By Chitra Gopalakrishnan
I see her first at the club as the luster of the afternoon gives way to a blurry evening in late November. Just as the sturdy, silver squares of sunlight on the clubroom wall stretch themselves into a sequence of muted grey rhombuses. She is sitting quietly, with a dream-like, delicate strength, watching the shadow play on the surface of the wall.
I see her look of delight as the rhombused-wall gathers an underwater quality to it. As the shadows of sunlight twine with the plants on the opposite end and throw them up in deceptive forms of seaweed, kelp and anemones who seem to shimmy wildly undersea with a sense of wanton freedom.
Watching the supple play of light and shadows at this elite club in New Delhi has been a favorite pastime of mine for years, one that comes to me naturally as a photographer. I have always immersed myself in the experience, one that is exceptionally tactile for me, yet until today I have never encountered another soul who has watched the shadow show on the wall with any kind of interest. So, naturally, I am intrigued.
This colonial, old-world, club, with its elegant dining rooms, bars, coffee shops and card-playing rooms, is my regular haunt where I meet my clients to discuss, negotiate and seal projects. I wonder if she is a new member or a guest of a member. The thought of whether I should introduce myself to her intrudes.
Should I disturb her soft, diffused, meditative silhouette show? Her miraculous gratitude for the sights on the wall? Her enjoyment of moments that have taken her into a different realm both inside and outside of time? A voice of caution whispers softly not to break her spell, her elevation beyond the ordinary materiality of the world.
So I don’t invade her privacy in this very public space but continue to look at her. Though I am hidden from her direct view by a pillar, I can see past it and have a direct view of her.
What I observe is this. Her face is not beautiful or extraordinary but it is most certainly chiseled. Her dark skin is radiantly clear and even-toned, almost translucent and minus make-up. Her eyebrows are intriguing thick, eyes small and alive, nose well-proportioned for her face, ears dotted with diamond studs, mere pinpoints, hair tousled but not messy and her lips curl upward when she smiles.
In her simple black suit, white silk top with soft folds along the neckline and simple black leather pumps, she holds an indescribable, electric lure for me. I feel different. Why? After all, I see and shoot multitudes of attractive women as a fashion photographer, a handful classy, some flamboyant, others trendy and a host of them simply hovering on the edges of style.
I think what draws me to her is her lack of trying for any effect and her poised assurance of who she is. I allow myself the credit of being able to cut past the scrim of her outer self to see who she really is, knowing fully well that many will smirk derisively at these presumptions of mine within moments of seeing her.
But, more so than others, I know beauty reveals as much as it hides. The lines of Blair Packman’s song flows into my mind. “If I were asked to define her, on a questionnaire or quiz, I’d take the path of least resistance: She just is.”
I’ve been making my living as a photographer for over ten years, and have accumulated a variety of gear over time. I have the latest Canon and Panasonic Lumix cameras, an entire complement of lenses, strobes, light stands, tripods, gels, filters, soft boxes and even some video and audio gear. But the one thing that often makes the biggest difference in the quality of my portraits is a simple reflector. I never leave for a shoot without it. This, as for me, and I assume as for all photographers, the quality of the light is first and foremost at a photo-shoot. I see my art as making colors look natural to the point that viewers should not be able to tell if the source of light is artificial or not.
Why do I tell you of my reflector obsession now? My fixation for lighting? Because my mind is seriously toying with the idea of photographing her in the outdoors, preferably in a leafy garden. Seeing her obvious delight with the play of light and shadows, I want to chase the technique of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark with perfect timing to create a perfect composition. And I want my final images to have a high dynamic range and detail in the extremely shadowed and highlighted areas.
Pursuing this type of light and shadow play as also the perfect timing to give context to photos of hers is beginning to have an enormous hold of me. Should I use a reflector to salvage bad light or out it to ingenuity by turning prosaic light into something magical? Should I position the reflector at the bottom to fill in shadows, or from above to block distracting light? I love bouncing the sun from the silver reflector to create the main light, or alternately using the reflector with a black side to create deeper shadows and selectively adjust saturation. Should I try the first or the latter? Or both? I am keen on capturing a subtle catch-light (reflection of the reflector) in her eyes. For me, lighting design and photography move in parallel both as art and a science.
Then I agonize: should I use the reflector to flat light her face so the light falls directly on her features? Or attempt broad light where she is at an angle and the well-lit side of her face is closest to the camera and the shadow falls on the backside of her face? Or should the reflector be used to go with the opposite of broad light, short light, in that her face is at an angle and the shadow falls on the side of her face closest to the camera? What about my reflector and I toying with split lighting where the light hits her from the side at a 90-degree angle? Or should it be backlight where the light comes from behind her?
I decide on placing her in a position where the light hits from behind and then use a reflector to bounce the light back into her face. This for a nice soft light on her face and dramatic rim light on the back of her head. I resolve to keep a shallow depth of field and jack up my shutter speed at 1/1250th of a second at f/2.0, with a 50 mm lens to allow for a wide aperture. It would also be great to play down the ambient lighting and throw the focus on her face, I reason.
In another, I determine, I will position her against a tree and have someone reflect a spot of sunlight on her from about ten feet away. At this distance, the light from the reflector will look more like it is coming from a grid spot and it will be a dramatic beam. Then I will find shady light under a tree and capture her against its muted backdrop. When a strand of sunlight escapes, my reflector will block it. After all, using both the right color temperature white light and the use of light sources with high color rendering capabilities is key.
Caught in my reverie, I am startled when Sachin, my friend ambles along to say hello. With my muse in tow. “Meet Arunima, my guest at the club, her photogram exhibition is currently showing at Gallery Art. She has pushed camera-less photography to its logical extreme using photo-sensitive paper directly to light to elaborate her ideas.”
I recognize the click in my brain. The click that acknowledges a kindred soul. I know now my instincts about her are not unreasonable or illogical. It is no coincidence we are both photographers of sorts and that her name means the first rays of the sun and mine simply means the sun.
“Aadit,” I introduce myself.
“I know your work,” she says. Dismissively or not, I cannot tell.
“Tell me about yours,” I appeal to her. “My exhibits titled ‘Her Garments’ is a series of silver gelatin photograms made using women’s garments worn when they were raped,” she says. “Tears, stains, cigarette burns on the garments tell stories that women are perhaps unable to say. I have tried to visualize the experiences of the women who wore these garments, not their faces but the images of their violation.”
“Do try and come,” she adds. I watch her walk away. I notice she is willowy, her pace unhurried, her back straight. There is nothing, I know, that will stop me. I arrive at her exhibition the next day, carefully timing my arrival at a little past noon so my sprite does not scare her. Today, she is all in white. A long top, cigarette pants, a light shawl and silver hoops in her ears as the only adornment.
The light in the gallery is soft and filtered as if it has been passed through a soft box and the exhibits are displayed on the walls between windows that have diaphanous drapes. The effect is stunning. The images of garments are ethereal and three dimensional even though they are framed under glass.
“My art has come of women’s struggles and moves from a world of things to a world of ideas. I want it to change how people see and understand rape. I want the viewer to find the story of the woman who has been violated. The gendered power-play behind it all. The destruction of her selfhood. That is why I consciously connect with the idea of light. A reminder to people to see things from a different light.”
I can’t say about others but her works have definitely caught my imagination.
“I hope you don’t think that I, as a fashion photographer, am bound by an appeal of the ephemeral. For making my viewers believe that women and men will never grow old. I do photograph the travails and natural shocks that the flesh is heir to and I would like very much for you see these portraits that remove people from the false timetables of fashion,” I say.
“I would like that very much,” she says restrainedly, in her well-modulated voice. “But what I would like right now is to have lunch, if you are free.” She is disarmingly unaware of her own charm. My heart goes into a crimson space. A deep, fiery, dark-red place of excitement and joy, an excellent foil to the pearly skies and cold, moist air outside.
As we walk from the gallery, green light filters through the leaves and highlights the foliage around. Everything, like me, seems alert and alive. A light breeze loosens her hair making wisps of hair stray to the sides of her face.
At lunch, she steadily tells me of her abiding interest in art, literature and photography, her parents, her growing up years and of her finding her feet in the world of visuals. I love the luxurious warmth of her tone and I notice her lips have the faintest tinge of a burnished brown and that her neck is really long.
I barely see the other diners, a table of businessmen and many tables with couples. I am drawn instead to her hands, her unpainted nails. And I delight in the stillness to our afternoon, a sense of calm, both visual and sensual. “You are beautiful,” I tell her without preamble. “But not as glamorous as your photography subjects,” she says pertly. “Far more,” I convince her.
The progression of our where and when begins that day. We meet regularly, several times in one day and I photograph her in every which way the lights falls on her in a range of settings. And both of us get free with the details of our life. I show her my work, my art, travel, aerial and landscape photographs that I am proud of and she flatters me with attention and compliments.
”I know from papers that the women you have dated before are all passionate, insanely flammable in their temperaments and come from worlds twisted on its axis and a place of un-convention while I am singularly serious, self-contained in my emotions and steady in my habits. It is not as if my placidity is undisturbed or that I am not capable of profound and lucid madness but that’s on display for few people. And I don’t entertain passions within that don’t dazzle and blaze,” she confesses to me.
“Your temperance binds the glow of your passion and I am in awe of this ability of yours,” I convince her.
The day arrives when I feel its right to tell her. Ask her. A day in March, four months after our first meeting, when the sky is smudged with clouds and the half-light around makes me feel part of a watercolor landscape, a Monnet landscape. I know she likes days like this as well where even the appearance of the day shifts every moment and it’s only its surroundings that lend it constancy and meaning.
On this day, when the luminous effects of sunlight shows her up in a flattering light, I say to her softly, “I love to be the light that finds you.”
There is silence.
I wait aware of time, second by second. The slight tilt of her head, the tightening of the muscles in her neck makes me fear and think of closing apertures.
This until she responds, “I too would love to be the light that finds you.”
I say to her, “You have bereft me of all words, lady,” honoring my favorite Shakespearean lines and using the only words that I know to say of how I feel about her.