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Ad photographer Thomas Mathew creates mouth-watering ice-cream out of potatoes

IT WAS Mysore in the late 1980s. Horse-drawn tongas ferried people across town. The mysore pak in Indira Bhavan routinely drew hordes of citizens and tourists. Kids would beg for a visit to the Mysore market for a whiff of the city's trademark jasmines. Needless to say, digital cameras weren't even a flash on the horizon.

In this milieu, a young student — Thomas Mathew Jr.— purportedly studying for his B.Com., was gifted a camera by his father. He found himself spending most of his time bent over film rolls rather than accounting charts; scrimping and saving on his pocket money for the Rs.10 needed to buy and process a role of film. Having processed the film, Mathew would invariably have run out of money to print it. So he'd hold his roll up to the light to scrutinise and enjoy his efforts. They gave him enough pleasure for him to decide, by the end of college, that he wanted to do photography full-time. But it was still the late '80s, and professional photography equated with wedding snaps, so it took a while before Thomas Mathew Sr. came around to accepting his son's career choice.

Convincing family wasn't the young photographer's only roadblock. People making work offers weren't exactly lining up outside Mathew's door. A six-month job hunt ensued, during which he even did a stint at a small out-of-the-way photography school, before finally being apprenticed to an established photographer with whom he had his first real lessons in photography.

The apprenticeship was only a year and a half, but Mathew recalls being most excited by the challenges of making even the most mundane thing look beautiful, the crazy work hours, and the forty winks grabbed on the office couch in between shoots.

Soon Mathew discovered that his love for electronic gadgets could extend beyond fiddling around the VCR — he found himself becoming a product and industrial photographer of considerable repute. Clients and ad companies would give him a detailed brief of what they wanted and Mathews became an expert at creating slick, modernistic images.

Those days, preparing for photo shoots meant actually setting up the exact way the final photograph would look, and not the computerised put-together job of today. Photographing yummy scoops of ice cream, for instance: Mathew's mother boils the hell out of a bunch of potatoes, which are then placed in the freezer for some days. Mathew removes them, adds different food colours, and with toothpicks creates ridges making them look like they've been scooped out of a container. Holding up the photograph now, it looks absolutely perfect. But Mathew's trained eye spots a giveaway: "Forgot the glycerine!" Drops of glycerine would apparently have given it an ice-cold, wet look.

But with other product design shoots, including many from BPL, a long-standing client, Mathew has it just right. In an ad for a music system for instance, the look is inter-galactic. The stereo seems suspended in the whirl of the other planets comprising the universe. Nowadays, photographers are just asked to shoot the product while geeks work furiously with their software to create the rest of the image.

But Mathew actually suspended the music system in his studio to create the look, hiding the supportive device by darkening the background. Most of his photographs have been set in backgrounds created by his team, physically bringing in sand from Mangalore for one, pasting golden bearings on a sheet of glass to make them look suspended, for another.

It's not just product and industrial photography that challenge Mathew, causing him to declare: "Don't come with an excuse, come back with a picture." There's a fascinating photograph he has, taken at a nightclub in Bangkok. Half of the person dancing (man? woman?) is dressed in a feminine pink flowing gown, while the other half sports a suit. At one precise point in the performance, the dancer is bent so that it looks like two dancers; the male holding the female. Photographic deception; completely naturally done, but Mathew explains how important it was not to miss that moment.

Beautiful panoramas and flowing landscapes now make up Mathew's current portfolio — he's deeply into photographing resorts and hotels. "They're so nice to look at," he says. The ample, shaded roofs of resorts in the backwaters of Kerala, the Mediterranean feel of spacious hotels in Goa, all find space in Mathew's diverse portfolio. Not much wildlife and rural photography coming from this photographer's studios; the emphasis is clearly on products, people, and buildings. Work and passion blend in smoothly, so that even while on a holiday, Mathew never travels without his camera equipment around his neck, always poised to capture that "perfect moment".

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