Layers of History in Photographic Frames
This story was originally published in April 2012.
Back in 1997, I set off in my Maruti 800, driving about 10,000km across India, to visit photo studios and collect images highlighting the post-independence experiences of India through the photograph. One of the primary sources of motivation was to try and represent the mindboggling diversities of a culturally continental country like ours. The other was a fascination with the layers of historicity wittingly or unwittingly embedded in many photographic documents. Sourcing and looking at images shot in photo studios resonated with a familiarity that many of us share. Looking at family photo albums! Each of these albums is a mini-treasure trove, presenting insights into historical changes over time. When did we last look at family albums from a photo documentation and socio-history frame of viewing?
For a while, the image has had a sense of immediacy, which has multiplied manifold in these days of mass scale production and consumption. Does the photograph therefore reflect our own sense of immediacy in constructing our existence, and indeed thus in the construction of our images? Does this not raise the question of how critically and carefully we read or construct photographs? Many photographs have insightful layers from the past or present that will gain importance in the future, and several aware photographers engage with the importance of these layers. To some extent, documentary photography has been more conscious of freezing socio-histories in time, so that they can represent in the future, an insight into the past. However, I would like to encourage a conscious sense of implicit history that can be read/included in photographic frames, across many different kinds of photo practice.
This is really about engaging with a simple question… what can we consciously, with awareness, include (or exclude) in our frames and practice, that will represent layers of historical significance and change, or the lack of it! The level of consciousness and awareness of reading visuals automatically gets entwined with the question.
Light and shadow changing through the day, over seasons, over years? A landscape to be changed by impending ‘development’? A monument ‘renovated’ to skillfully plaster over its historical aura? Technologies that will be redundant in the next 5 years? A handpump in a rural space that will probably continue to be the primary source of water for the next decade? A newspaper article, an object, a style, a smile, an attitude, an interaction? What will photographs taken today represent, when seen 10, 20 or 30 years from now? How will their viewing/reading change? Can we revisit the sites of some of our image making to demonstrate how they have changed, or not? Can we revisit the images we made in the past, and recontexualise them from an evolved/different way of seeing, that echo our journeys from then to now? And more importantly… how have we changed? As persons, as image makers, as societies, as countries… And how does this reflect in our work across time?
The two images were shot in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, from the balcony of my apartment. One was made in March 1999 (top left) for my first digital project, Windowless Worlds. The second was made in February 2012 (bottom) for this article, 13 years later… the change is evident. From green development, extended construction and automobile technologies to photo technologies. The earlier picture was shot with a Nikon F60 on Ilford FP4 film, after which the image was manipulated painstakingly. Do you read the manipulation? Every window has been digitally removed, while keeping the integrity of the architecture. Metaphors of our intolerance… windowless worlds! The second image was made on a Nikon D200 using the RAW format and then, colour corrected.
Sometimes words are needed to point out ways of seeing an image. But that’s another layer that influences the frame, and therefore is an additional discussion…
About Ashim Ghosh: Multiple media artist-inventor and erstwhile contemporary photographer, Ashim Ghosh is always on the lookout for new ways to define the medium. He created a documentary titled ‘Post Midnight Hour—50 Years of the Photograph in India’, which was broadcast on DD and is now available on YouTube.Tags: New Delhi, Ashim Ghosh, Visual Musings, march 2012, Vasant Kunj, Windowless Worlds, opinion, history of photography