Black & white beauties

Black & white beauties

Black & white beauties

In the age of digital dominance, Santanu Chakraborty successfully revives analog
photography in black and white, observes Nirmala Govindarajan, as she engages the analog photographer in a conversation

Striking a balance between the science and art of capturing moments that speak to you over and again, Santanu Chakraborty goes with what his heart says. He then evokes the shades of life in black and white with scientific precision. The effect of this marriage between Santanu’s heart and science is a work of art, replete with a story within a history of people and their relation to cultural contexts. Stepping into this space, you can’t help but wonder what these people from faraway regions — in Kolkata, in Ladakh and the fairs abounding India — have transpiring in their minds. Inadvertently, you begin to draw context to their roots.

Advertently, Santanu, a neuroscientist, who discovered the power of black-and-white images while in college in Mumbai, continued to imbibe mastery over the lost art of classical black-and-white photography even while he lived and worked in New York for a decade. He addressed his passion for the medium by participating in photography and printing workshops, including with master printer Jim Megargee.

Today, Santanu is among the unusual tribe of analog practitioners in the world, to spread word about the medium. His ‘Analog Power’ workshop, recommended by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Greg Marinovich, received much appreciation by the participants at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore, in August this year. As the first analog photographer to conduct a workshop of this nature at this acclaimed haven of art, Santanu is excited that there is a renaissance of interest in analog medium across the globe.
“Youngsters in India too are keen on giving their work a unique stamp. It feels wonderful to be able to share what I know. At the converging point of aesthetics and science, teaching analog to a diversity of students is an engaging process across myriad ideas the medium offers,” he says.

Tools of the trade

In sync with this convergence, Santanu straddles the diversely construed worlds of art and science, for he feels that nature does not distinguish between disciplines. Humans do. “My family gave me an encyclopedia when I was a child. I would play a game, opening different pages every day, and reading them. With no one to admonish me, I developed the belief that since both art and science were in the same book, they must be part of the same world. I have retained that belief even as an older child,” he explains. Santanu sees the world as a deeply-connected place with many treasures, which might yield to those who have the courage to explore.

Delving into this explorer’s kit, we find rare, timeless equipment — vintage cameras, tripod, film, plates, developers and fixers waiting to be mixed in dynamic proportion. Behind it all, hidden to the naked eye, emerges a sensitive mind. “That’s my most compelling tool!” confirms Santanu.

Add curiosity and courage to this kit, and we connect to the mind of this analog photographer, who has multiple ongoing projects including bodies of work on Kolkata, Ladakh and the ancestral pujas of Bengal. “Of these, the Kolkata work began almost by accident. I lived there for a couple of years and found the city both maddening and charming. It is full of life; much of it intersecting the city’s public spaces. But despite being fond of exploring the city, I wasn’t keen on shooting it thinking that it had already been done. Then one day, it struck me that life had also been lived before. But that doesn’t stop some of us from living.
So I began shooting the Kolkata that moved me,” says Santanu.

Before that, having lived in America, travelled in Europe, and now back to his roots in India, are there emotions which are at one time common to all cultures and to others diverse?

Emotions that Santanu’s shutterbug feels one with? “I do not have roots in the conventional sense. Nor do I see a difference between East and West,” he says, adding, “But I do have a strong attachment to many lands and cultures. India, while stereotyped as one land, is really a diversity of nations rolled into a small subcontinent. Interacting, fighting and evolving together. It is the juxtaposition of opposing ideas that makes India interesting. My interests lie in these interfaces of opposites. Passing these intersections everyday is what jolts me into thinking about the other and its mirror image; the self.”

Capturing emotions

In seeking to delve within, Santanu is drawn to feeling. “Frames that can evoke emotions interest me,” he says. And within the frame, encapsulating lasting moments, there is not one, but many, that took with them a part of Santanu. “It is hard for me to rationalise the process of searching. Sometimes I see an evocative scene unfolding and know that I have to be quick. At others, I just feel there is something special in a place. Then I have to be slow, and given enough time, it will slowly reveal itself,” he says.

Santanu’s works have revealed themselves at various exhibitions including Portraits of Child Labor, Group Show, Ranu Chaya Mancha, and the travelling exhibit, Kolkata 2010, Birla Academy of Arts, Kolkata 2011 (Exhibit for CRY, Kolkata). As he continues to experiment with much slower methods of working, using larger format cameras to see if the meditative approach reveals a subject differently, he introspects about the nature of representation, eventually exploring photography’s connections with other forms of imagery.

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