Capturing shadows of a fleeting world

On the occasion of World Photography Day tomorrow, Shreekrishna Prasad S sheds light on pictorial photography - a lesser-known field of photography that needs all the attention it deserves...

Pictorial photography

“In my mind’s eye, I visualise how a particular sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.”

— Ansel Adams, legendary pictorial photographer

Pictorial photography is often referred to as ‘art photography’, ‘light and shadow photography’ and ‘storytelling photography’. The word ‘pictorial’ is used in photography to define the style of pictures made with aesthetic value and artistic interpretation of the subject matter by the photographer. Here, the photographer ‘makes’, not ‘takes’ the picture. Lighting, subject, composition, tonal variation and mood of the picture together convey a story. If the picture touches the heart of the viewer, the photographer is successful in his effort behind making the picture.

Pictorial photography evolved out of scientific or documentary photography in the later part of the 19th century. A section of photographers in England, France and America experimented in an effort to elevate photography from just documentary technique to a creative visual art medium. A movement in photography emerged that had an artistic style known as pictorialism. In India, legendary photographers like Dr G Thomas, C Rajagopal, O P Sharma, Benu Sen, Chitrangada Sharma, Surendra Patel, K G Maheshwari, B S Sundaram, to name a few, played an important role in popularising the art pictorial photography.

The beauty of pictorial images lies in simplicity. Village life and simple landscapes provided ample scope in making pictorial photographs. Early photographers used these subjects and made wonderful, ever-lasting pictures. Intelligent use of light and shadow, proper composition, gentle tonal variations, balancing the subject and perfect presentation were the hallmark of yesteryear’s pictorial photographers.

Monsoon and winter are two ideal seasons for pictorial photography. While monsoon offers dramatic cloud patterns and provides excellent opportunity to make dream-like landscape pictures, the soft light of early morning and evening in winter forms mesmerising scenes.

Beauty in simplicity

Pictorial photography can be done with a basic camera and lenses. The brain behind the camera plays a more important role in pictorial photography. Knowledge of controlling light, shadow and placement of subject to create an aesthetically pleasing picture are the basic traits of a pictorial photographer.

Those who are keenly watching the current trends in amateur photography regrettably opine that pictorial photography is fast disappearing. A couple of decades ago, national and international salons used to get more entries in the pictorial section than in any other sections. But today, salon organisers have replaced pictorial sections by open sections. Salon categories have been modified according to the current trends in amateur photography. Many of the present-day photographers are after wildlife photography, not because of a genuine interest in wildlife, but because it is an instant and convenient option.

The social media frenzy has spoiled creativity and a desire for making memorable pictures. In today’s fast-paced life, new entrants seldom take interest to invest time to learn the basic principles of photography. As a result, traditional pictorial photography is a fast-vanishing branch of photography. There’s nothing wrong in focusing on any branch of photography according to one’s interest, but if a photographer fails to capture aesthetic and artistic values, the photograph remains a mere record and would die instantly.

The advent of digital photography brought a revolutionary shift in the process of picture-making in the last two decade. Digital cameras, along with improved economies, are two important developments in the late 90s that saw photography, which otherwise was considered as a costly hobby, reaching masses. Expensive DSLR cameras and lenses are affordable to middle-class today. “Even a novice photographer owns a 600 mm lens nowadays, whereas it took more than 30 years for me to buy one,” says an internationally acclaimed senior photographer who lives in Bengaluru.

Not just an ‘IT City’

Sometime back, Karnataka, in particular, Bengaluru, was regarded as a pictorial photographer’s paradise. Renowned photographers like Dr G Thomas, C Rajagopal, B S Sundaram, T N A Perumal, Dr D V Rao, S Thippeswamy, Eshwaraiah,
M S Hebbar, B Srinivasa, H Sathish, to name a few, not only placed India firmly on the international photography map, but also coached the younger generation in the art of making pictorial images. C Rajagopal got the world’s attention for his ‘Line of Light’ photography and left an indelible mark in the arena as ‘Rajagopal’s Style of Photography’. “Earlier, very few would pursue photography due to the cost factor,” says a veteran photographer. “On the other hand, today, more people pursue photography as a hobby, but quality and originality have taken a beating,” he laments.

“The biggest casualty of digital photography is creativity,” observes H Sathish, president, Youth Photographic Society and a top-ranked photographer. ‘Pictorial’ seems to be an alien word in the present day, he regrets. “Pictorial photography needs deep knowledge of lighting, composition, subject matter, tonal gradation and storytelling values. It takes time and patience to study these aspects of photography. The younger generation seems to be less curious to study and use them in their pictures,” he feels. Not printing pictures for display and review and addiction to social media popularity have robbed pictures of their quality, he observes. Bengaluru’s internationally renowned photographer B Srinivasa is closely observing the present trends in amateur photography. Having been a part of the jury for many national and international salons, he has realised that the quality of pictorial photographs has gone down in India. He says, “Pictorial photography is more challenging and gives scope for exhibiting one’s creativity.”

He feels amateur photographers should involve intensely in picture-making. Dwindling village scenes have contributed for a rapid decline in pictorial photography, he observes. He remembers that C Rajagopal had done many famous pictures on Bangalore-Magadi Road. “Today, we cannot see agricultural and rural activities in these locations,” he regrets.

Shivashankar Banagar, a senior photographer based out of Hosapete, echoes that rapid urbanisation has swallowed scenes of rural life, which once provided ample scope for pictorial photography. Mysorean veteran photographer S Thippeswamy observes that photographers should have a ‘third eye’ to capture a pictorial moment. “Photographers should visualise the final picture while shooting itself. Very few photographers are doing traditional pictorial photography now as an art form,” he observes.

Photo by Krishna Dotre
Photo by Krishna Dotre

The big picture

Another senior photographer and artist, K S Srinivas says pictorial values are key in bringing life in wildlife pictures, too. The proximity of wildlife sanctuaries like Nagarahole, Bandipur, Kabini, and the ease of safari shootings have made wildlife photography a quick option for weekend photographers. So, he suggests that even wildlife photographers should include pictorial aspects in their pictures. “Frequent workshops and organising exhibitions of the works of great pictorial photographers may rekindle interest in pictorial photography,” opines K S Srinivas.

Veteran photographer K S Rajaram admits that there is a limited number of pictorialists now. However, he is of the opinion that pictorial photography need not be viewed separately. He says the photographer should bring aesthetic values in his pictures, be it wildlife, nature, landscape or still life, so that the viewer would want to see the pictures repetitively.

Interestingly, these days, few photographers from smaller towns are also contributing to keeping pictorial photography alive. This seems to be because of their proximity to rural life, apart from interest in pictorial photography. Several senior photographers have observed the void in pictorial photography and are motivating to include elements of pictorial photography in new generation photographers. “Photographers should work consciously to improve upon their creativity,” suggests B Srinivasa.

Visualisation is unique to an individual and depends on one’s thought process. Concepts of pictorial photography can be taught, but the artistic mindset cannot be induced, say veterans. Instead of chasing instant fame and social media frenzy, photographers should aim at making long-lasting images. Let the glorious days of pictorial photography come again with renewed interest.

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