“Agnishylam”, a collection of photographic prints created by Jiby Charles, has been on display in Dravidia Gallery in Fort Kochi since 9th March. A member of Google 360º street view photography team, Jiby was also one of the 24 contributing photographers in Ekalokam Trust for Photography’s pilot photo-art project, Project 365 Tiruvannamalai. Jiby created these images during his stay in Tiruvannamalai as a participating photographer of Project 365, fulfilling EtP’s vision of creating new avenues of exploration and providing a platform for young and upcoming photographers.
Conceptualized by Ekalokam Trust for Photography, Project 365 Tiruvannamalai’s vision was to expose the inconspicuous, layered and fast changing cultural landscape of Tiruvannamalai . Launched in a politically charged time, when identities are causing debates and conflicts, Project 365 intended to silently unravel the stories, myths, and legends of a land that is much more than a temple-town, through visuals. Twenty-four leading and young, Indian and International photographers worked on individual projects on diverse subjects, striving to actualize the collective vision of EtP, and created a robust digital archive consisting of 3000+ images through the duration of the project. The idea of a collective archive was to collate multiple perspectives of a single vision, thereby creating a body of work that would support itself by tuning out individual weaknesses, all the while preserving the uniqueness of each artist’s exploration.
Jiby has attempted to catalogue the rural landscape, traditions and lifestyle of the people living in the foot of the Annamalai hill. The visuals encompass a wide range of subjects – the Karthigai Deepam festivities, the Girivalam ritual, the cattle fair during the Deepam festival, and even a few images of the Sadhus of Tiruvannamalai. Some of the images feature the local subjects engaging in their daily routines, with the Annamalai hill acting as a sort of silent spectator in the background. The treatment of his images seeks to imbue them with a sense of spiritualism and ‘other-worldliness’. The images were not devoid of ‘exoticisations’, quite like the countless commercial photographs of south-east Asia produced over the last century. The images fail to engage with the subjects, and do not expose anything other than the already established stereotypes of a typical rural landscape. The photojournalistic and street photography compositional techniques employed by Jiby is apparent – mostly engaged in framing the image, only bothering with the lighting in post-production. The overall aesthetics are quite pointedly aimed to appeal to a westerner’s, and by extension, contemporary urbantastes – the extreme use of HDR imaging and high contrast in editing is a clear indicator of this attitude.
Gustav Le Gray is generally credited with inventing HDR photography in 1856, when he was faced with a fundamental problem with photographic technology – recording the broad spectrum of tones that a human eye can discern naturally. With the limited dynamic range of photographic film of the time, it was all too common for an image to have blown out highlights or blacked out shadows. Le Gray sidestepped this problem by exposing two films – one underexposed for the highlights, and the other overexposed for the shadows, and later combining them while printing to recover the loss in detail. The problem with combination printing is that it requires multiple exposures and perfect registration while printing to get results. 20th century photographers like Ansel Adams preferred to work with single negatives and bring out the details in development – by underexposing for the highlights, and overdeveloping the negative for the shadows. In 1954, almost a hundred years after Le Gray, Charles Wyckoff developed the three-layered film, with each layer having a different ISO rating. As a result, each layer of film recorded the image at different exposure levels, offsetting the dynamic range problem with fewer complications than Le Gray’s combination printing techniques. Manual tone mapping techniques, like dodging and burning, developed in the late 1950’s lent better control of tonality while printing the image. Modern digital HDR imaging was developed in the 1990’s through the work of Paul Debevec and Steve Mann, which enabled softwares to merge multiple images and apply tone mappings to particular areas of an image. With the innovations in modern photographic software, it is becoming increasingly easy to manipulate images even in mobile phones. Of course, with this liberalization, HDR photography is slowly devolving into a form of abstraction from its earliest intentions of re-creating an image as the human-eye would see it.