A day before the opening of The Surface of Things: Photography in Process, artist and photographer Edson Beny Dias posted this message on his Facebook page: “So you think your selfies are cool, eh?”
Dias, along with photographers Srinivas Kuruganti, Uzma Mohsin and Sukanya Ghosh, is part of an interesting exhibition in Delhi, which departs from photography’s linear, documentary narrative, and looks inward at its process-oriented approach, often using the practice to relive a personal past. All four artists draw from memory (their own and others’), and work with photography’s analogue processes, in order to map their own practice and look at how digital technology has invoked the former into its own evolution and critique.
There is a strong idea of the “self” in each of their works, especially in Dias’s – his complete immersion into 19th century photo processes (salt paper, albumen and Van Dyke Brown) reveals an extended life by way of his self-portraits (created using multiple exposures). Dias has been a long-time practitioner of photography’s alternate processes, and his work, Voices, is like a shot breakdown in cinema, explaining process by process his journey into the psychological enactment of voices from within.
From initial sketches and compositions to test prints, Dias offers his content on the surface of the image, questioning the structure of form and idea. A display of the tools of his trade on the wall opposite his prints lets the viewer imagine the process in a darkroom while looking at its results outside.
“Each image has a sense of the experience, the witness and the inner interlocutor,” said psychologist Anjali D’Souza, a long-time associate of Dias.
Back in 1816, the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce conducted several trials that led to the invention of photography. He left an everlasting impression on the process by refusing to patent it. Dias, Kuruganti, Mohsin and Ghosh have reinterpreted this legacy in their own works, using Niépce’s questioning of the process as a core idea in their own exploration and technique.
“I lived day-to-day, week-to-week, never making long-term plans, but that seemed to suit me just fine,” said Kuruganti of his years in New York, spent on 39 East First Street – also the title of his series. In the early 1990s, Kuruganti photographed friends and people on the street, and manually produced the images in a darkroom, often in his own apartment. He describes the city as “vibrant, edgy” with “crack addicts on our street”.
His approach is like that of a flaneur who observed the ease and unpredictability of relationships and happenings on the street in a personal diary of photographs. Kuruganti’s work moves from casually observed portraits, to more informed and posed compositions. From documenting the city’s gay pride marches to intimate portraits of friends, the photographs are a window into his (perhaps bohemian) past, reminiscent of changing technology and changing social circles, all observed through a wandering lens and now reinterpreted as he turns spectator to the years past. A carousel of colour slides projects images on the wall, invoking an even bigger, more material sense of nostalgia – the viewer is bound to engage with Kuruganti’s past, even if it has little in common with their own.
Ghosh’s work is undeniably the most dynamic of the four, using multiple forms to engage with photography and family archives. Using composite boxes, optical collages and backlit frames as elements in her own personal, visual scrapbook, she investigates the authenticity of authorship and originality in family albums.
“The task of memory becomes intensified by the experience of loss,” said Ghosh. “It is then we (I) augment, re-identify and reconstruct to a point where what is remembered is not necessarily true.” By juxtaposing images, she reorders time and creates imagined histories using a collection of portrait, landscape and architectural photographs. A video plays on loop overlooking her work, and one realises then that the analogue is as much about production as its future processes, which in turn go back to the analogue in order to define their impermanence.
Mohsin, in her series A Minute of Make-Believe, presents the box camera with a one-minute exposure time. Once popular at most tourist spots and busy streets, the process inside the box camera entailed the “taker” to shoot the images as a paper negative and then repeat the act to create a positive. Collaborating with Bharat Bhushan Mahajan and his son Amit, who have run a studio near Birla Mandir in New Delhi since the 1970s, Mohsin uses their archive as material for Instagram shots, where hashtags and comments run under the prints. This re-contextualising of a very basic, old process is key to understanding the original “democratisation” of photography, before smartphones appropriated the term.
In the end, it all goes back to Niépce’s refusal to patent his invention, thus making available to everyone, through photography, the gift of time, observation and a relentless pursuit of reinterpreting all that has been done before.
The Surface of Things: Photography in Process runs until December 13 at the Alliance Francaise, New Delhi.