Photographers as Collectors


Over the last two months, my family has been on a huge clean-up and maintenance spree of various things in my home. It was not as much a realisation as it was revelation, about the sheer quantum of things we have collected together as a family. Knick knacks, bric-a-brac, mishmash, odds and ends, this and that, remnants and rags, bits and bobs, mould and gold. And photos and books. We are a joint family. When anyone tries to discard something, almost invariably, spontaneously, it develops instant value with one family member or the other, who, until then, never sought or thought to open, clean, or even glance at the object for years. What can I say? I’m a sentimental guy too.

Much to the annoyance of my mother and my wife, and much to the delight of my 5-year-old, I have ended up being a second generation collector. My father, the founder and ring-leader of our mutual enterprise, exceeds me by far. He collects music and musical instruments, and knows how to play most of them. He collects vases, books, and curios. And dry sticks, roots, fronds, and leaves from the garden. He has no impulse control. For him, collecting things is a process and the possibilities are endless. He is infinitely the more creative of the two of us, and can make use of absolutely anything. A ruptured, discarded vacuum cleaner hose. Plastic netting from the vegetable section of the local supermarket. Copper wire. Empty boxes. Pieces of wood. When he is criticised by my mother, he admonishes, saying, “Other people’s trash is my gold. I don’t tell you how to cook. Leave me alone!”

A plastic two-litre Sprite bottle is melted on our gas stove in the kitchen. Wrinkled, shrunk and deformed, it is now a breathtaking, green, crystalline-like container that holds a large chrysanthemum on the dining table. They all became a part of a rather spectacular Ikebana arrangement, which in turn became the conversation piece as my extended family ushered in the new year together. That silenced the in-house critics for a while. I often marvel at how his mind works. He incessantly photographs too, whenever something or someone catches his fancy, averaging about a gigabyte a day. Despite his severely deficient, partial eyesight, each frame, including the seemingly mundane, are precious to him. He revels in the moment and gets upset when such moments pass untended. For my dad, every subject is gold.

I collect books and curios too. But for me, it is all in phases, and in themes, and have definitive starting and saturation points. Rocks, fountain pens, bottles of famous whisky, cameras, LP records, a modest print and painting collection. I even had a stoneware teapot phase and a light bulb phase. But books have been my longest phase, and biggest heartache. I have spent a percentage of my monthly earnings, for the better part of two decades, on new and second-hand books. A lot these books are on photography and art. Some are on the physics and chemistry of analogue photography, and printing techniques. Most of the newer generation of photographers would not have heard of those subjects or terminology, let alone know about the pioneers in these fields… As though an era shimmered and then vanished. I think those books are going to be very valuable soon. The joy (and loss) of a print made using analogue processes—so that there is just one original—will be the next big wave among intellectual photographers, collectors and gallerists. This is already happening in many countries.

I must admit that I have not taken very good care of my books and belongings, and I say that despite not inconsiderable effort. When collections become too large and unwieldy, it becomes difficult to care for it very well, especially in humid, coastal environs, and if you don’t have the space or resources. Eventually, some beautifully printed books fade and become dull. Some get damp and mildewed. The really old ones begin to crumble. And books hurt, just as memories hurt, and people hurt when they fade away; as it must for anything truly loved. With me, just as with many, the easiest way to deal with loss is to not deal with it. To ignore the pain until it becomes a dull ache, just like the colours in those books. Thus ended that phase of collecting. Oddly enough, I have come to realise that my photographic method and its failings are exactly similar to the way I collect things. And it is problematic. I have at least two dozen unedited photographic series, some incomplete and languishing… Because I slid, and let that ache ebb, and compromised with myself on myself, on how I treated my collections. Because there is always another day. It is all in the mindset, and in the approach. If there is always a new day for a new beginning, nothing begins now. Trash can certainly be gold if you want it to, and if you know what to do with it. It is infinitely better to start anew, to conclude, to feel loss for the present than to linger in the past, even as you try to get away from it. On that note, the Better Photography family wishes you and your family a Happy New Year. May this year be one of brilliant beginnings and conclusive endings, new prospects and new light.

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Better Photography.