Shadows on the wall

Chennai photographer BRS Sreenag, who won the Tokyo International Foto Award, talks about what makes photos of lifeless buildings come alive

April 30, 2018 12:28 pm | Updated 01:42 pm IST

There’s something about a perfectly symmetrical view that scratches an itch you didn’t even know you had. That is perhaps the reason why a photograph of a rectangular skylight with six rectangular glowing boxes, reflected in the panels holding it up, draws one’s attention despite seeming dead quiet in just wood and concrete. This photograph is from Chennai architecture photographer BRS Sreenag’s collection that has recently won Bronze in the Tokyo International Foto Awards 2017.

“I haven’t entered my photographs in many contests before this, so it came as a surprise,” says Sreenag, the only Indian to have won the award this year. He shot KSM Consultants’ office in Chennai and a beach house in Uthandi for this compilation. “I wanted to display pictures that are minimalist — a style I relate to— with hard edges and clean sharp lines.” Sreenag’s pictures of the Chicago cityscape were displayed in the India Arch Dialogue, 2018 in Delhi, an event that showcased photographs by 54 artistes from around the world.

Having grown up under the shadow of his grandfather, the legendary filmmaker and cinematographer BS Ranga, playing around with cameras came naturally to Sreenag. “I was six or seven when my grandparents gave me my first camera. It was a Fun Shooter box camera, I still have it,” he points at his cupboard that is lined with vintage cameras gifted to him by his father, grandfather, and father-in-law. Also sitting in one corner, is the Nikon FE2, his first “serious” camera.

Sreenag recalls listening to his grandfather’s stories of shooting film songs. One that stayed with him was the filming of the song ‘Padaithane’ for the movie Nichaya Thaamboolam. “It was supposed to be an elaborate set but he had it torn down and instead painted the floor wet black and used lamp posts — that’s all.” The story taught a young Sreenag the effect of dramatic lighting. “My father on the other hand, taught me how to use light for a natural feel. I got the best of both worlds,” he smiles.

This dual aesthetic reflects heavily in Sreenag’s photographs: the play of light streaming inside wooden floors and crisp shadows bringing plain white walls to life. A balanced composition is another one of his trademarks. “Architects spend a lot of time bringing balance to their buildings and that is something they want reflected in their photographs,” he explains. “You need to demonstrate intangible things like lighting and air-flow in the pictures, so the angles have to be strategic.”

The photographer spends months with the architect: from the time the first plans are sketched to the time the first brick is laid, in order to understand their vision. “You have to find the perfect angle, the perfect time for the perfect light,” he says. It has, in fact, become second nature for him to look at a well-designed building while walking on roads and think about the best way to capture it.

While he has been interested in photography since he was a child, his interest in architecture photography rose with his interest in design. A VisCom graduate from Loyola College in the city, the stillness in his pictures, even his cityscapes, holds a special appeal for him. “My photos don’t have people or action in them. It’s probably because I’m an introvert and this type of photography limits my interaction with them.”

Sreenag has collaborated with architect Sujatha Shankar for photographing 100-year-old houses in and around Mylapore and T Nagar. But his love for old houses was moulded at home. Sreenag grew up in a house that is now over 60 years old. Teak beams hold up the ceilings and on the floor is red oak and mosaic patterns. His childhood room is now his office; the Apple desktop and thick black bound books on design sit comfortably with Marvel superhero figurines, Don Bradley posters and models of cars and guns he collected when he was young. “Quite a few of them are actually recent purchases,” the 32-year-old grins sheepishly.

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