But the question of why it suddenly disappeared while coming down from the curatorial note published in Gallery One Two website into the art gallery doesn’t seem to be a complex one, given that there are a few images of toilets included. The issue simply seems to have been that the original idea did not work out for whatever reasons, and a broader theme was taken up instead. The images that were intended to be part of the original curatorial idea have been included in the reframed exhibition, stripped of their connection with shit.
The curator tells me the photographs were selected with the idea of City in mind. He further tells me the exhibition is mainly meant to introduce pinhole photography to the viewership in Ooty. Having seen the exhibition before talking to the curator, this information settled some of my doubts since I had been lead to wonder why pinhole photographers were such lonely people who didn’t interact with other people, because self-portraits and urban architecture photographs dominated the show. The collection of images, from Asia, Europe and the Americas, fit into conventional formats and subject matter for the most part, and are at times indicative of the broader economic and social circumstances of the photographer and/or the nation. The slow shutter speeds continuously reiterate themes of transience, and perspectives are questioned by the distortions natural to handmade pinhole cameras. Most of the architecture photographers are either spherically distorted or have multiple perspectives/views superimposed; some of them have humans included, making them portraits with backdrops. Interiors deal with solitude, fantasy and disorder. Portraits are mostly self- (or reflect its format), and the subjects stoically pose for the camera. The trope of an image within an image occurs at least once. Compositional styles are familiar. Vignettes and similar distortions recur. Two images employ solarography.
Such descriptions may seem reductive. But what I perceive to be more important in the images than these reductions is the way they appear more like souvenirs than art works. To be more specific, they are souvenirs heavily influenced by artworks; they “feel” like fragments from family albums and postcards, heavily processed with tones and looks. This distancing is perhaps compounded by the prints being digital, since the surface lacks the texture of the image. It is impossible to weigh each photographer’s work and develop an interpretation, but the manner in which the show is put together, coupled with the curator’s words, make for interesting reading.
The selling point of the exhibition as it currently stands is the technique of pinhole photography itself, and the evidence of the technique in these images lies solely in the tonal identity and distortions, most of which in fact can be recreated in a digital environment and by itself are not enough to provide an affirmation of the chemical or physical techniques used. What survives then is only the attestation of the photographer, and in effect, the art object gets its value from this textual affirmation. This phenomenon is curiously reminiscent of the marketability of the vintage – an idea which survives solely on the myths and cultural connotations surrounding it. The vintage is only an “alternative” market (and traditional photographic techniques have been forcibly donned the “alternative” mantle for the sake of the market), and its consumers are predominantly made of people who are disillusioned in some way by the nature of products that come out in the market today, particularly in terms of fashion and aesthetics. In trying to escape this, they move towards an accepted “standard” in each field – we see this happening with automobiles, clothes, accessories, music, cinema, décor etc. Here, pinhole photography is being repackaged as a vintage technique which apparently makes its user different to the digital photographer; the aura is gained simply by using it. This also explains why most images imitate postcards, family album snippets and some “art photography” tropes – the thought goes into the technique itself, and not the image.
Such a projection of imported souvenir-like or exotic objects as art is a trend that seems to have gained popularity as a response to the perceived ugliness of modernist aesthetics in different parts of the world, and has been fuelled by market. The shrinking of art itself into art objects has been pointed out by many critics over the years, and has incited responses which themselves have later turned into marketable objects. The power of the market to subsume anything that evolves to counter it is perhaps working here, and it could be this that drives even the promoters of “alternative media” to conceive their own practice in terms of the images and formats disseminated in the market. The presence of centrally placed skyscrapers or other distinguished architecture in all conceptions of the City, the portraits that attempt to externally imitate (originally) iconoclastic art practices, the photographers’ response to the original idea of “My Philosophy of Toilet” which consist of mundane and external confrontations of toilets; all of these are representative of the un-engagement tendencies in popular art (from which no art form is exempt, I believe), and is also indicative of the persisting divide in the way art is practised among what could be called different “intellectual classes”. As such, what has happened at Gallery One Two need not be thought of as a new development, but as a continuation. The imports exhibited in One Two occupy two levels; one of the idea – taken from high philosophy, and the second, of the object – taken from mass-market-driven practice. The question that needs to be asked is whether the regional art practices can really nourish itself through interactions with such technique-oriented efforts.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this, and it was just that the execution lacked somewhere and the exhibition failed to come out as wholesome.
Cover and Images 1 – 4, Kitab Al-Manazir – Alfasl Al’Awa Pinhole Photography Show at Gallery One Two | Image courtesy: Arjun Ramachandran