Martha Graham, one of the greatest modern dancers of the 20th century said, “Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery.” This was a statement that she made when she had to surpass the limitation of her own body and movement, in her quest for self-expression. I have moved from my old definition of photography which stated that it is the ‘art of seeing’ to that it is the ‘art of discovery’.
Within the short span of its existence, photography has enabled us to not only document, but push the frontiers of almost every human endeavour—moving from a medium of recording for posterity, to one of exploration, in every sense of the word. Like painting, photography suffers from the tyranny of two limitations. One, that of only two dimensions. There have been occasional technical attempts of circumventing this problem. And artists have discovered several ways of creating the illusion of depth. The other limitation is the tyranny of ‘limits’—simply put, the frame. No picture exists without length and breadth. But more significantly, any picture is essentially a cut off from the continuum of its reality. Artists and photographers have learned to convert this limitation into an opportunity, to express their own interpretation of that very same reality.
To the uninitiated in picture-making, limits happen to be—unconsciously and inevitably. Pictures may often improve with experience, much the same way our language improves when we are kids, even though we have no conscious concern for spelling or vocabulary! As we move on, grammar is realised, and then we use language more effectively.
In imagemaking too, we evolve in our use of limits. We move from ‘unconscious incompetence’ through ‘conscious competence’ to ‘unconscious competence’, which ultimately produces pieces of art. Limits, or frames, govern everything—from proportion to dominance, from your perception of the visual impression you are recording to what the perceptor of the final image is attempting to make sense with. Photography has evolved several genres—for instance, documentary, landscape, portraits, nature, wildlife, architectural, archaeological, medical, journalistic, stage, sports, industrial, aerial, micro, table-top, fashion, nude and so on.
This division, on one hand, facilitates incisive and in-depth studies. On the other, it puts the photographer into a narrow spectrum of activity. I was, therefore happy when the genre of street photography came about, because it could include market places and street processions, road accidents and street fights, fancy vehicles and gully-cricket, night cafés and Christmas shopping; or the now quintessential vintage homes juxtaposed with colourful, flowering trees and fanciful street lamps.
This kind of reversal widens the scope for the artist, but creates complexity in pictures. To make an outstanding picture, he has to be as vigilant about what he includes, just as about what he excludes. He converts his handicap of ‘the frame’ to a potent opportunity of expressing through line, form, shape, colour, proportion, dominance and so on, in his control. Sometimes, his thrill lies, not in what he makes a picture of, but in how effectively the elements interplay with themselves to create a visual impression. This becomes as much of a discovery for the photographer as it is for the viewer of the photograph.
There are as many good subjects for photography as there are stars in the sky. Despite all the advances in the medium, its specialisations and the ease with which an image can be made, it still calls for a discerning eye to make the best of them.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Better Photography.