Art through the lens

ADITI NIGAM | Updated on April 21, 2011

Close-up: Roger Ballen's photograph of a wall in a peasant's home.

London's Victoria and Albert Museum brought to the Capital contemporary photographs that stand out as fine art.

The photo exhibition invite said ‘Something That I Will Never Really See'. Initially, it did not ring a bell, especially in an era when most of us are suffering from photo fatigue. Clicking photographs at every given opportunity has become as common as blinking one's eyes. And you can make any photograph look beautiful, thanks to digital technology. Not to forget the range of software on offer that makes toning and air-brushing as easy as boiling eggs.

What was enthusing, though, was that this was an exhibition of select contemporary photographs of over 30 artists from the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) London on topics as varied as fine art, science, fashion, advertising and snapshots.

The venue, too, seemed worth a visit. Formerly the residential palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is an island of sanity amidst the hustle and bustle of the National Capital. The gallery was inaugurated in 1954 and now houses around 4,000 paintings, graphics and sculptures of modern artists. The exhibition was supported by the World Collections Programme, funded by the British Government. In India, it is organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and funded by the Ministry of Culture.

A walk into the gallery was enough to bring on a sense of serenity. The high walls of the erstwhile palace were adorned by with photographs of internationally-acclaimed artists such as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and leading fashion photographer Tim Walker (of Vogue fame). The thought behind the exhibition, as expressed by NGMA Director Rajiv Lochan, was to bring the creator and the viewer closer and promote a “deeper understanding of photography as an art form”.

At first glance, some photographs just seemed like “straight documentary” images, but a closer look brought to the fore the fine art involved in each work and the thoughts that may have passed the minds of the artistes.

Works of art

First among the series was the inspiration of the exhibition's title — Gavin Turk's huge self-portrait with eyes closed, called Something That I Will Really Never See (1997). As the title suggests, the artist felt that photography freezes a moment in time that can never be relived. It depicts places and people many of us will never actually see.

One couldn't have agreed more. But for the American photographer Andrew Cross, how many of us would ever get to see the unknown spots that he tracked by following the American Railways and the “meditational quality” of the green, shrubby pathways. He explores the faraway links that transport creates for the wandering human mind.

Cindy Sherman's portrait of a modern girl in a rural backdrop, too, beautifully captured the “intermingling of reality and illusion”. But, one that was really striking was a colour photo that looked as black and white as the drudgery of our daily existence. Shot by Roger Ballen, it depicted the claustrophobia of a peasant's home by capturing a simple white wall with entangled wires, graffiti, symbols, words, and doodles by children as well as adults.

Another one that caught the eye was what looked like an everyday shot of books stacked on a library shelf. Two more seconds of gazing, and one could breathe the stillness of a library, its “quiet contemplation”, created by the use of natural light sprayed over the books, creating a sun and shade effect.

As Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, V&A Museum, said in his introduction: “One of its (photography) most compelling aspects is its creative capacity to tangle fact with fiction”. The selection keeps up with this spirit and leaves one yearning for more, if and ever one gets a chance to visit the V&A Museum in London. Sigh!

Published on April 21, 2011

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