QUESTION: What is the biggest camera manufacturing company in the world?
This joke is old, but somehow it is still telling. If you possess a mobile phone now, chances are you also possess a camera. Not so long ago, in the era of film rolls, both amateur and professional photographers were sparing in the number of photos they shot. And access to a larger audience was the privilege of the few who took photos for newspapers and magazines. But things have changed—now everyone takes pictures and posts them on the web. Where does this leave someone like Swapan Nayak, who has been shooting professionally for the past 15 years?
We get some answers in Being and Nothingness, Nayak’s latest solo show whose title has been taken from the famous book by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Nayak’s previous exhibition, this show is being hosted by Tasveer, one among the few galleries in India dedicated exclusively to photography. Tasveer hosts its exhibitions in five Indian cities—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad—and Being and Nothingness, which was shown in Mumbai in August, will be doing the rounds of the other venues in the months ahead.
Nayak’s most recent show was about marginalised people and refugees in the northeastern states of India. Seen in that light, the black and white photographs of coastal seascapes, landscapes and still lifes of rocks and trees that make up his current show mark a clear departure for him. For Nayak and his peers, the advent of the digital revolution in photography was a time of crisis. As he told me during a phone conversation, an amateur today could shoot 300 photos in the space of a couple of hours, out of which 20 are bound to be decent. How was a professional to distinguish himself? The answer for Nayak was to quit his job as a photographer for Outlook magazine and strike out on his own in a quest to forge a “new language” of making pictures.
This quest is apparent in Being and Nothingness in his choice of subject as well as in his approach to photographing them. The images have been shot on film, using the square-format Hasselblad camera, and developed on gelatin silver prints. Nayak could have opted for digital printing—with little or no difference in quality—and saved considerably on time, effort and money; but he “didn’t want to compromise”. He feels that one could sit and meditate in front of his photographs, all of which are without captions or titles, and in this he sees a validation of his method of working.
The images, which feature large swaths of the sky, sea and sand, do lend themselves to the contemplative gaze. While people are missing almost entirely in these photographs, many of them contain markers of human presence—a scenically shot fishing boat, a small house, a rusty signboard, a silhouetted water tank, idyllic park benches or a stick fence. As sharp silhouettes or as objects with clean lines, these figures stand in clear contrast to the vast and formless elements—the sea, sky and earth—that constitute the backdrop in these photos. The beach, which is the setting for many photographs, seems particularly apt for achieving this effect—it is, after all, the junction of the atmosphere, the oceans and the continental land mass. Nayak uses this location to full advantage, highlighting the harmony and play of the elements by devices such as the placement of a folded fishing net or dark rocks or an improvised reed gate in the foreground and of minuscule, ghost-like human figures in the distance.
As a result, man is both absent and present in these pictures. This duality is also visible in many shots that are set in the hills, woods or grasslands—isolated signs of human life underscore the absence of actual humans and the overwhelming presence of nature.
But these images do not feel desolate. This could be because of the omnipresence of water in the frames—as the sea, a stream, clouds that fill the sky, or as the mist that envelops the trees and the hills. The life-giving, nourishing and fertile qualities of water resonate in shots of the vegetation, crops and scattered flowers. The warm textures of rock surfaces, the tangled roots and curvy trunks, the dark triangle framed by stones—they all speak of nature’s fecundity.
Perhaps because of the prominence of the sea in these images, and because of Nayak’s reference to meditation, the phrase “oceanic feeling”—made famous by Sigmund Freud—comes to mind. Freud’s friend, Romain Rolland, used the phrase to describe the sensation or awareness of limitlessness, which he said underlies all religious impulse in man. The phrase evokes a sense of exhilaration at the discovery of an “ocean” within oneself but, perhaps, also a sense of awe and even disquiet at the sheer scale of things “oceanic”.
This disquiet or trepidation at the sheer vastness of nature also comes through in some of the photographs—the solitary wooden boat in the middle of the sea looks fragile, as does the lone house set in the seemingly endless grassland or the empty park bench at the edge of a valley. Nature can be placid and scenic, but its largeness makes man and his concerns seem insignificant by comparison. Nature, these photos remind us, is also indifferent to us.
In depicting human activity as existentially insignificant, the images are like sermons in humility. But in the process, they are also showing human activity as benign—as if it is all about fishing in small wooden boats, inhabiting simple dwellings and riding bicycles. They leave themselves exposed to the charge of being blind to the reality of the industrial age and massive manmade environmental disruption. This narrative is completely absent here.
One could argue that nature photography of this or any other category is about nature, not about factories belching smoke. But when you encounter frame after frame in which time seems to have stopped in the mid-19th century, something feels amiss. This image of man and his place on the planet seems too sanitised—as in pretty picture postcards. To say that they are idealistic visions that aim to capture a certain mood or evoke a certain spiritual feeling doesn’t convince completely—the pictures feel and look too real for that. They are not saying this is how the world should be; they are saying this is how the world is. And therefore, they feel misleading.
This charge does not hold, however, when we view the images individually—though it is still the “non-pastoral” photographs that are the most arresting. In fact, the “risky” shots, such as the slightly out of focus, indeterminate water-body, the plain fog-enveloped hill or the plank floating in murky water, seem to work the most. They have the fortunate quality of being both edgy as well as “drawing room friendly”. This is best exemplified by the most abstract and incoherent—and the most striking—image of the lot, one that feels that it has strayed from a different show altogether: a blurry, luminous stack of planks hovering in an utterly dark and alien realm.
An element of lingering incomprehension and mystery, even as appreciation for it grows, is essential in any good work of art. Anything that can be figured out a hundred percent, however good to look at, quickly becomes banal. Continued interest in a work demands continual engagement of the mind and the senses. The appetite for risk that Being and Nothingness exhibits is its main strength. An image-saturated world demands ever new ways of looking and showing, and these photos mostly rise to the challenge.
Being and Nothingness will be on display in Ahmedabad from 7 October to 16 October. Shows in Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata will be held in the months following. For more details, visit tasveerarts.com.