It’s a bird, it’s a piece of art

Seeing nature through the lens is double the joy and experience, says leading nature photographer M N Jayakumar

Sitting alone, amidst the vibrant spectacle of birds, at the eighth-floor gallery of Bengaluru’s plush UB City, M N Jayakumar is a picture of calm. He has been waiting for half an hour, yet there’s not a trace of ire or ennui, as we meet at his latest photography exhibition.

Counted among India’s leading nature photographers, Jayakumar joins nature lovers across the globe in celebrating 2018 as ‘the Year of the Bird’. His exhibition, ‘Birds as Art’, is a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of the most significant bird-protection laws ever passed.

Blue-winged Malabar parakeet, purple-rumped sunbird, yellow-billed stork, red avadavat, pink flamingos, grey-breasted spur fowl… the colours on each canvas have a character of their own. “I’m fascinated by colourful birds,” says the Mysuru-born, self-taught photographer, who has been learning by “trial and error” for the last two-and-a-half decades. It was a friend’s casual remark that roused Jayakumar’s passion for photography. “I was working at the Mysore Zoo, when a lot of international wildlife photographers visited the place between 1991 and 1995. My friend found it rather strange that I was wasting my time, not making the most of my opportunities as a forest officer,” recalls the retired additional principal chief conservator of forests and member secretary, Zoo Authority of Karnataka.

Flying high

Over the years, Jayakumar’s photographs have found pride of place in exhibitions across India, England, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Finland, Australia, Scotland, USA and South Africa. He has also been awarded the Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, England (ARPS), Artiste of the Federation Internationale De L’art Photographique (AFIAP), and Master in the Federation Internationale De L’art Photographique (MFIAP), among numerous other recognitions.

At his latest exhibition, there are 42 works on display. Each more vibrant than the other. The extraordinary image of a red-footed booby with turquoise beak from Galapagos Island demands a second look, while the back-lit image of a white Eurasian spoonbill bathing in Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary has an effortless ‘wow’ effect.

For the first time, Jayakumar has “digitally tweaked” some of his photographs to give them the effect of an oil painting. The original and tweaked images of yellow warbler and collared kingfisher are strategically placed facing each other, offering the viewer an exciting opportunity to spot the differences. “I’ve used the oil painting effect in 12 images. Not all photographs can take the treatment. When we tried it on the dancing peacock image — a beautiful close-up — we realised that we would lose out on some details. So, we decided against it,” explains the author of two published books, Encounters in the Forest and Life in the Jungle: Memoirs of a Forester.

An advocate of photography as art, Jayakumar’s endeavour is to make art more accessible and affordable. “I’ve attempted to present artistically pleasing images that are not prohibitively expensive. The photographs are priced between Rs 12,000 and Rs 19,000 so that more people can take them home,” he says. Printed on imported Hahnemuhle Daguerre Canvas, the photographs are “zero maintenance” and will stay in good shape “for up to 80 years.”

Eye that beholds

For someone who started his journey in the “film era of the 90s”, Jayakumar is appreciative of all the boons of digital cameras, gigantic lenses and magical software. Nonetheless, he’s a staunch believer in the power of the person behind the camera. “No matter what the equipment, ultimately good photography is about the way you perceive an image and the way you compose it. Nothing can be more important,” maintains the man who believes that “social media is killing the quality of photography.”

Lighting is vital too. That’s why early mornings and late evenings are perfect for photography — “when the light is angular at 10-15 percent. Anything beyond that won’t work.” Patience and perseverance are important traits in a successful photographer, agrees Jayakumar, but what’s more essential is being “merciless in rejecting bad pictures.”

He was at Ranthambore National Park recently, where he had 47 tiger sightings and clicked close to 13,500 pictures. “Of those, 7,000 are already deleted from the system. Only 150-200 images will finally survive,” he avers. Where there’s passion, there’s no pain. Despite the persistent knee and back problems, Jayakumar is all set to take off to Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra. Ideally, he would have loved his wife Asha — also a remarkable photographer — to join him. But for now, he is making the most of every opportunity that comes his way, doing his bit to pursue his lifelong passion of protecting wildlife and conserving natural resources.

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It’s a bird, it’s a piece of art

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