You are known to explore the human condition. Why an exhibition on trees now?
Trees are living beings in their wild habitat, I have always been attracted towards them as another living being. I have taken these photographs over a period of time. Thanks to digital technology, I was able to scan the negatives and create a body of work that spans 40 years.
How did this interest evolve over the years?
As a young photojournalist, I would see a moment and just pick up my camera. I was often busy photographing a political personality or weaving a story on something more topical like the Bhopal gas tragedy. However, I found myself drawn towards trees as a character bereft of topicality. It seems that they are whispering “hello” to me, and as a creative person I couldn’t help but photograph them. What you see in this series are pure aesthetic, meditative moments. There were deadlines and demands in my other work, but photographing trees was my free zone of creativity.
When shooting these images, did you ever feel the burden of living up to the idea of Raghu Rai, an iconic photographer who mainly shoots gritty, slice-of-life photographs?
We are all inspired by great photographers and there are many names to live up to, not just one’s own. However, when I shoot, I throw everyone out of my head, including Raghu Rai, and let the meditative moment take over. If I see something fresh and magical, I stop what I am doing to capture it. Nature and life is supreme, and one just cannot get tired of it.
You mentioned that the show features works spanning 40 years. How do you differentiate between the images you shot in digital and those done in film?
I am not nostalgic about old methods of photography. I think digital gives you great freedom to shoot any number of images. You can preview and correct your image immediately. Many darkroom techniques are now available at the touch of a button. In fact, with automatic settings anyone can get an image that is colourful, in focus and more or less well-composed. However, in this quick-fix solution to everything there is a certain lack of depth and tapasya (effort to achieve self-realisation). Tapasya is something that the younger generation doesn’t have as self-discipline because technology has made us less self-reliant. Shooting on film requires a certain discipline. I still believe in printing photographs as a physical entity. At the recent Magna workshop, one young woman photographer told me she loved images on the screen of her computer and did not see the point of taking a print. I explained to her that the corporality of the image was like meeting a boyfriend online and meeting him in person — we know which one is more real!
I do believe that digital and analog can co-exist without the gimmickry of shooting something in film and then reshooting it in digital. These are some of the things I have seen at the Delhi Photo Festival and, frankly, people seem to be getting caught up in the physicality of the image rather than paying attention to the emotions behind it.
Was it a conscious decision to present these works in black and white?
When I began shooting it, I was working only in black and white. So I continued to do it in this medium, even after I switched to digital. People say, “Raghu, we love your black and whites,” but that is because it is simpler to like black and white as it is easier on your sensibility. Colour has so many other elements that dominate and control a composition that it is more difficult to appreciate and shoot. Black and white silences the noise of all the colours and there is a certain simplicity to it. Of course, one has to avoid all the clichés of it being ‘fine art photography’ or ‘archival’; in fact, my next series on trees is going to be in colour.
If you were to walk us through these images, which one would you pick as favourite?
Many of these images cannot be explained since a lot of them are about feelings and energy. I am not telling a story and so the viewer either gets it or does not. Personally, I like the image I shot outside Peter Nagy’s gallery. I did not even know it was his gallery. However, it was such a mundane moment and yet it was turned magical by the shadow of a tree, bigger than its actual size. There is also another image that I took in my farmhouse. I stamped on my car breaks when I saw the cloud floating above the tree in perfect symmetry with the roof. The ordinariness of daily life is often so dramatic. Like when you read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old man and the Sea, it is both ordinary and yet dramatic.
Having edited other people’s works, is it now difficult to edit your own?
Editing your own work is so precious and special. You have to be analytical and ruthless. When I edit Raghu Rai, I do it without sentiment. Many people come to me and say, “You are our guru.” I tell them the biggest guru is inside you. After a day of shooting, when you put your head on your pillow, there is a voice in your head that says you could have done better and that the big picture is still out there. That voice is the best guru you could ever have, a guru that will help you take risks.
With the glut of imagery that is available now, is it possible to not be influenced by external factors? How do you listen to the inner guru?
Yes, it is true that there is a lot of imagery out there, and you can shoot more with a 32 GB card than you could with 15 rolls of film. This allows us to explore and do more. But look at Henri Cartier-Bresson, the god of photography in Europe, America and Asia; he was influenced by André Kertész, a Hungary-born photographer. He took what Kertész had done in composition and opened it up to a larger world of imagery. It is good to use reference points in photography, but one must move ahead in different directions with one’s work. One must take off and soar. Even a poet like Mirza Ghalib tore 90 percent of his poems, the world has only read 10 percent of his work. You have to make each click count, you have to take each image with total awareness. But the more you click the more you learn.
(The exhibition will be on till 30 November at PhotoInk)