The ordinary

David Hockney is quoted to have said “I’m always excited by the unlikely, never by ordinary things.” We can’t all be David Hockney. I take delight in accidents and ordinary things very often. For example, the accidental discovery that pressing the shutter release of a camera while cupping the lens in one hand can give you an interesting result. As evidence I give you the featured photo.

Say, it’s only a paper moon / Sailing over a cardboard sea / But it wouldn’t be make-believe / If you believed in me

Ella Fitzgerald / Billy Rose

Ordinary material from the kitchen has provided me with hours of fun. On a rainy day, stuck at home, I sliced up an onion to try to capture the contrast between the moist layered interior and the papery exterior. For another photographic experiment, I took two different colours of grapes and a bowl to provide a third colour; then a sheet of packaging to reflect light and intensify the hues. Do these experiments work as photos? You should tell me. But I do like photo shoots where you can eat the subject after you are done.

There are delightful times when you see something familiar in a new light. That happened to me when I decided to take photos of thorns on a rose bush rather than the flowers. A bit like the moment when you realize that Neville Longbottom may be even more extraordinary than Harry Potter.

But look around you … Death and light are everywhere, always… perhaps to create a thing of beauty.

Roger Zelazny in Lord of Light

This sudden lifting of the commonplace into the most extraordinary thing that you have seen is one of the joys of photography. If I had to choose a name for it, I would call it Photo Dhyan (the Hindi word means attention as well as meditation). I could start to sound like a mystic if I go on about it. But I’m sure you have experienced it yourself as you walk about with a camera in your hand, thinking only that you want to take photos. Perhaps you are wishing you had found a less ordinary place. But then something happens as you look around and begin to assess everything as a photo. Suddenly parts of the ordinary no longer look mundane. Share that moment from your archives. Or better still, enter the zone, and bring those moments back with you to share.

We hope you join us this week for Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #169: The Ordinary.  It is my honour to join Amy/Ann-Christine/Patti/Tina as your guest host for the week. Please include a link to my post and use the Lens-Artists tag so we can all find you in the Reader. I’m traveling right now, but I’ll be back on Monday to look at your entries.

Next week, Patti will lead the challenge, so we invite you to stop by her site on Saturday, October 16 at noon and join us.

Die Blaue Ratte

While taking photos of Khandala in the blue hour, the photo that you see above reminded me of old days. Finishing a beer with a friend at a pub near the university, we saw a group gather around the barkeeper without ordering beers. As he closed the bar, we thought they looked like they might be going to a late night place. We followed them and discovered what would be our favourite late late night hangout: a pub called Die Blaue Ratte (The Blue Rat). We never figured when it closed in the morning. Years later, when I dropped in to the university to meet a professor, he asked, “And how’s the Blue Rat doing?” I suppose when I was late to work, people guessed where I’d been the previous night.

So it is true that I’ve seen the blue hour of the morning. But I much prefer to take photos of the blue hour in the evening. It is much easier to take several photos of the blue fading into black than the other way around.

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Clouds and rain

Clouds drift low in the sky during the monsoon. In Khandala, half a kilometer above sea level, they drift along roads. You’ll be driving along a clear road, then you take a turn, and suddenly you are inside a cloud. During the day you see this as reduced visibility. Your camera also sees the same thing. It is different at night.

I had to pick up a pizza for dinner. As I waited, my eyes saw a drifting mist and a light rain. My phone camera saw a fairly clear night. The software in a phone camera is tuned to give you the clearest possible image. Especially at night this involves a lot of algorithmic enhancement. Most of the time I’m happy with it. But it cannot deal with mysteries and atmosphere. You have to teach the algorithm to show what you see.

The clue to accomplishing this is in the halo of light that you see around the front of the building. Fog scatters light. That’s half the reason it reduces visibility. I took a photo with my flash on. The intense light of the flash makes the fog visible. The fog actually now looks denser than it did to the eye. I think a diffuser over the flash will give a result closer to what my eye sees. I’ll have to take some time to improve on this technique, but I think I have the principle now.

Wish you were here

Monsoon rains collect in little pools, overflow into streams rushing through gullies in the ancient basalt and gneiss, ferrying the mud that a hundred and fifty million years of life and weathering have produced in the ancient lava beds of the Deccan. This is one of my favourite places: the stormy waterworld of the Sahyadris in the monsoon. It is an ephemeral other world, which only appears for three months every year. It has done so for the last eight million years or so. And it may disappear forever before the end of this century

This year we spent a few days in the highlands, close to the dammed Vaitarna river. Storms lash this plateau about two kilometers above the sea. I’d just got a new toy: a little camera which is water resistant to a reasonable depth. Camera, shorts, tees, and flip-flops. Perfect for leisurely walks through this dark landscape brimming with life. Every bit of life here is thirsty for these few months which bring more than two meters of rain. Mumbai gets its waters from the lake formed over these dammed rivers. Rice is planted around village ponds. Snails, moths, butterflies, land crabs, centipedes, spiders, millipedes, bettles and bugs, skitter through the grasses and wild flowers which burst with flower and fruit.

The Family and I stopped to look at the grass, suddenly lit by a break in the crowds. The meadow looked made. A group of large bushes stood in a solemn circle around a small one struggling upright in the middle of an empty space. I fiddled with my camera, trying to get the settings right for a landscape. It was my first outing with this new piece of equipment. Before I could take a photo, the weather changed, and a sheet of rain came down over us and the gathering of the entlets. That’s the photo you see here.

The farmers here are friendly, but they have odd ways. We sat on berms of fields watching them plow, plant and transplant paddy, create dams and ponds for the season. It looked at first like a really poor place. Then we began to notice satellite dishes on the roofs of small huts, some SUVs and fancy cars, reasonable schools, very clean vaccination and covid-care centers, and groceries with all the little things that you might want. In other parts of the country farmers plant vegetables in small patches around their homes. This is produce for the family. Strangely, there were no such vegetable patches here. All vegetables are trucked in from the nearby town of Nashik. This lack of local produce must have something to do with the geology and weather.

The electric green of the grass glows even in this subdued light. By October the colours will fade into browns and golds. By next spring there will only be patches of dry straw covering the ancient stone. But now, I pull my camera out of the soaked pockets of my shorts, splash through a little stream of rain water to clear the grit off my flip-flops, and take a stand. There is a photo to be taken, another postcard to be sent.

Low light

Sometimes I fidget with my camera. I get distracted, distanced from a concert I’m listening to, or a conversation I’m a part of. And then I pull out my camera, or phone, and take photos. These low light photos have very little chance of coming out well, but I can spend some pleasant hours of my life trying to edit them.

This was taken at a pub. I’ve forgotten who we’d gone with. A single photo remained on my old phone from that day. That lens could hardly get any colour in that light, so I decided to convert it to black and white, and then try to balance the illumination. Which version do you like? With the amount of noise in the image, I don’t think it makes sense to push the level up.

I don’t remember why I was bored when I listened to this concert. Apart from a few photos, my memory of the concert was that it was very good. Maybe I just had my camera in my hand and fidgeted with it. Again, I can’t decide whether it is worthwhile pushing up the level. After all, this is not a photo taken for a newspaper.

The featured photo could have been. It was taken at the Gateway of India on the first anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack. The two street children make some money by selling memorial candles to the largely middle class mourners. The texture of life in Mumbai is so complex.

Goa in the monsoon

Monsoon in Goa: an advertising catchline from the 80s and 90s, when the hoteliers decided to fill up the empty rooms left after the party crowd disappeared. Winter is a washout with all the music and booze on the beach, so you might as well try to see the other Goa in the magical months of monsoon. This is one time when there is a truth beyond the lies of advertising.

The year I took these photos I realized that Goa is a wonderful place to observe the monsoon as it comes in to the Western Ghats. The wonderful plants and insects, the frogs and the moths, straggle down to Goa, to meet the birds and crabs of the coast. You can go for long walks, or drive to lonely spots, with your camera and catch some of the beauties that you might otherwise see on treks through the Ghats. You can lead a solitary life if you wish, broken by exchanging passing greetings with the fisherfolk who are the original inhabitants of this place, or long conversations with the university types over a strongly Portuguese-influenced lunch.

Or you could just stay at home on rainy days, reading, eating the sausages or dried fish in boiled rice, stepping out into the garden on the beach between spells of rain to capture the play of rain and sun on vegetation. It is a life to dream about in these constrained years.

Water ambush

You are not safe out in the middle of the lake; a determined ambusher like me will get you quite easily. Continuing my practice of shooting photographers in the act of photography, I caught these two groups. The couple were in the middle of one of the Sat Tals, the family in Bhim Tal. They say that hunters begin to enter the minds of their prey. I find that interesting statement is contaminated by a tinge of truth.

As I ambush more, I begin to see two kinds of selfie takers. One kind has arranged their lives so that they can easily say to others, “that happy me in the photo you see is the real me”. Others have not been so systematic. Their selfies take a small slice of the reality, edit out large portions of the world. These ambush photos appear to have the selfie-taker saying “the person in this photo is the me I wish I am”. Are either of them correct about themselves? We change every moment, after all.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Maps for lost lovers

Ambush photography is a name I have for a corner of street photography in which you take photos of other photographers, and their subjects, usually without them being aware of you. (I love the fringe of this area when your subjects become aware of you and your camera, so that you enter the photo through their facial expressions.) Several years of ambush photography taught me that it can tell you of certain universals about human beings. In our times when the world seems both more closely knit together, and more rapidly disintegrating into blocs of us versus them, I like the picture of our common humanity that emerges when I put photos from different countries side by side. The photo here is one such universal. Couples want photos of themselves, and they love to look at the photos.

You may be disappointed that I did not say anything about Nadeem Aslam’s exquisite book, whose title I plagiarized for the title of this post. But the photo does contain an echo of the story of conflicts between human variability and weight of expectations which is at the core of his book. The couple stand next to a poster with a man and a woman posed in the manner of a famous shot from James Cameron’s popcorn movie Titanic. That trifling movie has begun to create a stifling convention of how lovers have to be imagined. I am happy that these couples did their own thing instead. A common humanity does not mean exactly the same ways of doing everything.