Monday, May 9, 2011

The Eye Behind the Lens

The Eye Behind the Lens

Dr Nandkumar Kamat

Photography was world’s greatest, liberating, democratic, portable invention. Greatest because the principles were simple - capture natural photons and transfer photons; Liberating because it gave humans immense freedom to travel, choose and exercise options; Democratic because it was for everybody and anybody who cared to use a camera.
Do you love photography? The new slogan should be - ‘Don’t make war take photographs’. It would build a better world. It is a joy to watch and share beautiful photographs. I love photography because the camera becomes my extended eye, expanded vision. For 33 years I have handled inexpensive amateur cameras. Besides, I have discovered photography, especially outdoor and nature photography as a sort of visual meditation. For me photography is both analysis and synthesis, where art meets technology. There is nothing like capturing the kaleidoscopic of changing colours of a morning or evening sky. The monsoon and post monsoon sky in Goa is a feast for the mind’s eye. Your consciousness comes to a focal point when you bring the subject in a frame, in focus. It helps me to capture something which I think I would miss later.
What is photography? My definition for it is: it is an analogue chemical or digital electronic archive of objects, species, location and events in time and space. Photographers are visual anthropologists. Why do we record things and images? Why do we hoard memories? I think the urge is genetic, handed down through time by the prehistoric cave painters. We are all born artistes. We lose the trait as we grow up. It can be revived with photography.
The invention of camera made that possible. The most common and therefore stupid question I have come across after someone admires your photographs is, “Which camera did you use?” This is like looking at a healthy, cute baby and asking the parents, “Which doctor delivered it.” The question focuses only on one angle - the technological, the mechanical - as if the best camera would produce the world’s best photographs. It is true that better cameras amplify the creative impulse and provide many degrees of freedom to play with. But rarely do people ask, “How did you become one with the subject?” If best and expensive cameras could automatically guarantee creativity then those who purchase and possess the world’s most expensive cameras would also have been the world’s greatest photographers. There are only two kinds of photographers, the creative and the mechanical.
I don’t believe poetry can be written by taking classes. Photography is like visual poetry. You need to compose it. Therefore the ‘eye behind the lens’ is more important. My experience is that first we use our biological camera. The image is already registered on optical nerves. The camera merely does the delayed process of recording it artificially. If the mind’s image matches the artificial then we get better results. It is the eye behind the lens which helps serendipity. Some of world’s best photographs were taken purely by chance. We may call it a coalition of Gamowian world lines.
On the universe’s space time continuum the object and the camera happen to share the same 4D coordinates. I would share an experience. “Where is it, where is it, I can’t see it!” exclaimed Pramod Badami, an engineer who had led me to inspect an anti flood embankment on Kusde river in the Keri village in Sattari recently. Actually the Magpie Robin was perched on a pole just in front of him. It so happened that as I was taking pictures of the river, the bird flew in the line of the camera’s vision and to my surprise it waited for me to turn the lens and photograph it from a very close distance. It was not afraid of me. As I was photographing it, I told the engineer. “There it is, can’t you see? It just flew in as if invited to be photographed.” Then he saw the robin.
Such events are common in outdoor photography. Cameras don’t make any difference if people are blind to simple natural beauty. This is another experience. It shows how unattached the society has become. Such detachment or rather calculated indifference is growing. Once I spotted the orb of the rainbow from the university campus. The first thing I remembered was to get the camera, any camera. In my department there were many students and research scholars. “Won’t you all come out to see a rainbow?” None were ready. They didn’t see any purpose in doing so. While looking at the LCD screen I started walking till I managed to get a better view. “What are you looking at?” someone asked. He had eyes but didn’t know how to use them. There are many ‘blind’ photographers. Those who may parade the most expensive cameras but would never spot the rainbow because they don’t really know to use ‘the eye behind the lens’. When I showed the images of the rainbow to my students, they asked, “Sir, which camera did you use?” I told them that the question was wrong. Actually it was a simple, entry level, amateur Nikon Coolpix 3.2 MP digital camera.
The faint polychromatic photons of rainbow were effectively captured by that small machine. A better camera would have given a better resolution. Just as an accident prone driver doesn’t improve by changing the car model, if the ‘eye behind the lens’ doesn’t work then the best of camera is useless. After I showed the digital images of the rainbow I was told that some students were tempted to try their hand at capturing the rainbow. But it was too late. The rainbow had vanished.
No doubt people are purchasing all sorts of camera models in large numbers, but the sense of photography is missing. Photography is an amplifier of a child’s creativity. Those who can sketch, draw and paint need to be given a simple digital camera. Let them try whatever they want. I have learnt that there is nothing like self teaching, self learning. Nobody taught me photography. It came naturally to me, just like poetry. Recently I bought an Olympus 30X optical zoom model. I knew that my eye behind its lens would give me a sense of power and control over the distant objects. It is unbelievably easy to handle and an intelligent machine. A steady hand, sense of time, a creative eye and micro meditation, is all it needs to capture some great images.

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