Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Single, Simple Light Or Yes, I Am Regressing

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 15, 2010 at 11:24 am

The same year that I read Edith Wharton (see previous post), I also discovered Vermeer and wrote a series of essays on his works. It was here that I so fell in love with the single, simple light and its impact on the texture of a painting, and later, on that of a photograph. These classes, initially taken with some reluctance by an Engineering major, revealed more than I can really explain. Not the least of which was the fact that light was an incredibly complex, subtle and dynamic reality that I had just simply taken for granted. And yes, it was amongst a number of seemingly banal realizations during my college years. But they were revelatory for me and hence memorable.

It was the understanding (however limited) of light that later bought me to Caravaggio, Velazquez and even eventually to di Chirico. It was also what led me to read works like Baxandall’s Shadows and Enlightenment - a work that drew my eye towards the importance of shadows and their fundamental centrality to the development of modern art. And later their centrality in photography and the ability to give a photograph depth, complexity and layers through their use.

I also loved the classes because they allowed me to wander into the Metropolitan Museum, writing pad and pen in hand, and waste an entire afternoon in the cool, calm isolation of a gallery. And they called it an education and gave me credit for it too!

How I would love to use such a light in my photography! And yes, it is rather cliche’ in today’s sophisticated photography space – so simple, classical and frankly simplistic. And yet it remains near perfect perhaps because it is real light, and an antidote to the desperate ‘innovativeness’ of the world of the digital photographer and his/her easy access to filters, masks and presets.

You can see and learn a lot more about Vermeer at this site here: The Essential Vermeer

Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662–63, Vermeer

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662, by Vermeer

The Milkmaid, ca. 1657–58 by Vermeer

On Confusing Defeat For Victory

In Musings On Confusions, Poetry, Writers on June 15, 2010 at 10:32 am

Be thou the image of a thought that fares

Forth fron itself, and flings its ray ahead,

Leaping the barriers of ephemeral cares,

To where our lives are but the ages’ tread.

And let this year be, not the last of youth,

But first – like thee! – of some new train of hours,

If more remote from hope, yet nearer truth,

And kin to the unpetitionable powers.

Edith Wharton, Moonrise over Tyringham

The last time I read Edith Wharton – really read Edith Wharton, was in college. Raised on a steady dose of classical British literature, I was completely unprepared for what lay in the words and ideas of the Americans writers. College changed all that as my courses introduced me to Baldwin, Hemmingway, James, Fitzgerald and the writer I found most interesting, much to my own surprise, Edith Wharton.

My love of literature – or should I say, my love of the worlds created through the written word, begins in an unlikely work; W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I say unlikely because it is a most English of works and I always hated English writers. This dislike was not some intellectual or creative judgment, but a result of a dislike of all things taught at the Irish Catholic school I attended in Karachi, Pakistan. We read Dickens, Shakespeare, and a host of other ‘important’ British works and I simply rejected them all. It was many years later that I was able to return to some Shakespeare, though even now the thought of reading ‘Macbeth’ is accompanied with visions of beatings, scoldings and humiliations.

Maugham’s Of Human Bondage I read outside of school. I found a copy of it amongst the leather bound decorative novels kept to occupying a bookshelf in the family formal dining room. A combination of curiosity and a desire to ‘upset’ the fine formal symmetry of these decorative items, had me starting to read Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy, Kipling, Poe and Maugham.

Who said mischievousness or a desire for petty destruction could not yield interesting results!

The book immediately captured my attention. It was the character of the young boy Philip Carey that I obviously related to and easily transposed my own personal struggles (petty in comparison, but our imaginations to run wild in our teens!) and burdens of an isolated childhood onto his journey into and against life. I can’t even remember how many of its pages bought tears to my eyes as I explored an individual’s struggle against society, and against the hand that fate had dealt him. Each time it seemed that he would overcome, he was thrown right back down to where he had begun. (Aside: A similar structure informs Rohinton Mistry’s wonderful A Fine Balance, another novel that had me in emotional water falls towards its final pages) It not only made me aware of the difficulties of life, of man’s inherent need for dignity and respect, and the fragility of dreams, but also of the incredible darkness that lay beyond the point when one surrender and accepts that which is offered to him. This passage, from the last pages of the work, continues to haunt me even today:

He realised that he had deceived himself; it was no self-sacrifice that had driven him to think of marrying, but the desire for a wife and a home and love; and now that it all seemed to slip through his fingers he was seized with despair. He wanted all that more than anything in the world. What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of South Sea Islands? America was here and now. It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

W. Somerset Maugham had, on the very last pages of this magnificent and moving work, offered the escape clause for all those who were finally exhausted and needed a way out. But the entire work had in fact been a paen to a young man’s struggle to overcome his limits, and the repressions imposed on him by society. It is a celebration of dreams, of a courage that refuses to accept repeated failure and defeat. That refuses to accept what seems inevitable. That keeps confronting apparent failure and restarting with the belief that the next time around it would be different. It is about passion, about the belief in real love, of a passionate surrender to the imagined and the beautiful. About human courage and strength that fights to overcome mediocrity, cynicism and simple ordinariness.

Or at least that is how I read it.

And it touched something deep within as Philip Carey’s journey in life became mine. There, behind the locked door of bedroom in Karachi’s Defense Housing Society Phase II, I entered the struggle of this young man and made it my own. Each success, each failure and each re-start was personally felt. It took me seven days to finish this book – the first piece of literature I worked through without stopping or getting distracted. I laughed, cried, felt depressed and in the end closed the book with a deep sense of conviction that Maugham’s conclusion was wrong, and that Carey’s surrender had been a mistake and a misjudgment.

Edith Wharton’s characters reflect much of the same struggle; against norms, society and family groups. I think that what captured my attention was that her stories reflected the struggle of the individual against the social. Her characters are tragic – each is imaginative, creative, passionate, but simply end up ruined or lost as they either surrender in the face of the society or go mad by simply accepting its eviscerating and debilitating pretensions and mediocrity. But another facet that I loved were that her male characters were always flawed, always weak and in the end, always cowards. It takes an Edmund Wilson to really bring this aspect of her work to the fore when he describes it, in his brilliant The Wound And The Bow, by saying that:

…the typical masculine figure in Edith Wharton’s fiction is a man set apart from his neighbors by education, intellect and feeling, but lacking the force or the courage either to impose himself or to get away…In [her] novels these men are usually captured and dominated by women of conventional morals and middle-class ideals; when an exceptional woman comes along who is thirsting for something different and better, the man is unable to give it to her…There are no first-rate men in these novels.

Edmund Wilson, The Wound and The Bow, page 185

She captured in words, and laid out the consequences, the pusillanimous acts that I so feared and still fear. Much like Maugham, who described the struggle to live a life according to dreams and not just desperation, Wharton too reveals men and individuals constantly confronting obstacles, and much to my dismay, succumbing to them. They fail to rise to the occasion one last time and save themselves and their ‘youth’. I loved Wharton because she reminded me of the importance of avoiding this last failure, of confusing defeat with victory. She, unlike Maugham, had the insight to reveal what lay on the other side. And I still fear it.

It Is Silent But It Is Not Quiet

In The Daily Discussion on June 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

Things have been rather slow here on this blog lately.

It is not for want of things to say. In fact, the problem is quite the opposite. I find that I have so much to say, on so many different issues, that I can’t get around to saying anything about any one of them.

For example, as Israeli commandos were hijacking private relief ships and killing ‘dangerous’ unarmed civilians in international waters, the ever-delusion and consistently wrong Bernard Herny-Levy was babbling lyrical on Israel being the great ‘democratic’ miracle of the Middle East. Later he followed it up with a typically lame argument that was yet another brick in the facade of diminishing the actual brutality, mercilessness, illegality of what remains a singularly illegal, inhuman and unnecessary military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. Using sops like ‘Hamas charters’ and other imagined ‘threats’, and all efforts to actually ignore the fact that it is Israel that is an occupier, its jack-boots and sophisticated weapons of warfare, on the throats of an unarmed people dispossessed and displaced for decades, Mr. Levy continues to remind us how easily one can sell ones mind, soul and limited intellect to power, popularity, ethnic and religious affiliations and simple desire for success. Lets have Tariq Ali remind us:

I want to say more, so much more, but am distracted. All I can say is…it takes no thought, no intelligence, no courage, no insight, no brilliance, nor any effort, to simply stand alongside power. It takes only laziness, cowardice, suspension of one’s critical faculties and obsequiousness. It takes Bernard Henry-Levy.

Fortunately, others more articulate were able to respond to this French clown, as the Israeli writer/journalist Gideon Levy did in a piece called In response to Bernard-Henri Levy, reminding him with his usual tact that:

…since you were here already, why didn’t you pop into Gaza, as your friend Mario Vargas Llosa did, to see with your own eyes whether there’s a blockade? The doctors in Shifa Hospital, for example, would have told you about their dead due to the non-blockade.

True, nobody is dying of hunger. Yet the Gisha organization for freedom of movement released a report this week saying Israel today allows 97 items to be brought into Gaza, compared to 4,000 before the siege. Is that not a blockade?

A large Israeli supermarket holds 10,000-15,000 items; in Paris there are surely more. Yet Gaza is allowed 97. One would expect greater understanding for gastronomic needs from a refined bon vivant such as yourself, of all people.

You mention, as though you were the IDF spokesman, that Israel permits 100-125 trucks into Gaza a day. A hundred trucks for 1.5 million people ¬ is that not a “merciless siege” as the Liberation newspaper you castigated called it?

Eighty percent of Gaza’s residents subsist on aid; 90 percent of its factories are shut down or runing below capacity. Really, Bernard-Henri, isn’t that a blockade? Shouldn’t a great intellectual like you, of all people, be expected to know that people, including Gazans, need more than bread and water?

Or that Peter Beinart was waxing lyrical about an imagined liberal Zionism of the past that now seemed to have veered off its once ‘pristine’, ‘pure’ and ‘humane’ past towards a more radical, violent and regressive nature. But what past is this that he is talking about, no one seems to want to bother to ask. Is this the past of the terrorism that was used to attack British interests in Palestine, and the terrorism used to displace over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes? Is this the liberalism that never deluded itself that it was going to have to evict the rightful residents of the land that is now called Israel to make it into a pure, exclusive, Jewish state? Is this the liberalism that was in fact a blatant, European colonial exercise that used justifications of ‘civilization’, ‘greening the desert’, ‘a land without a people…’ etc. etc. to arrive, displace, occupy and erase where others had once lived, and done so for centuries? Is this the ‘liberalism’ that used, and continues to use, the regressive, fundamentalist blather of delusions offered is spiritual texts to murder, steal and lie? Is this the liberalism that saw the Palestinians as barbarians and thought nothing of simply throwing them out? It takes Laor to remind us of the construction of the myths of liberal Zionism

To quote a review by Maz Ajl:

Earlier Zionists were not in the business of molly-coddling modern Western sensibilities. They were honest, unaware or indifferent to the fact that the archival record they left behind would be trouble. Take revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky’s scorched forthrightness: “colonization must … proceed in defiance of the will of the native population … an external power has committed itself to creating such security conditions that the local population, however much it would have wanted to, would be unable to interfere, administratively or physically, with our colonization.” Ideology hasn’t changed much, but the West has. So Israeli new mandarins have to try to sell settler-colonialism to Western states with populations that increasingly regard Zionism’s spiritual core and physical reality as somewhere on the spectrum between mildly embarrassing and overtly revolting. It is those mandarins that anti-Zionist Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor meticulously vivisects in The Myths of Liberal Zionism.

I have so much more to say, but I can’t because I am distracted.

And about the Ahmedis – yet again murdered and killed in insane attacks on mosques. With so many now shedding tears of remorse, I can’t help but ask them where they were when the Ahmedis, under the crass and hideous political shenanigans of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – that so-called ‘great’ democrat of the nation, labelled them ‘heretics’! We have sown the wind, and must reap the whirlwind. The anachronism of an ‘Islamic’ state – the term ‘Islamic’ being impossible to define just as the term ‘Islam’ is impossible to reduce to any ‘one’ thing given the incredible social, cultural, economic, political, historical, ethnic and class diversity of the world that is the purvey of ‘Islam – are coming home to roost not just in the horrors they bestow on the nation, but in the self-destructive murders and abuse they require all to inflict on all others. The Shias, the Agha Khanis, the Christians, the Hindus, the ‘not so religious’ – each will and has been in turn a victim of some or the other convinced that they know ‘Islam’ or have it ‘right’. We have foisted onto ourselves the impossible project – a politically uniform idea of ‘Islamic’ politics on top of what is an incredibly diverse, multifarious and varied nation. The brutalities inflicted on the nation’s constitution, the laws forced into its legislation, the cartoon-like ‘religious’ ideologies and ‘values’ gerrymandered are nothing short of criminal, irresponsible and frankly infantile. The worst minds, the most illiterate of individuals, the most backward and inexperienced of ‘religious’ ideologues, have their hands on the levers of law and legality. It is inevitable that it will fail, and that it will reduce itself to murder. I have so much more to say, but I am distracted.

Ali Sethi, ever subtle and articulate, expressed far more interesting and insightful comments on the pathologies of ‘Islamic’ nationalism and sectarian contortions of history in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called One Myth, Many Pakistans reminding us of the unsustainability of the so-called Two Nation theory (something I repeatedly question in my own work in India). As he states:

After the exam I would go home. Here the Two-Nation Theory fell apart. I was part-Shiite (my mother’s family), part-Sunni (my father’s family) and part-nothing (neither of my parents was sectarian). There were other things: the dark-skinned man who swabbed the floors of the house was a Christian; the jovial, foul-mouthed, red-haired old woman who visited my grandmother every few months was rumored to be an Ahmadi. (It was a small group, I had been told, that considered itself Muslim but had been outlawed by the government.)

But even more than these visible religious variations, I was more aware of things like caste and money: my mother’s family was upper caste, claiming a magical blood bond with the Prophet Muhammad, and owned large tracts of land in the countryside. My father’s relatives, however, were undisguised converts from Hinduism who had fled their villages long ago and now lived in the city, where they were always running out of money, working in government offices and selling homemade furniture and gambling (and losing) on the stock market.

The Two-Nation Theory allowed only for the simple categories of Hindu and Muslim, one for India and the other for Pakistan; it had no room for inner complications like Shiite and Sunni and Christian and Ahmadi. (I had yet to learn that more than a million Hindus still lived in Pakistan.) It also required the abolition of magical blood claims and landholdings and stock markets, so that our personalities and situations could be determined purely by our religious beliefs.

I am distracted.

The summer of 2010 sees the start of two new projects. And that is what is distracted me at the moment. I am loath to add my pointless voice into the pointless debates above. Instead I am concentrating on starting a project that will explore a city in Europe deeply and fundamentally influenced by its social, economic, political and cultural interaction and engagement with the Islamic East. And it is not Granada, Seville or any of the cities that were once actually ruled by a Muslim empire. In fact, at the height of this city’s exchange with the Islamic East, it was a deeply Christian city, well within the realm of influence of the Pope, and a launching pad for the crusades. Despite this, it maintained a near 400 year commercial and cultural exchange the influence of which can still be seen in its life, language, architecture and commerce.

I am also beginning work on a separate project on Sweden’s Muslim communities in and near the city of Stockholm. Two exciting stories, each produced in its own unique way. A change of method, a change of ‘eye’ and hopefully a change of outcomes as well. Each is in its earliest stages of research but I hope to get going fairly soon.

This does not imply the end of the India work – in fact I will be concentrating on that project through late 2010 and most of 2011. But after nearly two years on the India project I have a need to ‘look’ elsewhere to freshen the eye and the mind.

I will end by offering an apology for what may be my most ‘self centered’ post to date. Your forgiveness is asked for.

What Is American Power? Mitch Epstein’s Reveals What We Don’t Wish To See

In Photography on June 10, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Photographer Mitch Epstein has long intrigued me. His photographic approach and technique are not to my taste. And yet his work continues to interest me. In fact, his approach and technique are made interesting to me because of the subjects he chooses to document.

The first work of his that I remember seeing was a lovely, contemplative and rather humble work he produced called Family Business – a documentation of his aging father and his dying furniture business in the face of an economic downturn.

From Family Business By Mitch Epstein

I loved the melancholy of it, the whisper of it. I loved that each image somehow reflected time passing.

Now come yet another fascinating and intelligent project called What Is American Power? (thanks to Conscientious for bringing this to my attention) which confirms Mitch Epstein’s intelligence and willingness to take on difficult subjects and do so in a simple, clear and illuminating manner.

From American Power By Mitch Epstein

The subject may appear predictable, but with the collaboration of writer/activist Susan Bell, he has managed to lift this above the mundane and evasive statements of others (think Burtynsky!) and put his ideals and points of view where his photographic plates are. As he says in his personal statement:

About a year into making this series of pictures, I realized that power was like a Russian nesting doll. Each time I opened one kind of power, I found another kind inside. When I opened electrical power, I discovered political power; when I opened political power, I discovered corporate power; within corporate was consumer; within consumer was civic; within civic was religious, and so on, one type of power enabling the next. I began making these pictures with the idea that an artist lives outside the nesting doll, and simply opens and examines it. But now—while America teeters between collapse and transformation—I see it differently: as an artist, I sit outside, but also within, exerting my own power.

The work received the support of a grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute, Soros Foundation – yet another interesting and important project the people at OSI seem to have recognized and encouraged.

Project such as these are genuinely documentary, and belong to the heritage of photojournalism. Mitch Epstein may not be invited to the ‘celebrated’ corridors of a Visa Pour L’image, his work perhaps not conforming to the ‘strict’ formalisms that seem to today define ‘photojournalism’. But much like the work of Fazal Sheikh (another important documentary photographer never shown at Visa! someone correct me if i am wrong!), he is a photographer taking on the important, relevant and significant issues of our time, and doing so outside of the commercially and consumer driven hallways of ‘news’ publications and weekly current affairs magazines. Stepping outside of these hallways of product sales may in fact be the only chance today to find the values, inspirations and ideals that once moved photographers to go out and make pictures; to reveal to us those very things we no longer notice, but in fact are fully responsible for creating and sustaining.

Put Down Your Camera, Or Find A New Way To Think

In Musings On Confusions, Photography on June 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Chimamanda’s is a voice we do not allow to come through in photojournalism. Her’s is a perspective and insight that absolutely must, not just when it come to Africa, but when it comes to covering the world regardless of where we are and who we are.

I love this quote:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word,that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds,stories too are defined by the principle of nkali.How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story.Start the story with the failure of the African state,and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Hear, hear.

Too many continue, in some bizarre and desperate obstinacy, to produce the same old, tiresome, tired approaches to issues of the so-called ‘Third World’. Its time to stop. To think. To question the self and see if you can find a new way to proceed. Otherwise just put aside that camera and do something else.

I have frequently written about and questioned the very ethics of the industry that we work in – see How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography, and Creating Tempests In A Teapot Or What Else Can A Photo Editor To Do and Only Interesting If Its Madness to suggest a few. There are longer discussions with colleagues in pieces like To See Or Hear An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down or even the long-winded What Ails Photojournalism Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV (Hey, I said it was long-winded!!) For the most part these essays are self questioning discussions, as much dialogues with myself as they are discussions with peers.