Ganesh H. Shankar suspected the audience would think he was mad by the end of his talk. With that preamble, the software engineer described the 17-year passion for his hobby to a room full of photographers.
Like many attending India’s first wildlife photography festival, Nature inFocus, Bangalore, Ganesh set off every weekend with his photographic artillery to stalk wildlife. A perfectly framed image of an owl stared at us from the screen, and he pointed out that every barb of every feather was in sharp focus. If only I could take pictures like that.
Ganesh remembered debating the merits of one lens against another, one brand with another, and focussing on the technical aspects of photography. Many photographers, gathered to listen to his talk, would have recognised themselves in his description of himself. Left-brain photography, Ganesh called that period. He may have been self-deprecating, but a friend whispered, “He’s making fun of all of us.” I wondered what Ganesh was going to say next.
“I caught a disease called creativity,” he said. Photographs of birds and mammals gave way to smaller creatures. A submerged frog’s bug-eyes peered at a water drop suspended a couple of millimetres above the water surface. In another photograph, he used long exposure to capture the flight of a moth. Playfully, he called it right-brain photography.
He asked, “Was photographing Nature merely chronicling beauty?” No one in the audience coughed, sneezed or murmured.
Could Nature photography be an art form? Ganesh turned to Leo Tolstoy for answers. The writer had famously declared beauty was not necessary in a work of art, but it must convey feeling. The stronger the emotion it expresses, the better the art. But how does a Nature photographer express himself when we can’t read his animal subjects’ emotions?
Ganesh looked at other art forms — theatre, music, movies, and dance. Since they all dealt with the human condition, it was easy for artistes to communicate their feelings. The only art form that had some relevance to his quandary was instrumental music. If Raga Bhairav in Hindustani music can evoke daybreak, surely he could do something similar with photographs.
Ganesh began experimenting with light, shape, and form. Deliberately, he misaligned his lens, and sometimes even tilted it at an angle from the camera. His photographs from this phase looked like abstract paintings. Ganesh ended his talk with, “I don’t know where I’m going.”
Later that evening, I asked him to explain the similarities he saw between Nature photography and instrumental music.
He replied, “Ragas are soothing when there aren’t many variations, when there is a gradual movement of notes. Evening ragas extract less energy from the listener compared to morning or noon ragas. Sad music also cannot have strident tempo. So musicians induce mood with tempo, arrangement of notes, and rhythm. Light and sound are scientifically similar; both are waves. I wonder – can you use light of different intensities to create a sad or joyful mood? Higher intensity light may be joyful and energetic, while mid-tones with few variations may denote sadness.” This is an idea cinema already uses.
A photograph of a lone hunched vulture perched atop a bare tree, reminiscent of Chinese ink painting, is captioned ‘Defeated’. A stooped human may look crushed, but that’s a healthy vulture in repose. Is it necessary for an artist to remain true to the subject’s emotion? Did we ever wonder what the model posing for Leonardo da Vinci felt?
An artist evokes a subjective reality, i.e., his or her own experience. When the audience responds to the creation, it becomes art, says Tolstoy.
Ganesh isn’t the first to use the idiom of Nature to create art. He follows in the tradition of landscape and still-life painters such as John Constable and Vincent van Gogh.
Creating a work of art does indeed need a flash of madness.
You can see Ganesh’s portfolio here.
The writer watches animals from her back porch and pretends to be a bipedal mutt with her confused four-legged humans.