Rohit Chawla thinks fashion photography is puerile. But do his pictures entirely escape this trap, asks Deepanjana Pal
PHOTOGRAPHER ROHIT Chawla says his wife doesn’t like most of his work. Considering the bras worn in his latest collection World of Wearable Art, we’re not surprised. Some men might find chandeliers sprouting from bra cups attractive but women would wince. There’s also one whose cups were clearly inspired by either Dali’s melting watch or a very runny poached egg. “It’s all about form and composition,” said Chawla. “The model, the dresses, these are just examples of a form I play with.”
By which one is to deduce 45-year-old Chawla, an ad film producer and a fashion photographer, is also an artist. “My fine art photography is a protest against the bullshit of fashion photography,” said Chawla. “Fashion photography is puerile, juvenile. I never took it seriously.” Yet, Chawla’s work remains neatly within that realm. His photographs are all about glamour and showcasing what his models are wearing, particularly in the distinctly unwearable World of Wearable Art.
Ever since he began dabbling in non-commercial photography ten years ago, Chawla has tried to elevate his works above the fashion plane. One of his first projects was Wanderlust, for which he shot nomadic tribes against white backgrounds. Many of the images are striking, though not novel. Over the years, sometimes he has referenced literary works, like Alice in Wonderland in some of the World of Wearable Art photos. Most famous, perhaps, are his tributes to Raja Ravi Varma and Gustav Klimt, in which he recreated their paintings as elaborately staged photographs.
That his works are often categorised as fashion photography rather than art clearly frustrates Chawla. “The fine-art world is completely media-propped. They call themselves artists and have 87 people actually making the thing,” he said. What does he think of the industrially manufactured sculptures by Jeff Koons, the presiding deity of installation art? Chawla says it is a ‘travesty’ to compare Koons to Indian artists. “Here, you take a common utensil, make it outsized, and that’s art. Ridiculous and expensive,” he said. (Chawla’s photographs are priced at more than Rs 1 lakh a print.) His contempt is presumably for Subodh Gupta who shot to fame with his steel vessel sculptures, and who, ironically, did broaden our visual language.
Chawla’s photographs are exotic and often beautiful, but attempting to force the imagery of historic paintings into contemporary photographs seems derivative. He disagrees. “Our visual vocabulary has to go ahead,” he said. “You want me to go to Bastar, take people and make them look Indian? I’m dead against banal documentation. Your driver can do that with his phone.” Fair enough, but it doesn’t explain how he is pushing the envelope. Pouring Chitrangda Singh into a Klimt-mould doesn’t broaden our understanding of Indian aesthetics. Neither is the copying of a sari-clad Ravi Varma heroine. It only adds to the clutter of “exotic India” visuals.
His upcoming projects promise to be different. In this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, he began a set of author portraits. There’s also a series on “the glorious decay” of Havana in Cuba. “Curators will like it because they’ll think I’ve fallen into their trap. It’s got nothing to do with fashion,” said Chawla, sounding vaguely disappointed that his work might be appreciated by the art establishment. On the plus side, his wife likes the Havana photographs.