Boulevard du Temple, the first pair of photographs of the streets, was taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838 or 1839. As Daguerre was experimenting in his studio in Paris, trying to find the ideal “fixer” that would leave a permanent imprint, he took his camera obscura, looked through his window at the famous Boulevard du Temple thoroughfare and captured the streets. This became the first photograph of a human figure on the streets – with the almost immobile leg and the shoes which were being polished properly imprinted and the moving body blurred in the long exposure. He took another one of the almost empty streets, after an interval of few hours. This pair of photographs that were developed using mercury fumes and permanently fixed with sodium thiosulphate became the world’s first set of photographs of the street. Fortunately, the pair was among the 25 and odd photographs that survived the fire which destroyed his studio and the rest of his Daguerreotypes.
Thereon, many have tried to bring about the technical sophistication required to record human figures and objects in movement. Charles Nègre’s “Chimney-Sweeps Walking”, an albumen print taken on the Quai Bourbon, Paris in 1851 is the first successful photograph to register people in movement. After this technical advancement, there has been no looking back and many masters like Eugene Atget, John Thomson, Berenice Abbott have strived to make streets worthy subjects of photography. It was Paul Martin from the UK who first started taking photographs with a disguised camera. In Britain, a social research organization called Mass-Observation was founded in 1937 to record the uneventful, everyday life in the streets and these often disguised recordings/photographs served the agenda of monitoring the mass reaction to historical moments. In one instance, over 200 “observers” recorded people’s reaction on the streets on a single day (May 12, 1937). The act received worldwide criticism as an invasion of privacy.
But, after this, the everyday life in the streets became “eventful”, so to say. Crowds and their immanent chaos became subjects of interest in art and literature. Flânerie, a term originally coined to describe a wanderer with no purpose, was likened to the connoisseur of the streets who is believed to play a major sociological, anthropological and historical role. When photography became a tool of this urban spectator, a new genre now known as street photography gained momentum. The street photographer is expected to capture the soul of humanity, which is generously generalized to be ever vibrant and thriving. The lifestyles of people caught in unaware random moments were considered to be intense and emotional. Seen through the distant lens, even mundane sufferings are beautiful and artful. As Susan Sontag posits, ‘the photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque”.’
Legally, these days, developed countries struggle to achieve a balance between the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and it has become illegal to photograph without the consent of one who is being photographed. Often decided case by case, the law in Canada, EU, Germany etc., upholds the privacy of the undoubting bypasser and basically the photographer does not have publication rights without getting permission from everybody in the frame. In Hungary, street photography is illegal and in Japan, it is a prerequisite to get the permission from every single person in the frame, before taking the photograph. In France, where street photography took roots, it is nowadays practiced as an art form only under “certain” circumstances. However, none of the ethical concerns seemed to stop photographers from exploring the ever-attractive streets. Especially, photographers from developed nations continue to visit and stalk the developing countries of Asia and Africa.
In the 50s, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of the idea of the decisive moment, became the singular force whose tireless efforts and poetic works in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, made street photography reach newer heights, a point from where there has been no return. His influences have been so deep and strong, that successful generations of young photographers followed the same style, often without any forethought or premeditation. Achieving the perfect composition that comprises of precisely timed organization of forms, subjects and movement became the mantra for many succeeding photographers. He was particularly noted for his photographs of pre-independent India. He was also known for using disguised cameras to make his photographs.
Not surprisingly, Indian photographers were greatly impressed by his “popular” style and followed suit, stalking the streets. Like master, like students; and it is only natural for knowledge to be transpired across cultures in this manner. Only that this popular aesthetics of street photography has been considered déclassé in the postmodern context, and the questions around its ethics remain unresolved. Sadly, even now the most celebrated photographs of India are street photographs and there is a continuing market for this genre of photographs at the International platforms. Especially, there is a demand for works that resembles the celebrated masters’ original works, and available for a price far lesser than the original. It actually purports the machinations of the collectors’/agents’ need to keep the market value of this genre of works.
It is in this context one has to look at ‘Existence’, a set of 25 works of young Indian photographer Mouhamed Moustapha, presently being exhibited at Le Promenade, the five-star hotel in Pondicherry. The same set of works and parts of it have already been exhibited in Goa and elsewhere. As his bio says, Mouhamed grew up in an underprivileged background and had to undertake different jobs, all the time dreaming to do something else. In 2014, he began taking shots of the places he visited, often the popular touristic spots like Mahabalipuram, Varanasi and his own home town Pondicherry. These are convenient places for beginners, being a popular destination for street photographers. He says that the crowds, their busy hustles, the unrest, the multi-layered reflections evoke childhood memories, but a quick glance will reveal his struggles to be upbeat about it – there is an exaggerated contrast of tones, adjustment of focus, the characteristic wait-watch-intervene for the decisive moment. The 35mm full-frame format digital camera that allows a candid close approach to the human subjects without their suspecting they are in the frame, is his solace, to observe without being observed – a power that isolates him from his own surroundings. This could have communicated as well, albeit the lack of coherence in telling what he says is his own story. The shots are too random and disconnected, and lack a thematic focus, apart from the search for a formal order. They don’t weave a narrative, neither of his life nor of the places he has shot. This lack of depth so much characterizes many young and upcoming Indian photographers, who are not willing to take that extra effort to read, understand, and reflect on the philosophy of photography, its practitioners and aesthetics. Digital photography offers plenty of possibilities to easily follow the signature-styled tones, compositions and language that the masters had painstakingly developed over years of practice and diligence. This could be overlooked, as knowingly or unknowingly these photographers subscribe to a particular school of thought, and thereby its aesthetics and practices.
Possibly because of the assuredness that comes with following a trend that already has a market and demand, many photographers often become brutal in their expression. Their only aim is to match the “shapes” and “postures”. They see humans and other lives as mere lines and forms to be fit in to their schema of apparent orderliness. The high shutter speed further crystallizes their appearance. A line here, a human there, and a curve in the far end, everything is aligned into one compositional perfection, which gives an illusion of forged beauty, but is devoid of creating any aesthetical emotion in the viewer. As far as the subjects are concerned, the photographer does not exist and often they are not even aware that they are being photographed. The viewer also gets the same feeling – like witnessing a well orchestrated tableau. In older times, probably due to the nature of analogue photography as well as the original thinking behind such compositional styles, they did not appear so “plastic”. Here, the objects and people in the frames lose essence and are flattened, giving a rather monotonous texture. In Mouhamed’s images, a drop of water looks like a piece of rock, and the lights, be it flat or highly contrasted as is common in his photographs, makes the image look all the more plain and cold.
Also, there is a tendency to promote the works – as signature-styled, even though it contains nothing of that sort, except for the rather flattened forms and structures. Looked at as a whole, it lacks clarity and depth in how photography and this particular work is conceived by the photographer. Photography is a democratic medium, and more so with modern inventions, but the medium has a history of more than 175 years which cannot be taken in slight, as some photographers and journalists who write about them do these days. Photography is the new buzz word and taking hue from common narrative and personal accounts, the amateur journalists tend to make groundless claims in their writings about photography in popular media, nonchalantly discarding the efforts already put forth by six generations of Indian and International photographers. This is nothing short of callous and absurd. For example, at this stage, Mouhamed has lots of confusions as to his language, approach and expression. Take the monochrome visual language for example. Some images of his ‘Existence’ is available in his own website as a work of color, while the prints exhibited at Le Promenade are in black & white. This confuses a viewer. It is not sure whether black & white is his preferred medium or a sheer one click decision made in the spur of the moment to meet buyers’ preferences. This zigzagging and other such discrepancies are major pitfalls that beginners easily get trapped and Mouhamed is no exception. That said, these are stumbling blocks and at this point, this flaw could also be overlooked. But taking random shots and carelessly bracketing it into the now-popular taglines such as ‘everyday life’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘ordinary lives’ etc. is taking it one step too far. His works visibly lack the expertise and clarity in thought, ideology and philosophy that comes with prolonged engagement and study.
The most disappointing aspect of the show is the venue itself. Or, to be precise, it is the attitude of the Le Promenade towards art and artists that is the cause for concern. As their website proudly describes, Le Promenade is situated at the heart of the town’s ancient “French Quarter”, with “ultra modern interiors”, “clean minimalist design” and the so-called “colonial French” exterior. Mouhamed’s show is arranged at the 24-hour restaurant, which is at the ground floor, overlooking the sea. It is that part of the hotel that is frequented by guests and diners. The five-star restaurant noticeably fits into the elite style that their class of visitors would prefer. The neatly arranged colonial-style seating arrangements await their occupants and the busy attendants move about cleaning and preparing. Amidst the apparent chaos, one has to take a closer look to notice the works that are hanged all around. Some of the works are kept in the most un-seeable angles and positions – behind the dining table, behind the serving bar – non-reachable to an interested viewer. The lighting of this seaside porch is actually dim to provide an opulent experience and relaxed evening to their customers. This arrangement makes looking at the works all the more exhausting.
Clearly, Le Promenade is not distantly interested in lighting up and appropriately showcasing the works. Their attitude is one of upper-handedness, one that reeks of charity–as they provide the space for free and don’t take any commissions if the works are sold. But, truth be told, Le Promenade, the most expensive hotel in the town, gets to ‘re-design’ their interiors every now and then, without shedding any money. A dominion over young artists, who are looking for opportunities and sale, and in the process reducing the works of art as mere Indian exotica, that decorates their “colonial” interiors.
Unlike the other photographers who double up as an IT professional or designer or journalist or a government employee, Mouhamed says that he has taken a leap and quit his full time job. He no longer has that cushion that the ‘first job’ provides. This could be considered as one of his greatest strengths. It is not only his hobby or passion anymore. He has taken a plunge on to the highroad that can easily bring success and fame. Romanticized views of the busy Indian streets are still saleable. His well-rehearsed narrative about himself is bound to elicit a response from the urban elite and foreign tourists. But this is a well carved road that is traveled by many. Grinding the same stories – tourist locations, Hindu rituals and other such popular photo-friendly festivals and events – without exploring the possibilities of the medium, its history and philosophy is not going to take one far. In today’s world of technology, thanks to the modern advancements, taking a photograph is not that hard. But to make a mark in history, that is not enough.