Images of the Western Ghats

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Ian Lockwood highlights conservation issues related to the Western Ghats through his black-and-white photographs.

THE 59 black-and-white silver prints that make up the photographic exhibition 'The Western Ghats: Portrait and Panorama' at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi, were designed to be both an educative and artistic experience. For Ian Lockwood, 30, this was the first major show in India.


I met Ian Lockwood recently when he visited Chennai. The setting could not have been more appropriate - the farmhouse of herpetologist Romulus Whitaker near Chengalpattu, with a hill clothed in scrub jungle forming the backdrop. As a Crimsonthroated barbet, or coppersmith, kept up its drumming call, Ian talked about his childhood in Kodaikanal,Tamil Nadu. It provided new paths to explore, streams to swim in, cliffs to climb and ghat roads to cycle down. The several trips with family friends Romulus and Zai Whitaker influenced Ian's interest in natural history. At some point in school he started carrying a small camera to document the places he was in. Ian's parents were encouraging, and even tolerated his losing the camera, dunking another in a cold stream and wasting uncountable rolls of film. He used to spend his afternoons hanging around the musty darkroom of Doveton's Studio, the oldest photographic establishment in the hill town. Its manager Rajkumar showed him to use the darkroom and encouraged him to record and interpret nature using black-and-white film. He would help young Ian develop it and make the prints. Photography soon became a passion for Ian. Family was an important reason for his association with the landscape of South India, particularly the Western Ghats. Grandfather Edson Lockwood had started hiking in the Palani Hills in the late 1920s. He was an amateur naturalist at a time when hunting was an acceptable activity. Both Ian's mother and father attended boarding school in Kodaikanal in the 1950s, a time when the pupils of the school were primarily composed of the children of American missionaries. Hiking was one of the favourite activities of Ian's father. Besides, in the early 1970s, he documented the mountainscape around Kodaikanal.

The landscape of the Western Ghats was breathtaking, but Ian found, during his frequent visits to the hills from the United States, that it was also changing. High-altitude grasslands were disappearing as plantations of exotic trees were being introduced rapidly into the hills. The evergreen forests in the lower valleys were logged, and there was steady environmental deterioration. Ian noticed that the lake near the school where he had studied was polluted; there was a noticeable increase in vehicular traffic; and a huge number of visitors thronged the hills during the season. Ian began to document the transformation in the 1990s. The motivating force was the hope that he could share the message of conservation and ecological awakening with a wider audience.

IAN'S landscapes proclaim his relationship with nature. There are no man-made objects in them. They document remote landscapes.

When Ian was growing up in the Palni hills he was in awe of the grand cliffs, the falling cascades, the changing cloud patterns and the deep forests that he was surrounded by. He spent his weekends hiking and exploring the hills; doodled mountain silhouettes in his field book; and recorded the magical moments in his diary. But photography ultimately became the best way for him to express these emotions. He believes that there should be a personal connection between the photographer and subject.

The Perumal hills, the Anaimudi peak, the shola grasslands - all acquire an ethereal beauty through Ian Lockwood's camera.-

Ian Lockwood says that he chose the black-and-white medium for two reasons. First, he believes that black-and-white pictures best convey the message that he visualises and the emotions that he feels when he interacts with nature. It is his experience that the dramatic effects of the mountain scenery and the smaller details of the forest floor lend themselves to black-and-white photography. Secondly, black-and-white photography gives control over as much of the photographic process as possible and lends itself to this much more than colour photography (which, in a traditional sense, requires short-lived, expensive chemistry).

Ian takes the film from exposure all the way through development, printing and the final presentation of the exhibition print. He says he enjoys this control over the final image, which is difficult to achieve with colour. Although digital photography has of late provided similar control, like many other photographers, Ian remains a disciple of "straight" black-and-white photography. The Perumal hills, the Anaimudi peak, the shola-grasslands - all acquire an ethereal beauty through his camera.

EVEN to a casual viewer of the exhibition, the influence of the legendary American landscape photographer Ansel Adams was evident. The picture of the Thalayar falls in the Palani hills is reminiscent of Adams' 'Frozen Lakes and Cliffs, Sequoia National Park'. Ian was introduced to Adams' work by his father. Moved by the incredible beauty of places like Yosemite, Adams spent his life making classic images of nature in the American West. He is one of the first photographers whose work was accepted as "art" by the suspicious artistic community in North America. Adams knew his camera, how the film worked, the workings of light and the photographic process. This is encapsulated in the Zone System of exposure calculation that he co-developed in order to help photographers take images they visualised in the field to the final print. Adams was also a tireless educator and crusader for the protection of the habitats that he photographed. When Ian started to define his own photography, these attributes of Adams made him a perfect guru. (Adams himself had a guru, Alfred Stieglitz.) Sabastiao Salgado's black-and-white pictures of people in the developing countries were also an influence on Ian.

The photographer feels that black-and-white photographs best convey his emotions when he interacts with nature.-

Ian observes that there is an exciting situation for photography in India at the moment. The computer, the television and digital images have certainly challenged the conventional world of photography, but Ian does not see these developments as threatening photography. Photographers in India have to deal with the climatic challenges of living in a tropical country. High humidity levels and warm temperatures do not constitute the ideal conditions to shoot, process and preserve photographs. The storage of expensive equipment in humid areas is a major hindrance. Photographers have had to struggle with fungus that appear on lenses. The varying seasons of South Asia offer some respite, and it is not common for photographers to pursue most of their work in the cool, relatively dry winter season.

Why did he choose to exhibit his collection first in the capital? New Delhi is a long way from the Western Ghats, he says, but the decisions made there influence what happens in these far-flung hills. With the proximity of the mighty Himalayas to New Delhi, it is easy to forget the majestic mountains of the southern States. The challenges to the Western Ghats are multi-faceted. Mining, dam construction and the denotification of protected areas affect some areas, while the continued introduction of exotic trees affects others. The fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the resultant loss of biodiversity from a serious threat.

The selection of the pictures is designed to give viewers a deeper understanding of the role that the Ghats play in water regulation for the plains as well as their significance as one of India's most important locations of endemic biodiversity. Thankfully there are people working on various environmental conservation issues relating to the fragile Western Ghats.

Ian Lockwood says: "I hope that people who see this exhibition will walk away with a new appreciation for the Western Ghats as a critical mountain region of India. I am interested in reaching the art to the photographic and natural history communities as well as to anyone else with a curiosity for a remote part of this great country."

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