Aleph’s new collection of portraits by celebrated photographer Raghu Rai were mostly taken on assignment for magazines or newspapers, which might explain the studied pose of the subjects, the direct gaze into the lens, and the neatness of the surroundings. Some of them, such as the images of MS Subbulakshmi and Bismillah Khan, “happened as a result of a moment of spontaneous magic,” Rai writes in his foreword for People His Finest Portraits.
Rai’s subjects include personalities from cinema. Among his favourites was filmmaker Satyajit Ray. The image below is from the shoot of Ghare Baire, Ray’s 1984 adaptation of the Rabindranath Tagore novel. “He lay down on the same bed, smoking his pipe, on which his heroine was sitting and I took some pictures from the front,” Rai writes. “Then I moved towards the other side from where you could only see his back and I realized the lighting was very dramatic. You could see the adjoining room through the door and there were spectacular shadows falling on the wall.”
“When I take a person’s portrait, I am trying to capture the aura of that person,” Rai writes. “I am trying to get the truth of that person to emerge in the photograph.”
Rai prefers to shoot portraits in black and white. “Colour makes for very average portraits,” he writes. “In black and white, the grey tones, highlights and contrasts that you are able to create enable you to bring out the strength of the expression in a person’s eyes or face.”
Some of the best portraits are staged, but “you need to catch the person off guard, in a moment when someone is not being self-conscious”.
The selfie is often described as the logical heir to portraiture, but Rai detests the new phenomenon. “Today, unfortunately, the age of the selfie has destroyed the art of portrait photography,” he writes. “These cell phones have wide angle lens which distort perspective. In order to take a good portrait you have to use a lens that does not distort perspective. Selfies are fun, but as portraits they are just silly.”
The ultimate aim of portraiture, Rai says, is to “see the essence of whichever person has been photographed in these pictures, rich or poor, famous or anonymous”.
Excerpted with permission from People His Finest Portraits, Raghu Rai, Aleph.