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Clicking Into Place: Photography As An Art Form In India

26/01/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Serena Chopra-The Ancients: Bhutan Diaries. Photo Courtesy of Travel Photo Jaipur.

In India photography has been slow to claim its place as an art form.

It was the discerning position of galleries such as Nature Morte in New Delhi in the late 1990s, who included the work of photographers alongside paintings and sculpture at art exhibitions, that created a dent in the wall that kept photography out of most galleries till the turn of the century.

Then in the early 2000s, Indian contemporary photography began to gain a tentative foothold at art exhibitions. The natural progression was the opening of galleries such as Tasveer in 2006 that gave photography its rightful place in the sun. These galleries took photography from the periphery and placed it in centre, undeniably accepting it as an art form. They also give Indian photography an international exposure through their collaborations with institutions abroad.

India, so rich and diverse in its artistic traditions, has not been able to cultivate and nurture [photography] to the extent that it should.

I remember one of my first photographic exhibitions when an interested buyer said, "But why are your photographs so expensive? After all, you have negatives, don't you? You can print as many copies as you want." This was my cue to talk about the standard practice of declaring a limited edition for photographs. Photographers typically designate a finite number of prints in a specific edition of their work, and also specify the size, paper and provenance. This establishes prints within that limited edition to be designated as a Fine Art object and provides the buyer or collector with a market value.

The international art world celebrated photography as "art" way back in the early 1940s when the MOMA in New York began collecting photography for their museum. The next 30 years saw a progression of galleries and museums in the West embracing photographic collections and legitimising photography as a collectible art. Market value was established with the onset of photography sales by auction houses in Europe and New York.

It was in the 1970s when the inclusion of photography in conceptual art turned photography on its head and elevated its status to that of contemporary art. Conceptual Artists like Cindy Sherman did photographic works that influenced photography worldwide.

[D]igital cameras have democratised photography... Paradoxically this familiarity breeds a new respect and curiosity for a genre of art that even painters and sculptors include in their repertoire.

Today Indian photographers like Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh are well established internationally and an increasing number of Indian photographers are also gaining exposure and recognition on the international circuit. Participating in Biennales has been part of this process too. This has and will continue to impact the market value of photography as it gains momentum as an artistic medium, educating buyers and gallerists alike.

The Delhi Photo Festival in 2011 was followed by a burgeoning list of photography festivals in India. This platform is now celebrating this medium which for ages has been labelled as a marginal art form. Mumbai, Goa, Pondicherry, Hyderabad, Shillong, India Habitat Photosphere and currently Travel Photo Jaipur, the Pink City's open air photography festival, to be held in Jaipur in February 2016*. The list is growing. One hopes that the status of education in this art form, for practitioners, curators and critics alike, will also develop and expand, thereby creating meaningful artistic parameters and culture in the field of photography.

Digital photography and computer technology have transformed the face and creative possibilities in the realm of photography. They have introduced whole new approaches to expression and communication. Highly sophisticated software allows photographers to further explore the real and imagined, metaphor and dream... It aids and abets; enabling powerful images and layers that subvert time and reality, perhaps blending several images into a single frame. This new digital world is alluring and magnetic in its emotional expression and the photographer can post-produce, wielding technology like an artist's brush. The new genre of digital cameras have also democratised photography; the mobile phone camera and the selfie obsession have brought this voyeur of reality into the awareness and psyche of all and sundry: rich and poor, young and old. Paradoxically this familiarity breeds a new respect and curiosity for a genre of art that even painters and sculptors include in their repertoire.

[India] needs sponsored photography exhibitions and books, professional courses of a high calibre in the fine art of photography, curatorial training and a valuable pool of art critics and writers...

Art by its very nature has no boundaries and defies true definition. We observe, absorb and transform what we look at... finally we walk away with a whole new art work in our heads that belongs only to us.

India, so rich and diverse in its artistic traditions, has not been able to cultivate and nurture this art form to the extent that it should. It needs to endorse its own and create a vibrant culture for the photographic arts. It needs sponsored photography exhibitions and books, professional courses of a high calibre in the fine art of photography, curatorial training and a valuable pool of art critics and writers; finally it needs a larger number of reputed photography galleries and auction houses. These are the need of the hour. All these need to be pumped up into a coherent whole for photography to flourish in India.

Serena Chopra is one of the exhibiting photographers at Travel Photo Jaipur from February 5-14, 2016.

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