Lost… And Found


I can’t help harbouring some nostalgia while writing this. This is my 150th note from the editor’s desk. I still remember the sense of purpose with which I put pen to paper for the December 2007 issue. That first note was indeed written with a fountain pen, at a burnished wooden desk, a swing-arm table lamp clamped on one side and a large flickerfree lightbox on the other. I had a couple of prized possessions that never left the top of that lightbox. One was a steel 6x linen tester with a 1×1-inch field of view. The other was a 22-blade diaphragm with no lens elements, from a large format lens—the type that used to be fixed onto wooden lensboards with four small screws. It produced a circular aperture (and I mean perfectly circular) from f/4 to f/64. It reminded me of the brilliance of Group f.64 and how disappointed they initially were at the response to their exhibits. That f/64 was the ‘sharp’ aperture for art photography with large format, and that they had some formulaic ways of doing things too. That the equivalent on 35mm is f/8 and that everything is relative. And that things inevitably change. Well… the changes back then meant that I rarely got to use the lightbox and loupe. A few years later, when I was out of the country for a week, someone thought it was a good idea to use the lighbox from my unlocked cabin to light up some construction work at night. I never saw it again. I still have the diaphragm and the linen tester, and they are both in reasonably good condition.

This month, I typed out my note on a smartphone, at home, seated before a collapsible IKEA table, in the dark. There is certainly something to be said about the satisfaction derived from the classic ways of doing things, and from the beauty of classic objects. Lensboards? Linen testers? If you look up ‘lightbox’ on Google, what you will find now is an explanation for a JavaScript library. Don’t get me wrong… I love all that technology has to offer. But I am deeply concerned about the disconnect this generation has with all things classical. In the urgent, frantic immediacy of it all, some very important parts of the journey are being missed. The rigour of diligence. The joy of process. The meditation of practice. This generation has not seen the tonality and detail of a silver halide enlargement made by a good printmaker, or the rounding-off of light produced by the older, softer lenses. A certain level of critical thinking, viewing and analyses is being lost. Very soon, these things won’t be talked about at all.

In totality, I have spent about sixteen years of my life working at Better Photography, beginning as it’s youngest editorial member. Over the years, my idealistic fervour with photography grew and then diminished into existentialism, and more recently (and happily) into realism. I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of photos, studied them, and ruminated over them. I have become elated, afflicted, agitated, jaded, and then excited, all over again. I love the fact that I may not remember names or faces, but can recall voices and images from decades ago. In the 149 editorial notes that came before this, I have poured myself out in a process of heady distillation that I have yet to get used to, bringing down photography into its essence, as much as I could… not very unlike my state of mind when I am out with a camera. Over the years, I have worked with and mentored some extraordinary talent—interns, writers, and editors—who eventually went on to make separate careers, and be featured as artists in this magazine. One of them is in this issue. I have also had the good fortune of interacting with some brilliant, iconic photographers from around the world, and conversing with them on all things photography. And I am still so very thrilled about each and every issue of the magazine. I have a lot to be grateful for.

This issue also marks Better Photography’s 24th Anniversary. We are not celebrating this edition as a special issue, though. With so much turmoil and uncertainty, and with so many of our brothers and sisters fighting bravely and selflessly at the frontlines of this SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the circumstances are not celebratory. Once we get ahead of this virus and all are safe, and once we get back into print, I promise you a double edition worth collecting. In the meanwhile, during the pandemic, we shall strive to keep you updated with photography, with unique content not available anywhere else, and with free-to-download e-editions. As a birthday present, let me leave you with a thought about photography. I first heard about this concept years ago from the legendary vocalist, Padma Vibhushan Kishori Amonkar. Just as her incredible virtuosity and unforgettable voice continue to echo in my mind, this thought resonates with me. The epitome of practice is not passion or obsession, where you lose yourself. It is a detached attachment, where you become most aware of your path, and your relationship with your art, physically and spiritually, where you see your boundaries and know what must be done to move beyond, where you know when to rein in and when to let go. So very perfect and apt in our troubled times. Here’s to the year ahead!

This article originally appear in the June issue of Better Photography.