In the Reading of Photographs

K Madhavan Pillai

K Madhavan Pillai

This article was originally published in June 2016.

Over the past few months, I have been finding myself mulling over photographs of simple everyday life and occurrences. Some of them remain in my mind long after I have stop seeing them. I am not referring to the mundane snapshots made by the masses that consume photography just because it is easily available, but photographs made as a record of an unconnected moment, by those who have observed something unusual within the usual. There is a certain detached honesty about these types of pictures, appreciable to the common eye. Bodies of work edited from sets of images like these seem to find their way into photography festivals around the world.

And why not? Some legendary photographers, and photographic styles have emerged this way. I have observed that, for the most part, an untrained but conscious photographer unknowingly follows compositional guidelines. After all, these guidelines exist because they are generally pleasing to a larger section of an audience. On the other hand, when the same photographer tries to make personal statements with images about relevant issues, they often fail badly. The images look forced and contrived. Good personal statements need a moulding of the eye. Photographers need a guide who can show them how to use their natural talent for meaningful pictures.

Good teachers have always had a role to play in this equation. In fact, some of the best of mentors I have come across teach their students to see in a certain way, without imposing rules. Thus ‘mould’, and not ‘train’. Hardened training has its own place. But it often forces a strict adherence to process and rules, and consequently, also has a danger of making a photographer ‘too focused’. This kind of disciplined conditioning produces technical brilliance, so loved by juries, judges and magazine editors. It creates artists of a different breed. When a highly trained photographer breaks rules deliberately and carefully, after a lot of practice, the point of departure is so singularly refined that one cannot help but admire the work. An uninitiated beginner in photomacrography, for instance, might manage to capture an excellent image in the very first attempt. But the best come from those who use the right processes and practices, spend years in the field, and add that slight twist to the tale.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, february 2015