The Reasons and the Need to Commit


A record is selected, the title reflected upon, the photograph on the cover mulled over, in context. There is a certain irreplaceable drama about the real estate on the jacket of a vinyl record. Of how obeisance is paid to the self, to the artist, in the momentary quiet of things. The vinyl is pulled out of the jacket, and slid out of its secondary paper covering. It needs to be held by its edges, with as little contact on the grooved surface as possible, just as one would handle the pages of an expensive coffee table book, and dusted in the direction of the grooves by a felt duster. Such willful, ordered, simplistic elegance. Original recordings have a different soul, as do original pressings. Faint pops and crackles add their veneer, telling their own tale. Take One. Take Two. A legend is propped up by two men. You hear someone calling out, exasperated… “Blow!” When it comes, the breath and the fingers, the incredible improvisation and phrasing, belie his fully inebriated condition. It speaks of the artist’s thousands of hours of practice within the span of a very short lifetime. There is incredible knowledge in there. Also faith worn ragged by a life less ordinary. Here is one who did not have the luxury of standing on the shoulders of giants to be a giant himself. Listen carefully, and you just might hear a giant’s torment.

A few hours ago, as the year turned over, I was watching a live feed of a feat of equally giantish proportions. A photograph was made from the edges of our solar system, of a tiny (relatively) celestial object in the Kuiper Belt, Ultima Thule, billions of kilometers away from Earth. so far away that the data took a day to reach us, travelling at the speed of light. That the photograph itself was considered the truest sign of success of the mission is not surprising. There can be a lot of information gleaned from a photograph. Besides, we have an unbridled desire to ‘see’. How deep the desire goes is not immediately apparent to most, not as long as the immediacy of that thirst is quenched. Which is also why I can’t help thinking that we often stand on the shoulders of giants, not appreciative of how we got there or how far we’ve come. The making of this image was set in motion thirteen years ago, with the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006. It began as an idea, a possibility, 14 years before the launch, in 1992.

I could not help but marvel at technology today, that lets anyone see Ultima Thule, almost immediately as the image reached the New Horizon’s mission control. My investment into it was not much more than a few minutes of my time plucked away from everything else. It was worthwhile to me, but I can’t help feeling that it was somewhat of a lazy investment (perhaps less lazy than most, but certainly more than many). There is no denying the internet has its uses. There are some very relevant ways in which it enables us to reach out, communicate, and stay in touch. But for the most part, the ‘net’ has become a quagmire of lazy investments for the lazily invested.

Books have a different value though. Just like a camera, or a vinyl record, a book physically consumes time and space too, and you need to dedicate time and space to it. In this, it demands certain courtesies, a sophistication, an approach, a process. To read a book, firstly, you need to commit. It is a decision. Then you have to invest. As the makers of a print magazine, it gives us a reason to be discerning, to provide value, to honour that commitment by anyone who pays the cover price. It also gives us a powerful reason to value ourselves and the work we do.

Shantanu Sheorey puts it across succinctly in his words in this issue, and I mirror the thought. On one end of the spectrum, there are casual snapshooters, who don’t remember what they’ve shot a few hours, or even a few minutes later. On the other end are those who have published some of the finest books. The sheer magnitude of effort in making a book. In selecting the images, in writing, in the design of it, in the costs in producing a book… All of it comes after years, and sometimes decades, of seeing, sifting, accumulating experiences, and planning. In every sense, these books are the very finest receptacles of thought, vision, knowledge and wisdom that can be found anywhere (the internet included), compressed into a tiny space.

And just like original vinyl pressings, first editions have their own stories to tell, and are treasured by collectors. In fact, I have seen books on photography and by photographers, published barely a few years ago (many of which I had contemplated buying, but eventually did not), now being sold at many times their original price. I have a set of posters from an Ansel Adams exhibition, and a few books, which are now extremely valuable. In so many ways, becoming a collector of books today has never been easier. Of course, the real value, unquestionably, unfailingly, is in the vision within. It was that same artist, the one I was referring to earlier, who said, “It’s not all smoke and mirrors. Some of it comes from books.”

On that note, a Very Happy 2019! May it be filled with joyously contemplative reading. May the light be with you.

The editorial originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, photography, ansel adams, Editorial, shantanu sheorey, New Year, January 2019, Ultima Thule