal communication.

T.S. Satyan started his career with Deccan Herald in 1948. He moved to Bombay to work for the Illustrated Weekly of India and later joined the Photo Division of the Government of India. This position gave him the opportunity to travel and he made the most of it. In 1957, the photographs of Edward Steichen travelled to several Indian cities in an exhibition titled `The Family of Man'. I distinctly remember the 1957 exhibition in Chennai and the vast crowds it attracted. These photos were presented in a geodesic dome. It won many admirers for the new art of photography. Satyan was deeply moved by Stiechen's work and began looking to concentrate on his `favourite subject people'. As a photojournalist , he travelled for nearly 50 years around the country and has documented different people and varied moods.

His pictures have appeared in several leading magazines around the world. In fact many readers will be familiar with a number of pictures that appear in this book, such as the one showing four boys diving into water. On the occasion of Satyan's 75th birthday, a retrospective of his work was held in some Indian cities and this book was born out of that exhibition. Steichen's influence is reflected in Satyan's selection of pictures in this book.

The book contains 148 black and white prints. Even in this age of digital images and software, connoisseurs of photography judge a photographer only by his black and white work. Raghubir Singh tells a story of his only meeting with Henri Cartier-Bresson. Singh handed his portfolio of colour prints to Cartier-Bresson, who on noticing that they were colour pictures, put them aside and never looked at them. In the preface, Satyan himself writes about this aspect of photography: "I prefer black-and-white photography. For one thing, it is more graphic and lasts longer... Though there is colour all around, a black and white image does not distract; indeed it highlights the essence."

Satyan has recorded those subjects that he appreciates, those that move him and those he thinks need our attention. These include the miracle of birth, the joys of parenthood and the stark realities of poverty, malnutrition, disability, widowhood and death. He resists the temptation to sensationalise and approaches his subject with measured respect. They are not grist to his photographic mill and his concern for fellow humans is evident in many of the prints. There is another angle to these photographs. They serve as documents of visual history of a momentous period. For instance, the picture of the Arasu family of Karnataka on page 159 depicts Satyan's fascination with the wide range of human experience and this is reflected in his images. Most of the works in this book deal with people, though there are a few exceptions such as the one of a ghat road in Arunachal Pradesh. The images are matter-of-fact no spectacular close-ups or fish-eye-lens views. While there is spontaneity in most pictures, some are contrived such as the `Polling booth, Haryana' (page 119). Satyan's career with the government seems to have narrowed his viewpoint. There is little social awareness in his works.

The book would have been immensely helpful to aspiring photographers if Satyan had provided more technical details. What type of cameras did he prefer? What is his favourite lens? Did he ever use flash? When did he resort to the tripod, if at all? Comments on each photograph would have been appreciated by the reader. Explanatory details accompanying the photographs are sparse in some only the name of the town where it was taken is given and others list only the name of the State. There is neither a list of contents at the beginning of the book nor an index at the end. To locate an individual photograph, the reader has to thumb through each page.

The book is designed imaginatively and pictures are well laid-out. The print quality is excellent and the images reveal the whole range of emotions, from the darkest to the brightest tone.

In Love With Life: A Journey through Life in Photographs

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