Monday, July 31, 2006


The Main quadrangle in IISc is fashioned like the Union Jack, a bit of a throwback to our colonial legacy. I must admit to a tingle of satisfaction whenever I walk over it.

One of the lanes of the Jack is lined with Ficus benjamina trees. These are beautiful trees with interesting architechture. They branch very low on the stem, have large and widespread canopies with drooping leaves. The branches often extend long distances parallel to the ground before turning up towards the sun into a canopy break.

I think it was during the last monsoon that two of these trees tipped over. The soil around their roots had washed away with the rains and softened. The weight of the trees and wind brought them down. They lay on their sides for many a month, and since some of their roots were still in the ground continued to grow. Some branches were torn off the main stem and they died, others continued thriving. There was a huge canopy gap where the trees had stood.

After all this time, the folks in the nursery decided they had to do something about the trees. the branches were pared to make the trees more manageable. The help of two cranes, many prop branches, ropes and humans was enlisted to make these trees stand up again. It was hard work and a little risky.

The wisdom of it, as always, questionable. I can't but think that the primary motivation in actions like these is a sense of aesthetic that is uniquely and exclusively anthropic. Functionally these trees would have gone on living and growing as they were. Branches would have grown upward and eventually filled the gap they had left. They were providing interesting undergrowth like space for crits close to the ground, which is now gone. Things live in dead trees, under the bark, in the gaps and the spaces.

Now they're standing again and they might find it easier to fill the gap, it remains to be seen. I hope the props and the ropes and whats left of their damaged root system will be enough for them to remain standing. Because the monsoon (if it ever comes) is upon us. And it will carry away all the soil thats been loosened in this process. I'm not sure if the roots will survive this time, if the trees fall again. The branches on the tree had prevented the angle of the fallen tree to the ground being from too acute and helped its roots stay in the ground. Not too many branches anymore.

Lets see yeah?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Photograph as witness

The title of this phrase is modified from a chapter title from a book called "Reading pictures". One of things that the author argues in that chapter is that people often have to be convinced that an image, even if its a photograph is not merely a recording of a scene. He argues that what is 'out there' filters through many layers of perception and interpretation as the photographer clicks it and you see it. He also talks about how this is something the average viewer finds hard to grasp and spends quite a bit of time convincing you of his proposition. I've been convinced.

Interestingly, others, scientists, apparently always were. Its an interesting contrast and the reasons for why are also interesting. I hope you can access the science url.

What is also interesting is that while the photograph gained acceptability at one stage as acceptable 'data'. It has now to an extent lost its credibility and journals are now beginning to look at ways of catching fraudsters. The doctored stem cell images from Dr Hwang Woo-suk being one of the more recent high profile scandals.

Some like to blame Digital imaging and photoshop for this. I'm not so sure; as many have pointed out before, manipulation is not new. Digital imaging makes it easier, it wasn't impossible before and people did it. Summerlin and his felt tip markers are a famous example . But having done some darkroom work myself (not in science, in photography), I can certainly tell you, dodging and burning ain't hard baby! Heck that would be enough to make gel bands appear and disappear.

The other area where a viewer tends to see the photograph as witness is journalism. Now I really can't say this about India, but elsewhere, the notion of journalists as seekers of truth has always been popular. And by extension the photojournalist. Yet Migrant mother, Dorothea Lange's arguably most famous photograph, has its own elements of deception. It is believed that she directed the photograph and perhaps lied about their stories in an attempt to make them sound worse than they were. OJ Simpsons pictures in TIME were much talked about, images of Iraq were doctored.

Even when images aren't doctored, leaving in or leaving out context can make the interpretation of their content controversial. (If you're thinking about more recent obviously emotional pictures, the emotion is precisely why I decided to leave it out.). Even which photographs get published and which left out are profound indicators of the degree of deception that goes on in public discourse.

The motivation behind such 'manipulation', post or pre-exposure, of course, is that photographers want to tell a story. That every image has an intentionality behind it. Sometimes the details before them do not fit that vision. If you ask me, Langes image isn't a lie. Some migrant families did face the situations that she talked about and the image had the effects that she wished it to. Off course she gained from it as well, but there can be no doubt that the intent was not to merely to cement her reputation as a photographer, but to help. I think her life attests to that.

So when is a photograph a lie? I believe it is no more a lie than a truth. Unless of course it asserts its literal veracity and isn't true. This can also be hard to judge, whether its asserts any such thing.

What are the standards to which a photograph is to be held? The same that you hold any representational art to, all that was 'out there' is now boxed in a small space through the filters of many peoples perceptions, the photographers, the editors and yours.

Are we to read it as 'literal truth'? Unless you enjoy self deception, I suggest you dont.

So far, this is advice to people looking at pictures, how they might interpret them. But I also take pictures, so how do i approach that? (And btw I do manipulate, I've added moons, I've removed a branch and dust spots, created composites and the usual levels, curves, etc. )

So the other direction I personally come to this debate is the idea in nature photography that images should not be manipulated (especially after the advent of digital tech). Guy Tal makes an impassioned appeal for why he thinks its bollicks. I personally think its impossible, for reasons stated before, and stated again i.e. everythings manipulated.

Is it then a question of degree? But I remember my Logical fallacy 101 lessons, truth isn't heirarchical. There isn't a 'higher' or 'truer' truth, theres just one consistent truth. So no, we cant take recourse to that.

I believe, theres only one thing in any image, a realisation of an intention, the photographers or if its part of a larger piece, that of whoever put that together. The realisation maybe good or poor thats another issue. But the image can depending on your purposes contravene any rule of reality.

From a photographers point of view, if I present my images in the context of representing nature, biology, I don't want them contravening biological reality. But that doesn't mean not manipulating, it means not contravening biological reality, so thats my brief.

If I present them as art, I don't have too many rules, I just try and keep from killing my own intention. Like the intention of posting short!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Antx Anty Antz

IISc is home to over 90 species of ants!!!
Some of these are actually different castes of the same species. Try and see if you can guess which. Don't cheat and look at the jpg names :)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Hmm the Natural History Museum and the BBC run a wildlife photography competition thats the most prestigious in the world. The top award is called Wildlife photographer of the year, prefixed by the company sponsoring it and postfixed by the year.

I'd sent entries for the first time this year, and got a mail yesterday saying I'd gotten as far as the semi finals. While I cant help but be a wee bit sorry I didnt do better, semis is good right?

Friday, July 14, 2006


I learnt to swim recently, pretty late in life, I guess. The first thing I had to do was get comfortable in the water, believe me it's still a struggle sometimes, I can get all tense if things aren't quite so...But the one image that kept me going, that was the motivation to learn to swim, was this image of leaping in and cuting my way face first through this blue thing. Oh, I know it sounds stupid and very 'filmy', but God, that image has a sense of abandon and freedom I am not equal to, I love it.

Water has, as I see it, power to transform, to change beyond recognition. Through it's brute force, partly through its indifference all things are equally brutalised or loved depending on how you see it.

So you can imagine that when I saw the presentation 'The seventh wave" at Magnum I was kind of sucked in and blown away. The photographer Trent Parke it says is their only Aussie photographer, he's also a sports photographer and a much decorated one at that.

His images seem to sometimes say that we're not creatures that belong in water. We remain at the threshold, afraid and fascinated. When we're in this environment, we're aliens. We are afraid of it and yet conquer it, there is triumph in our mastering it and ourselves. Some of our alienation has to do with a loss of innocence (you know water and the womb and so on). The water separates the child and mom. It does not distort the innocent but brutalises her. Hence, eventually us and water isn't about mastery but about return; a return to safety, to silence, to acceptance.

Water isolates us, deprives us of many of our senses, sound, smell, vision. Yet it encloses us in a way that is sensible. Unlike the way that wind makes us aware of air, we are always aware of water, whether mobile or not. This can induce both comfort and panic, its eventually not about the indifferent water, it is about us. It is about temperament.

I enjoy solitude; a long swim is one of my favourite ways of isolating myself. Swimming the middle lane in an empty pool is the closest I've ever come to flying.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't try this at home

I get a lot of traffic both here and on my website because of snakes. Its not really surprising I guess, they're fascinating, have captured the imagination of many.

I've had a lot of opportunity to work with them over the last 5 years(!). They're fun, scary and hard to photograph. All animals are camera shy, snakes seem to be particularly so...well ok maybe I just think so...

They're kind of difficult to really vary very much in terms of depiction. Sometimes theres a specific thing you're after and that works.

Other times the story has to built by the viewer. (How I wish the Russell's earth boa image had a person walking down that road in it I wish. It would complete the story with less effort from the viewer....
Other times I just like patterns. Not everyone necessarily likes them or even gets the stupid visual puns involved. The Indian Cobra's latin name is Naja naja naja, pronounced with a j ...Na ja as two separate words in Hindi mean "don't go".... Now you get it ?

If you're really really lucky though you get to watch some truly amazing behaviour and then to photograph it up close. Like the Rat snakes in combat dance below. Its a long ritualised display for dominance between two male snakes, which occurs in the breeding months, the months at the end of winter approaching summer. This was in the days that I didnt have all the appropriate lenses...I took it with a 28-105, you can go ahead and try and guess how close they were to me....Not that i was afraid they were much too engrossed in themselves to worry about me. And anyway, all I could worry abt was the perfect shot. Don't you just love all that muscle and movement?

Anyway...parting shot... good night.!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Old pictures, new pictures: good pictures

Magnum has always had the big guns in its stable, the names are just frightening big. However given the recent changes in journalistic photography, they've begun to do a lot more than just sell and manage the work of these artists. One of these very interesting endevours is their today's pictures at the Slate website. The most recent one on the decisive moment made me want to blog this. It has Cartier-Bresson's definition of the decisive moment. Different from what I believed it was...

Anyway, the other big thing off course are their Multimedia presentations, see them ALL if you can. They're an education in themselves, in photography, the art and the talk. For 'popular' media they are amazingly 'critical', in the sense of art criticism. They are reflexive and view photography and photographers as much as the products, the photographs or the stories.

One of the things I love to do is look at pictures, mine and those of other people. I'm not a careful a reader as I'd like to be, patience doesnt come easily to me. And images have a different language, that requires a relearning. But I love practicing my eyes, it gets there slowly, a bit at a time. These resources ensure I've a lot to look at.

Sometimes off course one worries that these things arent quite contemporary enough. (Although Magnum does have stuff on recent events, very recent ones, the photographers really aren't, although I'm not really sure who the contemporary ones are.) Also off course, the Magnum kind of person rarely strays outside the journalistic/social issue core. I suppose its a good idea to be looking at other movements, the fashion/commercial/art people do tend to push the envelope somewhat more. (I don't even know how to really categorise them, they are different.)

Do take a look, its kinda cool, all those images. They make me starry eyed.