Appropriating Helen

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In 2015, the American artist/photographer Richard Prince stirred up a hornets’ nest when he exhibited a collection of photos from strangers’ Instagram feeds. He enlarged the images, complete with comments, put them in a show, and sold several of them for $100,000 each.

Critics and peers instantly took to Twitter and blogosphere to either denounce Prince as a thief or to sing his praises as an artistic visionary. Interestingly, one of the unwitting subjects of the controversy, a woman whose Instagram photo Prince had appropriated did not raise a fuss and seemed pleased to bask in a bit of reflected glory.

Neither was this Prince’s first brush with the art police. And nor was he the only famous artist to lift, steal or borrow other people’s work for their own masterpieces.

Appropriation in art has a long, well-established history. Its practitioners include some of the greatest names in 20th century art, such as Picasso, Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. Many artists and critics believe that in this digital age, with easy access to images, bit torrents and ubiquitous invitations to download, there is no object or image that is not available for the picking.

Of course, those whose works find their way into the art of others, without permission, are less charitable. Lawsuits are lodged and courts often decide in their favour. But the practice persists and probably will as long as humans exist.

A critical factor that judges refer to in deciding whether an artist is a genius or a thief is the concept of “fair use”. Has the photographer or artist transformed the original sufficiently to create a new and fresh work of art? Or has he lazily decided to ride on the coattails of someone else?

Question of appropriation

Growing up in India, I was a fan of Hindi movies, and though I did not understand exactly who she was at the time, Helen, the “Queen of the Nautch Girls”, was a big part of the attraction.

In more recent times, I have found Helen to be an enormously inspiring subject.

As she has danced and vamped and swayed across the internet on YouTube, I have tried to capture her in full flight as if she were a flitting butterfly.

And, in the process, my mind has turned to the question of appropriation and fair use. Am I creating something new and fresh? Or am I merely an obsessed fan stealing glimpses of my idol, like a silent Peeping Tom? [My full article with photos here]

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3 Fantastic Urban Photographers from India

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Landscape photography is a venerable old art. Who doesn’t love a shot of the sun going down over a beach or the same sun rising brilliantly over Nanga Parbat?

For most of us, the way we imagine a country, at least initially, is through images of its land. We like to know how high its mountains are and how fast its rivers flow. When we visit a travel agent, we flip through brochures covered with landscapes. For some reason we equate country with land. And based on photographs of sunsets, green fields, rugged mountains or rugged farms, we convince ourselves we have an idea of a place.

But in a country like India that is rocketing forward in its urbanisation, is the natural landscape still the best way to capture its soul?

Within 15 years, nearly 600 million Indians will be city dwellers. While today, only about 32% live in urban areas, the economy is largely urbanised. India’s cities are bursting and new ones will be sprouting up by the dozen if government planners are to be believed. Statistically, India may yet be a rural country, but energetically, it is a pumping urban nation.

In a situation like this, traditional landscape photography seems to be less relevant to grasping the essence of India. If the heart of the nation is its cities, what does photography tell us of that India?

Urban landscape photography is nothing new but it has become somewhat more codified in recent years. It is photography that seeks to find a country’s essential sprit through the way it lays out, develops, and manages its cities. The landscape in question is not the natural world but the physical world of concrete, steel, glass and plastic. And unlike traditional landscape photography its purpose is not necessarily to depict an idealised image of the scene.

Urban photography is, more often than not, photography of the ugly, the “in-the-way”, the dilapidated and the abandoned. Alienation is never faraway. Where there is beauty it is usually accidental. It is a photography not suited to travel brochures. But when done by talented photographers it is exciting stuff. [Full article originally published in Scroll.in]

The Design Mind behind Hipstamatic

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Several years ago, I began experimenting with an ancient Samsung mobile phone camera. The ridiculously cheap lens and complete absence of functionality produced quirky lo-fi – short for low fidelity, typically taken with poor-quality equipment – images that delighted me in a way SLR photography had not for years.

In just a few years and with an irresistible inevitability, mobile phone photography has gone from fringe to mainstream. Photo apps have stormed the kingdom of photography and dethroned the SLR.

About a decade ago, a camera was a minor feature on your phone. Today, Apple markets itself through giant reproductions of images taken with its iPhone 6.

But in late 2009, before the first photo had ever been posted on Instagram, an app designed to look like an old-fashioned camera went on sale on the Apple Store. The name appealed to a generation that wanted to be cool and sought something easy to use. Hipstamatic had arrived.

For the wired generation, it was love at first sight. Within a couple of years, more than four million people had downloaded the app. Hipstamatic groups sprouted around the globe. Exclusive Hipsta competitions and exhibitions were established. And for the first time, professional photographers admitted to using an app on assignment.

With its interchangeable lenses, assorted films, oddball flash guns and brightly coloured cases, Hipstamatic introduced an artist’s sensibility to photographic gear. The eccentricity of analogue toy cameras had been updated for the digital era. Hipstamatic’s mission seemed to be to make so-called ugly images beautiful. Light leaks, frayed and torn borders, overexposure and problematic focus were, it seemed, just what the times required.

Today, Instagram may monopolise the social media space for retro/lo-fi photography but Hipstamatic remains the photographer’s choice when it comes to apps. A lot of Hipstamatic’s appeal lies not just in the retro feel of the camera and the ever-growing volume of films and lenses but in its aesthetic.

Hipstamatic has style. Each lens looks as if it has been lovingly handcrafted by an expert artisan. Every film is unique and comes packaged in its own box. Both have a back story, often inspired by professional photographers that the developers particularly admire.

The app has an India connection too. Although all of Hipstamatic’s founders are design professionals, it’s the Creative Director Aravind Kaimal whose vision is most visible on Hipstamatic.

Kaimal was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the South Indian state of Kerala, and spent his childhood drawing. Tintin, the hero of a comic series by Belgian cartoonist George Remi, and his dog Snowy, served as the inspiration for much of his art at the time.

At the age of 17, Kamal landed in the US and went to art school in Chicago. At his first job, he crossed paths with graphic designer Lucas Buick, who, years later, asked for Kaimal’s help in designing a new photo app, tentatively named Hipstamatic. And the rest, as they say, is history. [Full interview with Aravind Kaimal here]

Bangla Surreal: Shadman Shahid Photography

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Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid was recently selected by the prestigious British Journal of Photography for its Ones to Watch–2016 listof emerging global photographic talent. A graduate of Dhaka’s famous Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, his work emerges from a deeply personal space and expresses itself in moving documentary as well as intimate and carefully constructed psychological imaginings.

Last week, Scroll.in had a conversation with Shahid about his work, his vision and the challenges of being an artist in contemporary Bangladesh.

Tell us a bit about your family background. Was it artistic? And what drew you to the camera?
I was born to two loving and overprotective parents. They are both journalists. I grew up in a joint family and my paternal uncle was also living with us. He was an artist. I enjoyed his company and he was the resource for art, music and culture for me. However, I was too safe and satisfied with my life to be interested in art at that point. I started photography after he died very young. I like to think growing up watching him influenced me.

At one point in my life, I had decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted to hone my film-making skills. One of my Pathshala teachers introduced us to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. About her photograph “The Echo”, the teacher said that “it’s one of those pictures that will haunt you at night when you are trying to sleep.” I could see what he meant and why he was so passionate about photography. It was one of the moments that drew me closer towards the camera. [Full article from Scroll.in and more photos]

Trainspotting in India

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In my most recent column for Scroll.in, Camera Indica, I interview train photographer Apurva Bahadur.

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Travelling by train with all its jerks and lurching from side to side, with its frequent stops and noisy atmosphere, has long been one of the great romances of India. For decades, the express, freight, mail and fast passenger trains embodied both the power and the glory of India. The power to develop, move and grow an idea into a nation. And the glory of binding together myriad peoples and giving them a chance to have new ideas about their ancient territory.

The old-tech train may have been knocked off its perch in recent years by affordable, faster and more comfortable jet travel but for the majority of travellers, the train remains the best way to get from here to there.

Given its status as one of modern India’s most potent icons, it is a bit surprising that few photographers have made the Indian train their major subject. This is not to say that serious Indian and foreign photographers have not photographed life along the tracks or inside the bogies. But these are either one-off photographs or a time-limited project, and do not form their core body of work. Maybe because the train is so un-extraordinary, it is simply overlooked. Maybe those signs that blare “No Photography” at all stations damped the enthusiasm.

There is a group of diehards though, who are passionate about documenting India’s great world of railways and trains. They gather together in clubs all across India but connect through a matter-of-factly named online forum, Indian Railways Fan Club Association, where they enthuse about their train trips, fact-check technical minutia of engines, document the history of bridges and tunnels and report locomotive sightings. And of course, they share photographs of their favourite lines of track, stations and trains.

Apurva Bahadur, a technical writer for a multinational company, is a long time member of IRFCA and one of the Association’s most admired unofficial photographers. Bahadur posts his photographs regularly on his Facebook page with most receiving hundreds of ‘likes’ from photography and train enthusiasts all around the world. Camera Indica caught up with him recently at his home in Pune to discuss the mysterious and romantic art of photographing trains. [Full article and photos]