THE LARGER PICTURE: Photography as an evolving art

By Janhavi Acharekar

Jetwings, August 2005

Those behind the camera have reason to smile. Photography in India is increasingly acquiring the status of fine art. No longer will the term evoke visions of cheesy glossies well hidden in that embarrassed wedding album. No longer will it be relegated to small town studio status, boasting of verdant landscape backgrounds and passport sized Polaroids. It's time to flash the moolah, as collectors and exhibitors zoom in on this contemporary art, at last.

The idea of photography as art is not new to the West, where exhibitions and Museums such as the MOPA (Museum of Photographic Arts) in San Diego, California, are dedicated to this contemporary art alone. In India, however, where people have only just warmed up to the art market, will a photograph (other than the family portrait by the friendly neighbourhood wedding photographer) ever enjoy pride of place on the wall?

"Is photography finally coming of age in India? I believe it has and it is about time it did," says Devika Daulet-Singh. A photographer by qualification, Daulet-Singh is among the few who dared to establish a photo agency in India. PhotoInk, established in September 2001 in New Delhi, was a significant initiative to promote photographers and their art in a relatively new and unorganised profession. The idea for this enterprise went back to her stint at Contact Press Images, a photo agency based out of New York. PhotoInk was conceived to create a Contact-like agency for emerging photographers in India. "But with a difference," says Daulet-Singh, who also planned to create an in-house design studio specialising in publication design. Today, this agency syndicates images through Contact Press Images (US & France), Grazia Neri (Italy), Focus (Germany) and Contacto (Spain). "We've produced and curated exhibitions; even attempted publishing. Almost four years down, I'm glad to see every photographer we work with developing his/her own body of work, unencumbered and unfettered by the demand of clients and magazines. Eventually, each project will be an exhibition and perhaps a book," she says.

An exhibition titled 'Incredible Moment', organised by People for Animals in New Delhi next month, will exhibit and sell signed works of 250 photographers. These include names of international acclaim such as Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew, whose works will be exhibited alongside those of less known and emerging photographers. In Mumbai too, 'Exhibit A', a show that displays the works of several celebrity photographers every year, has created solid ground for photography exhibits. "The market for photography is still a nascent one, just as the art market was until a while ago. The day is not far when people will collect photographs just as they do paintings," says fashion and advertising photographer Atul Kasbekar. And avid collector Czaee Shah's impressive collection of photographs only goes to prove that the process has already begun. Her collection ranges from early photographs of the 1840s to more contemporary works by younger photographers. "I don't know what other collectors prefer but I tend to look at works of younger artists in every medium, whether art or photography. In fact, the collection has built up a reputation for being young, bold and avante garde," she says.

Photographic prints generally sell for anything between Rs.15,000 and Rs. 50,000. Indian photography seems to have captured interest worldwide, with two international museums gearing up for major exhibitions on photography from India. Photographers Dayanita Singh and Ketaki Sheth sell their prints internationally and have been published abroad. While the former has already had a major retrospective in Berlin, her works often fetching as much as some paintings do, the latter's print prices escalated to $2000 this summer.

"Photography in India is at an important crossroad," says Daulet-Singh. "Its transition to high art appears to be following the same trajectory as it did in the West. A buoyant economy with surplus cash initiated a lot of people into investing in art. Not only do we have art collectors but also 'art investors' who are driving the prices up frenetically. Hence attention towards other 'inexpensive' art practices seems only natural. Today, photographs are competing with paintings for wall space in the West. When I read that a photograph sold at an international auction for $ 800,000+, I can only marvel at the journey this reproducible art practice has travelled."

Photography is a reproducible art practice that seems to have wended its way around its unique constraints. Like in art, where the buyer is assured that a particular painting is an 'original', photography introduces the concept of signed, editioned and archival prints. Photographers may limit their prints and once that edition is exhausted, the negative can never be printed again. Of course, a single edition work will be far superior in value. And since this is an art continuously transformed and reinvented by technology, archival prints refer to traditional prints that Daulet-Singh claims will soon command the prices of vintage prints, thanks to the elimination of the dark room process and the advent of digital photography.

Photographer Ashima Narain, whose work featuring two little boys flexing their muscles at the National Akhara Kushti tournament in Mumbai (to be exhibited at 'Incredible Moment'), won her the Commonwealth Award in 2004, believes that originality lies in the ideas that are communicated through a work. "Is no literature original because it is reproducible? Andy Warhol merged the idea of mass media, mass consumerism and mass production to create an entirely new movement in art, a movement that embraced photography and other available technology to make statements about society," she says.

However, stalwarts such as Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew express their discomfort with this newfound optimism and the attempt to place photography in the same genre as high art. "To me, seeing is believing. Photography, no matter what the subject, will always present a slice of reality. The honesty of the medium far exceeds its artistic value. The fact that it may be displayed as art is secondary," says Rai, who also believes that the growth of this medium in India is still unforgivably slow.

Echoing Rai's concerns is his contemporary Pablo Bartholomew, who speaks as candidly as his pictures do. "The photography scene in India isn't better; it's just that the media is bigger. There have always been Indian photographers who have exhibited abroad and made their mark. It's just that collectors are beginning to sit up and take notice. The medium is still immature and volatile," he says.

However, there are some who choose to straddle two art forms and while artists are known to incorporate photography in their paintings, filmmaker Mamta Murthy too prefers to amalgamate her photography projects with other art forms. Murthy's recent 'Food, Skin and Other Baggage' was a photo-installation of images from German Bakeries across the country, as part of 'Import-Export', a larger project wherein nearly 25 Indian, German and Viennese artists and academics explored the dynamics of mutual perception in the age of globalisation. In the past, she has curated 'Baghdad! Baghdad!' - an exhibition of protest memorabilia from the anti-Iraq movement for the World Social Forum 2004, and 'Crossovers and Rewrites: Borders across Asia', on perceptions of Borders in works by Asian artists where photography was one of the several art forms exhibited. "I find it difficult to isolate a form, as an artist and as a curator. Being a filmmaker too, my interest in motion comes from my understanding of the still, from my photographic work. One feeds into the other. In our layered reality, I don't see how any art form can enjoy a cocooned existence," she says.

Then again, photography exhibitions may not be quite at par with art exhibitions where both scale and frequency are concerned, but one cannot deny that they do elicit considerable interest, and not just from the charmed inner circle. However, whether this remains just that, mere interest and nothing more, is a concern voiced by co-curator of Mumbai's Sakshi Gallery, Usha Gawde. She believes that photography for photography's sake may be a long time in coming. An exhibition of photographs by Nemai Ghosh drew considerable attention at her gallery, perhaps more for his association with Satyajit Ray than for the art itself. And the fact that this curiosity failed to translate into sale may only go to prove the point. "Photography needs to evolve further in order to be perceived as art," she says.

Which brings us back to the age-old debate of 'What is art?' "A Madhubani painting by a folk artist may cost Rs.200 and a painting by Husain, Rs. 20,00,000, but the former may be more identifiable and the latter less understood. Ultimately, it depends on which one appeals to whom and how much the person is willing to pay for it. Photography too is like that," says Bartholomew. But as collectors increasingly prefer to look at art with a wide angle lens, it may not hurt to be able to tell your Man Ray from your Walker Evans and a Raghu Rai from a Swapan Parekh. After all, one person's flash of reality may well replace another's painted abstraction, above the mantelpiece.

© Janhavi Stories 2009