Mid-80s were difficult, but interesting times to become a photographer. When I knew that I wanted to become a photographer, I was keen to study at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York City. ICP in conjunction with New York University used to offer a 3-year BFA programme in photography. The annual tuition fee was $10,000 and they did not offer any scholarship. I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t want to study to get some inane degree, hence I went to New Delhi to meet some senior photographers, show them my work and ask their opinion of my idea of quitting college and took the plunge into photography. Forget Internet, there were no phones those days.In our neighbourhood in Mangalore, we had perhaps 10 phones in 100 houses. One had to book a trunk call and wait for at least an hour to talk to people in Bangalore.
I went to meet T S Satyan first. He was very happy that a fellow Kannadiga wanted to become a photographer. However being a true middle-class Mysorean, he advised me to complete my graduation, just in case photography didn’t work out. He suggested that I meet one Mr. S Paul. I hadn’t heard of him. He is Raghu Rai’s brother and was his mentor. He even gave Paul’s number to me and said that I could give his reference for an appointment. Mr.Paul was then the chief photographer of Indian Express. I called him, he asked me to meet him the next morning. There was a fire at Bharatpur bird sanctuary and he had to leave to report on it. But he did not turn away a teenager who wanted to become a photographer. He was gracious. Next morning, Paul looked at my work as he was getting ready to leave. He thought my idea of quitting college and doing photography was an excellent idea. I did just that.
HEAVY DUTY ON EQUIPMENT
Buying equipment was a nightmare. Customs duty on cameras and lenses was a prohibitive 250%! And owning more than one camera and a lens without paying duty was illegal, a criminal offence, if I recall right. There was no way one could afford all that. So most of us bought stuff from the gray market. Well, the reliable gray market of Bangalore those days was one man. Let us call him ‘S’, but one couldn’t approach him just like that. One had to be referred. And when you met him, he would show you one piece – take it or leave it, no bargaining. I bought my Nikon F3 from him for Rs10,000 in 1988. It’s 25 years now, but it works well and I still use it. In fact at the Mumbai international airport, a cop manning the X-ray machine, saw two cameras in my bag, asked for my passport and realised that only one was entered in my passport and offered to buy the other, right there with a currency of my choice. That was 1992.
A roll of 35mm of Ilford FP-4 (125ASA) would cost Rs 20 back then if one bought a pack of 10s. I exclusively used Microdol fine grain developer and the negatives from 25 years ago are still in very good condition. The trick is to wash it well and remove all traces of chemicals. Colour photography was a pain because good processing was hardly available. Even the colour processing kit that Kodak used to sell to us was sub-standard. I know that some of my friends found dead cockroaches in the concentrates.
NEW YORK CALLING
When I met Mr.Baldev Duggal of Duggal Colour Projects in New York in 1992, he looked at my ‘transparencies’ and said, “ Your pictures are great, but your colour processing is terrible” and asked his colour section head Raja Sethu to make high quality inter negatives, colour and B&W prints, worth about US$300, free of cost. (Duggal used to photograph for the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 50s and moved to New York City. He set up Duggal Color Project Now called Duggal Visual Solutions in the 60s. That has gone on to become one the biggest photo labs in the US). The working conditions in the 80s and 90s in India made it difficult for us to compete with others on the global scale. It changed only with the advent of digital technology and internet.
I was lucky to meet several great photographers during that visit to NYC – Hans Neleman, Chris Callis, Greg Heisler and Eric Meola to name a few. I continue to be in touch with some of them. All of them saw my work and asked me to stay back in New York and set up my practice there. I wonder why I didn’t. Sometime, I feel I should have.
Later, by mid-90s, I was really frustrated about the lack of discussions on the aesthetics of photography and out of frustration, I started a magazine on photography called LIGHT. It had no ads, neither did it have any technical articles or essays. I concentrated on visual thinking. I crowd-sourced to produce the magazine, at a time the word ‘crowd-sourcing’ didn’t exist. The magazine was supposed to be a quarterly, but I managed to bring out three issues in three years. It was a bit ahead of its time. The beautypart is that though the last issue came out in 1999, people still remember it.
My first solo book, Karnataka, was published in mid-90s. Someone who bought the book a few months ago in San Francisco wrote to me “My father was born and brought up in Mangalore. He moved to England in the 50s and although we visited as a family three times, I felt a bit disconnected with his home. Looking at the book brought me very close to my father, who passed away in 1983, imagining him growing up there”. Words such as these make me realise the true potential of photography. I often wonder over the last 25 years if I took the right decisions whenever I was at the crossroads. I may never know, but a spiritualist would say, that I did.
First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 18th January, 2013
Two pages from the third issue of LIGHT
New York City, 1992 : I was photographing the NYSE. I heard some one ask me in Hindi “Aap Hindustani hain?”(Are you from Hindustan/India?) – I looked at the voice and it was the fruit seller asking me. He was from Pakistan and we had a nice little conversation