Art

Files, filters and cell phone history

History revisited:

History revisited:  

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Writer and historian William Dalrymple’s photo show throws open a multitude of conversations that stem from our prolific use of new age technology

Reading William Dalrymple, one wishes drab history textbooks back in school were written with such insight and warmth as his writing exudes. It is but natural then to expect the same kind of awe-inspiring draw from his latest photographic show. The Historian’s Eye, currently ongoing at Akara Art Gallery in collaboration with Tasveer and Dauble, is a second for the author for whom photography “long preceded writing”. The show’s 33 images have all been shot on his Samsung Edge mobile phone over the past three years while he researched his latest book, The Anarchy, travelling across the length of breadth of India and also beyond, across the border to Pakistan and Afghanistan. While his travels entailed tracing the ancient routes of the Mughal Empire, the book looks at the East India Company as a sinister corporate entity that seized the reigns of rule over India from the Mughals by clever strategising. The show, on the other hand, “maps the places where history and art were being made in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, around the time of Shah Alam’s reign”, as reads the introduction.

“If you really want to write a history of something, not only should you obviously go to the primary sources, look at the archives, read the letters, translate the chronicles…all that work, but you have to go to the places, you have to know about the places you’re talking about”, related Dalrymple at the show’s opening. He couldn’t be more on point as he added, “You can’t write about Mughal Delhi without having been to the Red Fort”. Something that one would know having read his much loved travelogue City of Djinns : A Year in Delhi (1993), which makes you want to take the next flight out to the Capital in search of Safdarjung and Humayun’s tombs. The show unfortunately falls just short of inspiring the same kind of magic. As one walks through the gallery, the digital black and whites make a great case for history not particularly one for a great photography show. The show is being worked into a book in collaboration with Harper Collins due for release later this year. The book will have larger captions and at least about 50-odd additional images of the Bidar fort, Bassein, Orchha, Gilgit and Chitral valley amongst others like those currently on display.

The larger narrative

Without Dalrymple’s anecdotal tales of where each photo was made and how, the terse captions accompanying the images pare the experience down to a paler version of its original. This is not to say that the images are in any way inferior either structurally or even content wise. In fact, the captions more than establish Dalrymple’s eye for composition and a Bressonian precision for the decisive moment. Most importantly, The Historian’s Eye becomes poignant for throwing light on several other concerns, those that we as a generation today are constantly working around. When Dalrymple shares while pointing to his phone camera, “I literally haven’t taken my SLR out of its case … It’s guerrilla photography and for me, rediscovering photography with a cell phone is like that. You don’t need light meters, you don’t need this, you don’t need that…just whip it out, it’s always with you. Wherever you go these days, you always have your phone…”, he isn’t alone. Today, millions of people around the world use their phones to document a wide spectrum of their lives from their travels to the food they eat and more. Lifestyle, social commentary, evidence, irony, humour, anger, the cell phone covers it all. But does phone photography yet merit a gallery show in its traditional sense is the question one needs to ask.

This is where one needs to consider and rethink both frontiers — the technical as well as the aesthetic. It goes much beyond the simplistic conversion of colour to black and white. The size of a print becomes important as some images cannot be blown up beyond a certain point as they might pixelate or look smudgy — both a common feature with images made on phones. One wonders perhaps, if smaller prints could be a solution? But then Dalrymple’s images are shot with the sensibility of someone used to working with film and SLR cameras, where the image is intricate and layered — something a phone image can hardly do justice to. While phone camera softwares provide one with multiple tools like HDR (high dynamic range), or filters to enhance mood, the trick might be in knowing when and how to use them. Dalrymple’s images constantly vary on these grounds, where some work and some don’t. Grain, chromatic aberrations and over-sharpening do more damage to some of the photographs than help the cause. While HDR might heighten the drama, it also renders the image flat, draining it of its delicate and inherent shadows and highlights and therefore of its innate texture, mood and feel.

Traditional vs. experimental

But like Dalrymple, there is a whole generation of photographers in transition making this shift, shedding their older ways of seeing or often straddling both formats at the same time. Perhaps a show like The Historian’s Eye, then forces one to acknowledge this as a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. It is a crucial pointer to the fact that we’re still to catch-up with ways of how we present and converse with work that’s already shifted mediums. One needs to reflect on whether images which are primarily viewed on digital phone screens are perhaps meant to be viewed that way? Might we be forcing them onto paper and frame — a format they’re not taking to well? Should the traditional way of displaying work within a gallery be restructured — a topic that’s been an ongoing discussion across photo circles in the country as well. Maybe all one needs is a giant screen to display them on and add in a voiceover or soundtrack if needed.

Dalrymple’s show throws open questions of whether photography or a show of this kind can replace the traditional book launch event. Can photos be a segue, a way of access to books? Especially one layered with history, backed by years of thorough research, of which of course the photographs are an intrinsic, integral part.

The Historian’s Eye is ongoing at Akara Art Gallery until May 3

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 4:57:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/william-dalrymples-cell-phone-prowess/article23701013.ece

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