Hariharan is an artist who concentrates his practices on photography, he has experimented with almost all kinds of known mediums. Hariharan started as a painter in the early 1980s. His paintings were accepted for exhibition in the annual shows of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi from 1982 to 1989. He gave up painting and started to concentrate on photography. His images have been published in major international and national magazines. He has exhibited his prints in the UAE, Germany, and many Indian cities. His prints also form part of international collections. He has been awarded twice by the Black and White Universe, London for excellence in monochrome photography. He is an editorial board member of the photo muse journal, an international fine arts journal. His presence and signature pervade the current art scene. Hariharan is from Palakkad Kerala. The following is an interview with him regarding art, his life, and all the associated creative areas.
1. Please explain yourself, the personality called Hariharan.
Ans. Oh my…!!! It’s a question to which I couldn’t come up with a ready answer. Probably nobody could if this question were perhaps asked about them. I shall however try to go into the behavior… the quirks… of the man I happen to see in the mirror every morning.
My first memory of going against an established system is perhaps when I stood up alone to a query by my 7th standard History teacher if there were any non-believers in the class. I remember my classmates staring at me with eyes as wide as saucers and the teacher exclaiming loudly that I undoubtedly was the greatest fool he had come across. This streak of rebellion, this swimming against the tide has perhaps not abandoned me all along and even now in this 58th year of my existence, amazingly, I find myself coming across as a person with probably minimal or no inhibitions or taboos… in my behavior in life and as a practitioner of my art.
2. The definition of art and photography from your perspective, and its potentialities in current space?
Ans. It would be indeed a futile exercise to try and define art in a sentence or so for the reader’s convenience. It just wouldn’t hold water as almost every art practice is a journey or a search in which the artist fervently attempts to seek his/her truth and couldn’t possibly be encapsuled in a few words. One could perhaps shed some light on the pointers and influences which helped or guided him/her down the road to where he/she stands now. It’s indeed a journey where the artist, like an ancient cave dweller tries to ensnare the beast which could elude him during the hunt, through the lines he/she draws on the walls of the cave.
Well… anyway, your question had me thinking about an incident that happened at the very outset of my artistic practice. I had started out as a painter and wasn’t into doing photography of any sort at that time. It was in 1981 and I was only 17 years old then and just into college. I had joined the Maharajas College in Ernakulam which was a hotbed of radical thought in politics and art. There was a leftist cultural forum, the Sanghom Samskarika Vedi, which had put up a big public notice board inside the campus upon which we used to exhibit our drawings, doodles and poems. Once, while returning from college, I ran into Jose sir who had been my art instructor in the school in which I had been studying till the previous year. I had a few drawings with me which I showed him. He was happy and surprised (because I wasn’t too much into art, while at school) about it and commended me. He told me that he was organizing an art camp in the school (a totally unimaginable concept in any school here in the 1980s) and invited me to attend the workshops. It turned out that the workshops were led by established and emerging artists. A few names that immediately come to mind are the cartoonist Shivram and the portrait painter Joseph. The demonstration that turned everything what I thought art probably was upside down in my mind was the terracotta demonstration by a young sculptor, just out of Baroda… Valsan Kolleri. He worked his magic swiftly on the clay and within a quarter of an hour presented us with the image of an elephant in all its grandeur. He then asked us to get closer to the sculpture and speak about the impressions that it created in our minds.
I asked him why he had left the other side of the elephant hollow. He told me that there was no elephant there because he had not attempted to create one in the first place.
I was puzzled and looked at him unable to comprehend his words. He looked around and peering into our confused faces calmly enlightened us to the fact that it was not his job as an artist to replicate an elephant. All that he had endeavored to do was to capture the “elephantineness” of the beast in the lump of clay given to him. It was this captured essence of the beast that made the clay resemble an elephant. I looked closely at the work and discovered that it was done in a very rough style. There was no sign of a polished finish and yet it looked more elephantine than a real elephant.
“Try to capture the essence of whatever you wish to express in your mind and try to transfer it to the work you create. It’s not at all a matter of mere copying what you see”.
It was a revelation and it held a rare lucidity and clarity which I could easily comprehend. For a beginner, it was a firm foothold to start a journey.
It was in my second year in college that I ran into Udayakumar, who was a senior there by three years. He was doing his graduation course in Malayalam and was an excellent painter and sculptor. The college hostel had a large room in the upper building which was called the “common room”. It was a place where students used to assemble in groups and discuss almost everything. Established writers and poets used to be present there on occasions and often stayed back to spend the night there. Udayakumar had painted a fresco on one of the walls of the room. It’s theme was based on the popular poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan’s poem “Kurathi”. Udayan used to see my drawings and goad me on to do more. It was he who informed me that the Malayalam Association was conducting a painting competition for college students and urged me to participate in it. I heeded his advice. The works were judged by the artist T. Kaladharan, who almost single-handedly ran the Kerala Kalapeetom , an Institute of Fine Arts, started by the eminent artist Sri.M.V.Devan and dramatist Sri. C.N.Sreekantan Nair. I was awarded the first prize and was informed that Kaladharan desired to meet me.
I branched out into photography in 1986 and by 1989 had stopped painting totally. In spite of this, an easy answer to your question eludes me. The definition of art and photography. Obviously they are avenues through which people attempt to express themselves, but a definition is indeed difficult to arrive at… at least it’s so for me. On a personal level, my photography and its practice today have little to do with the capture of truth expressed in a fraction of time as it is usually described. Universally, there are a whole lot of photographers or photo artists who have moved away from purely traditional methods of expression and have discovered their individual ways of expression. Yet, it’s also a sad reflection of the times that you are still questioned here when you try to walk along a lesser traveled path.
The complexity of the times we live in often has the artist realizing that indulging in traditional practices alone could limit him/her from expressing his personal view. He/she has to seek an answer to the question if he/she would be content to remain as the photographer he/she had been till then, or would he/she perhaps heed an inner urge to satisfy the artist within through a new form of practice or expression. Undoubtedly, we would be seeing photography being subjected to a lot of changes in form and content in a manner unimagined in the coming years. This vitality is a crucial aspect if it indeed has to exist as a viable and potent medium of expression.
3. Your views on how photography is a tool for social commentary?
Ans. Art as a tool for Social Commentary…
It’s the word “tool” that I suppose would be raising a lot of eyebrows.
It appears to perhaps make art seem less lofty and more utilitarian and the general consensus is that such a thing surely could only be mundane and ordinary.
Powerful and persuasive, art can have a social function, challenging our understanding of the world in which we live and how we operate within it. Artists, over the ages, have indeed assumed the roles of reflectors, translators, and mediators of societal issues, including cast, racial and gender equality, civil rights, sexual politics, cultural and social identity, globalization and recently the climate crisis. Often driven by personal convictions, artists at times create works that act as windows and pointers providing insight and focus on complex subjects. They offer unique interpretations, suggestions and often raise difficult questions for the viewer, without helping him out with an easy answer.
The history of photography too has been intricately interwoven with the history of the times.
Ansel Adams’s photographs are not only about the Zone system or the S – curve. They are political documentaries about the natural history of the USA. Viewing, reading, understanding and grasping the emotive nuances of a photograph are important aspects in its appreciation.
A photograph, like any other creation of art determines its place in history. A small question to him/herself by the photographer as to why he/she had to take or create a specific photograph in a certain manner and pondering honestly over it would go a long way in unlearning a lot of things and learning a few new and essential lessons.
It wasn’t for nothing that Ansel Adams stressed that your photography should have the whiff of the books you have read and the music you might have listened to. A photographer, who seriously pursues his art, ought to be conversant with the history of his/her land and the cultural and political happenings unfolding around him/her.
It is important to be creative during the time one is living.
Being responsive to the times and systems in which one lives is also a sign of being creative.
Art is just one of many mediums for it.
There are many streams, methods and ways in art too. We should recognize and understand those ways equally as well. Photography as an artform is not about lugging the camera while you travel and taking photos of what you see on the streets or of the beautiful sunsets that you unexpectedly encounter on the beaches alone. It could also be about something so telling of the times you live in… something that clearly goes beyond the documentation that conventional photography used to afford us in a fraction of a second. A lot of contemporary photographers the world over is seen to be breaking away and trying to discover newer forms of expression. They shoot images which are then worked upon digitally and impart a newer narrative to them. A narrative that the conventional method of picture making could not have perhaps conveyed to the viewer.
4. Please speak of art in general, from ancient to contemporary and the influences it had on your creativity?
Ans. Influences and inspirations are indeed interesting subjects and one could possibly rant and rave endlessly about them. Yet, there would be really vital ones …ones which might have really sunk their claws into your mind and really changed your way of thinking and your manner of perception. Ones which totally alter your understanding of the medium and its treatment and subconsciously start to rub themselves on to your work and its practice too. Reflecting back, I think that the profound influences which have had an undeniable role in shaping my recent work are the Mughal miniatures, the cinematography of Gordon Willis and the bold and innovative print making technique of the Chinese master photographer Lang Jingshan. His inner urge which compelled him to create his great composite works even in the 1930s serves as a great inspiration to artists who are keen on exploring new forms of expression which are at variance with and deviant from conventional methods. Gordon Wills’s use of the “absence” of light in the Don’s eyes is so far removed from the accepted notion that catch light in the subject’s eyes would definitely make the portrait more interesting and livelier.
The technique of visually interpreting the concepts of time and space in a manner unseen before in world art within the constraints of a two-dimensional medium like the miniature painting really boggles your mind. This is what makes the miniatures an extraordinary proposition. It’s indeed challenging for an artist to be working in a medium like photography which has ever since its inception been thought as something which captures a fraction of time with utmost fidelity to try and transcend this concept and come out with a surreal narration that could make the viewer aware of a deeper reality.
Gordon Willis seemed to be doing everything contrary with lighting to what the textbooks and the teachers were insisting we do. Yet, the results he got were extraordinarily effective and successful. Often, a sequence shot by him, when viewed created an awe in the viewer. The chiaroscuro lighting that he used in the sequences where Marlon Brando or Al Pacino brooded over their impending course of action in The Godfather movies totally cut off the catch light from their eyes and raised the hair on the necks of viewers as though they were in the presence of a beast whose nature was unfathomable. It was the uncertain elements cloaked in the darkness of his frames that speak more than the visible ones in the highlights. He demonstrated how the subversion of a rule could convey what the artist wished to convey with better clarity. In “The Godfather” it was in the scenes that the Don’s eyes were dark as hell that he seemed at his menacing best. I have tried to use darkness in a lot of my portraits and a recent series of photo art (Barbecue Republic – A Requiem for Flesh) as a language to help the images acquire a deeper mystery and meaning.
It would be however unfair if I do not mention the names of a few contemporary Indian lens-based artists who have broken away from conventional practices and evolved their distinct artistic styles. The names that immediately come to mind are those of Vivek Vilasini, Abul Kalam Azad, Dr. Unnikrishnan Pulikkal and Shibu Arakkal. That they do so in a milieu that distinctly frowns upon any deviation from the normal in photography, is what makes their effort and art truly inspiring to fellow aspirants. They impart you with a courage to continue down the less taken path. Universally speaking you would bump into a whole lot of brilliant photo artists who impress you with their excellent work. I could go on and on reeling out names.
5. Are home works needed for practicing photography, if Yes please specify for the awareness of young photographers?
Ans. Once you feel and recognize an urge within you to express yourself through a medium it would be imperative for you to learn the techniques to master it to the best of your ability.
This applies to photography too. In addition to mastering the science of this medium, a serious and aspiring practitioner might have to grasp its philosophy too. A learning of the origin and history of the medium and its evolution into an art form becomes a necessary and vital part of learning or understanding photography and this is unfortunately neglected by most aspirants.
History helps us in not getting stagnated in nooks where humanity has already been once and prods us to move on to newer pastures. The history of the art form too helps us in the same manner and gives us an insight into the probabilities of the future.
6. What is the space between Hariharan and his works?
Ans. Yes. It’s an observation that quite a lot of viewers familiar with my earlier work have made after seeing my latest body of work. My series “Barbecue Republic – A Requiem for Flesh” addressed nakedness in its most raw form. The naked bodies of the manipulated women in the images seemed not to be bothered by the gaze of the viewer and often it seldom held the requisite minimal quality to be even recognized as a body. It was only flesh exposed in all its nakedness and which would probably soon enough be recognized as flesh which could be barbecued. Nudity, which often has a sexual innuendo, is absent and it is intentional. The series was exhibited to the public in a solo exhibition and the imagery shocked viewers as the realization that the women in my pictures weren’t proudly displaying their nudity by choice (though the model was) and the nakedness that was so rampant was in fact forced upon them by a manipulative system. How it hit them visually, emotionally and then intellectually and posed uncomfortable questions is perhaps best explained in the key note address which was delivered by Dr. Unnikrishnan Pulikkal, one of our eminent conceptual photographers and Director, Photo Muse, The Museum of Photography, at the inaugural function of my solo exhibition. He writes: ” You must have seen pictures of the prehistoric female figurine of Europe called the Woman of Willendorf or Venus of Willendorf. It was in the nineteenth century that the female statuette of Willendorf dating back to 25, 000 years was discovered. This statuette that had been made using exaggerations of the female physical form, shatters, at the first sight itself, the ideals of female prettiness that we have accumulated in our minds through centuries.
It was the same disgust and revulsion that had arisen in my mind at the first sight of Guernica by Picasso. I thought then ‘Is this ugly picture a masterpiece of global stature?’ It was only much later that I realized that if you have to present before the viewer a unique experience of war, internal turmoil, arrogance of power, anguish and misery, in the same intensity as you feel, you cannot do it using beautiful arrangement of colors and shapely flow of curved lines, but have to use broken lines, shattered forms, smashed faces and grey tones. The revulsion, fear, anger and sadness generated by that creation is the primary motive of that piece of art. By infusing these emotions or expressions into the viewers, the art and the artist succeed and the viewers become disturbed by these emotions and the basic question ‘Why does the artist create this and show it to me?’ comes up in their minds. This question leads to enquiries and then to answers. Thus, the creation that had already succeeded emotionally now succeeds intellectually.
People remember the creations that had hurt their minds longer than those that had soothed their minds. It is because of this that we cannot forget ‘The Migrant Mother ‘by Dorothea Lange, ‘The Melted Bottle’ by Shomei Tomatsu and ‘The Blind’ by Paul Strand. By this same reason, it is impossible to forget the picture series ‘The Barbecue Republic’ by Hariharan. “
7. Your views on contemporary art and photography?
Ans. An interesting development in contemporary art and photography is that the image you have shot with one’s camera is thought to be not complete by a lot of artists. They are often thought to be the raw material for one’s further use. A lot of interesting questions are thought of by the artists about their own imagery or the images ask them probing questions about the reality embedded in them. Does the mere reproduction of a human figure render justice to the manipulated existence of its actual subject in the real world? Does the artist have to still work upon the image to bring out the fragmented reality of the times in which its subject lives in? Photography is paused at an exceedingly interesting moment in history and the progress it could be making in the coming years could indeed be very interesting. If photography were to be limited to pedestrian documentation (no, I don’t mean that all documentation is pedestrian) and faithful reproduction of the immediately visible, then probably the photographer could easily become a thing of the past. Artificial Intelligence could replace him or her in no time. That’s where our conceptual thinking might save us and help us to remain and exist as artists. Already an AI software like DALL-E is expanding the ‘Monalisa’ and ‘The Girl with a Pearl’ to create works where the full body of the subject could be seen. You now see the ‘Monalisa’ and ‘The Girl with a Pearl’ in full from head to foot. That’s why I reiterate that it could be the conceptual thought process of the human brain enriched by his/ her aesthetic and emotional experience that could ensure the continued existence of the artist as an inevitable component in the process of image making.
8. Please explain the importance of large-scale exhibitions, how it will shape the artist and the public?
Ans. A large-scale exhibition of visual art suggests to its viewers that the art form deserves a grand arena for its exposition. This could be important in a country like India where excluding a handful of major cities, the land and people are devoid of exposure to visual art in a befitting manner.
Let’s take Kerala as an example. In spite of having hundreds of artists graduating every year from her five colleges of fine arts and having many of them pursuing an artistic career, the state of the exhibitions held here and the development of visual imagery as a language amongst the people is really dismal. The number of people who regularly go to see art at exhibitions held in the galleries in the state is appalling. It is in this context that large scale exhibitions and their importance would perhaps be needed to be evaluated. Kerala had her brush with such mega art events with the advent of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012 and in the decade that has gone by we have had three more editions of the same. The fourth edition was however deferred due to the pandemic and in all probability would be held this year. However, Lokame Tharavadu, probably among the biggest art shows in Asia was organized by the Kochi Biennale Foundation in 2021. A distinct feature of the Biennales and Lokame Tharavadu was the vast increase in the number of viewers from all over the globe. A majority of them were from within the state itself. In spite of the reservations, one might have in regard to the quality of such a tourist model viewership, it remains a fact that these large exhibitions attract people in an unprecedented manner. The greater exposure that the repeated viewing affords them could create a group of serious and dedicated viewers.
Unlike the usual exhibition, an art exposition organized in a large manner gives the viewer an opportunity to interact with a lot of artists and their practice as most of them would be addressing them through specially convened sessions and programs. Artists practicing other art forms too are invited to hold interactive sessions which provide invaluable information and experience to the viewers who attend them.
I was a participant of the Lokame Tharavadu exhibition which was organized in a magnitude truly monumental and unseen previously here. The seven centers in which over 3500+ works of art were exhibited afforded visibility in an unprecedented scale to 267 artists hailing from Kerala. Probably, for the first time, the people of Kerala were aware of the existence of a whole lot of artists residing amidst them and working seriously to come out with such an assorted fare.
9. Your opinion about monetizing works of art?
Ans. I presume that you must be using the word monetize here to point out the manner in which art or rather art works are influenced by a great deal by the market. There have been a lot of theories that have been floated by many of our eminent artists and thinkers in the arena of art, but unfortunately no one has been able to come out with a viable alternative to the existing system. Possibly the absence of a populace conversant with a nonliterary or to put it a bit more explicitly, a visual language prevents these ideas from being realized. This is not a subject or a topic about which a sweeping statement contrary to the working of the existing system could be made. It’s a matter of concern that no viable alternatives are being thought up. The neglect of educating our children about art and its history by our policy framers has resulted in the creation of a populace devoid of even an iota of knowledge about it. This could very well be the tallest hurdle in the path to try and realize an alternative which might be viable. Just the other day, I asked Len Metcalf, the eminent Australian photographer how he had managed his career and practice in spite of turning down every corporate photography sponsorship that came his way immediately after his graduation in fine arts, while on an interactive online session with him. His answer was an enlightening one which focused on the similarities and differences between the two societies. Finding it very difficult to pull on with idealism alone, he put away his cameras and undertook learning a course that could enable him to teach. It was his teaching that helped him out eventually. Later, he started to print his works himself and rented galleries himself for his exhibitions. He started to self-publish books on his own photographic projects. Now, this is where a populace which has been taught that art is an important aspect in life gets to be important. Len’s work started to get noticed and people started to buy them and his books. This, in all probability, wouldn’t work so effortlessly here precisely because we haven’t been ever told that we perhaps need art in our lives. Till a sea change is affected in the system, the artist would be with or without consent caught in the present quagmire of politics and corporate economics.
10. Please speak about the visual languages you use… The real politics behind your clicks and editing?
Ans. My artist concept note throws a lot of light on what really made me think about a project on the lines of “Barbecue Republic” and spurred me on to complete it in the manner you happen to see it now. There were a lot of difficulties, which seemed to be almost insurmountable at the time of trying to get it rolling on wheels. I needed a model who would understand what I was trying to express and pose before me naked. She was not expected or supposed to strike poses which were usually accepted in artistic nude photography. Fortunately, I could find a woman who understood why those frames had to be photographed the way they were. That was not the end of my predicament though. I tried explaining to her that the images might well end up looking like X-Rays or scans rather than the type of photographs she might have been acquainted with till then because that was what I had in mind. I told her that I would be manipulating the imagery I would shoot of her to achieve the result I sought and in the end the series would end up looking like a giant sequence of X-Rays or scans hung out for the viewer to see and discover the “societal ailment” they dug out for him/her. Once the shoot was on and I was looking at the images even as I was processing and manipulating them, I had an intuition that they would indeed be turning out to be different. It was in 2020 that I finished the series. It was a bit delayed due to the restrictions on shooting due to the lock-down. In the meanwhile, I was requested by the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademie to write an essay on the practices of photography and its varied genres in the time of post-Truth. While researching for it, I curiously browsed to see if there were photographers who were using a different technique and form to arrive at the “hidden” truth of the situation which is often thought to be obscured by its related and unrelated narratives. I stumbled upon an interesting project by Richard Mosse, a photographer based in New York, who had used Kodak Aero chrome — an infrared film used by the military in World War II to pick out camouflaged buildings — to photograph the war in the Congo. In the 1960s, Aero chrome became a psychedelic film stock, used to photograph album covers for Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead; it produced startlingly beautiful, otherworldly images. Mosse using the same “other-worldliness” reveals the way a beautiful landscape has been made alien by war, and highlights the limitations of photojournalism. I immediately remembered the imagery that Thomas Ruff had shot for his series “Nachtbilder” (Night Pictures) during the Gulf War. His images in that series had distanced themselves from the conventional appearance of a photographic print. They looked as though they had been shot by a night vision camera. Although it has a green cast and a lack of definition this kind of picture is endowed by mass culture with a high degree of truth value ‘beyond human vision’. I was excited as the X-Ray and the scan were looked upon by people in the same manner…… as imaging tools which probed and dug out the truth which was ‘beyond human vision’. The challenge was whether the viewer would discern this shift in form and technique and surprisingly a lot of viewers who saw the images when they were exhibited spoke precisely about the aspect.
11. Your influences as an artist?
Ans. I think I have spoken elaborately on this matter in my reply to an earlier question in which you asked me about what had influenced my art from the ancient to the contemporary.
12. Your next projects?
Ans. The series I am working on now is a personal one. It could be described as a visual exploration of the multi narratives that accompany an individual subject and his/her relationship with his/her environment. The frames have been shot on actual locations with real subjects and manipulated with editing software to create different visual narratives of the same image. Probably there couldn’t be a more suitable time to create a series such as this. On the one hand, we ourselves, the world over is deeply engrossed in this absurd game of inventing nonexistent narratives for almost everything and erasing existing ones with a more intense fervor. On the other hand, the pandemic has changed or altered spaces and the people who used to live, work or run a business there. The grocer from whom you used to buy your groceries and chat about almost anything has shut his shop and gone…. and you see that a new guy has opened a dry cleaning unit there. You stand at the same spot where you used to stand and chat three years ago and it seems so strange to you…. so surreal. There is an acute sense of loss in almost every human being you come across …. in a general sense and in a macro level. My new series tries to explore these experiences through visual metaphors. I think that it would be better to finish the series and let the viewer see and feel it for him/herself.
13. Please talk about the importance of craft and idea in art?
Ans. The craft of an art form, or technique as it is referred to in artistic parlance, is an exceedingly vital aspect of learning it. Any student of art has to learn to master the technique if he has to effectively express what he intends to in the first place through his art works. Later using the technique, he has learnt, he would develop a form that would be in harmony to what he would be expressing through his work. The subject that he tries to portray or express is called the content. It’s imperative for an artist to metamorphose and develop a distinct form or a style which complements the content of his work. With contemporary photography getting to be very conceptual in nature the development of a form that enhances the emotive aspect of the subject or concept has attained great importance. That’s why emphasis on learning the technique had been given the much-deserved attention right from the time photography came to be reckoned as an independent and creative art form. It has not changed even with the advent of digital photography and a serious photographer has to learn the techniques of post processing and software editing too, just as he/she had to learn the art of processing the film and printing the images in a darkroom earlier, to be able to discover a form of expression that would do justice to his/her concept or content. Often, I am amused when people ask me if I have photo shopped my images and when I answer in the affirmative, frown and turn away. The truth is that I have arrived at my unique use of form in my work only due to having subjected my images to the extent of manipulation I desire and I do not see any reason why I should be dishonest and be denying this. So, this is how form and content work together for an artist and developing his/her technique to be able to develop a suitable form that would enhance the comprehension of his/her content is vital.
14. How new technologies affect your art practices?
Ans. Photography, the world over has undergone a sea change and I am definitely not talking about the analog to digital transition alone. One could argue that the digital shift and its inherent use of editing (or manipulative software, as maintained by many) software has altered the practice of the art form for good. Probably, it could have aided in the shift, but we may have to seriously consider the fact that with the changing times the practice of art too has undergone corresponding changes.
The question of manipulating the subject or the content in photography and the supposedly ensuing damage suffered by the art form as a result of this practice has been around ever since its discovery. It remains to be seen if we would ever arrive at a satisfactory and overtly acceptable answer ever.
Probably the earliest known instance of manipulating the reality in a print and passing it off without informing the viewer about it occurred in 1917. Many people think that the manipulation of images started with the invention of Photoshop, but there have been fake photographs since the invention of photography. But this beats them all.
In 1917, Elise Wright, aged 16, and her cousin Frances Griffiths, aged 10, used a simple camera to produce what they claimed were photographs of fairies in their garden in Cottingley, England.
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed these photos to be real, and wrote pamphlets attesting to their truthfulness. In all probability this could be one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of the art which even tricked the creator of a character regarded to be the most astute truth seeker of all time. Adding to the hilarity is the fact that this act was performed by two children.
As early as 1840, staged reality had been successfully passed out as being really real. Probably people were not even aware in their wildest dreams that the reality recorded on a plate could be staged or altered.
In essence photography is thought to always reveal the truth. That’s why many painters have opted for it when it appeared. The photographic medium can be trusted because it records reality, shows exactly what’s in front of the lens. Many photographers (such as reporters, street photographers…) have shown it. However, the history of art and the media show us that we must be wary of this misconception.What if we could be fooled by an image?
What if, while looking at a photograph, what we thought true was actually completely false?
It’s hard to imagine that. By being constantly surrounded by images, we have total confidence in the information they give us.
Roland Barthes said in his book “Camera Lucida : Reflections on photography”(1980), that “By nature, the photograph has something tautological about it : a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe”. Indeed, if we see a chair, we will always say that there was a chair in front of the lens when the photographer took the picture.
But we must not stop there, because photography can also play tricks on us, and we will see that it has been doing so since its appearance. Photography and those who use it are capable of playing on our credibility: the chair might not be so real.
In order to play tricks on us, artists and creators have put in place different methods (which can also cross each other) such as staged photography, photo montages and more recently by using editing software like Photoshop.
Hippolyte Bayard is undoubtedly one of the first to have fooled his viewers. As a French civil servant at the Ministry of Finance and a photography enthusiast, Hippolyte Bayard had proposed an invention (a process that made it possible to have positive images directly on paper) to François Arago of the Academy of Sciences, but his invention didn’t achieve the expected success. He invented his own process that produced direct positive paper prints in the camera and presented the world’s first public exhibition of photographs on 24 June 1839. He claimed to have invented photography earlier than Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre in France, the man traditionally credited with its invention. In reaction to his rejection, Hippolyte Bayard produced the photograph entitled “Self-portrait as a drowned man” in 1840. By inference, the title of this photograph tells us that it’s both a self-portrait and a staged photograph. As a reminder, a staged photograph is a photograph made from A to Z. We can say that it’s the opposite of the spontaneous shot. To achieve this, the artist-photographer will use many elements: possibly one or more models who will pose with instructions as if they were actors. The sets, props, lights and other things will also be important. The idea is to create a composed photograph that will tell something, a fiction in short.
So we see in this photo Hippolyte Bayard simulating his own death with his eyes closed, his hands folded and his body leaning on something. Giving the impression that he has fallen asleep forever. On the back of this picture, Hippolyte Bayard had written this text: “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh, the vagaries of human life…! He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay”
Through this alliance of image and text, we can see that the lack of interest shown by the Academy has been a real source of inspiration for Hippolyte Bayard. By faking his death, he expresses his frustration. He reinforces this idea with the text. With a lot of humor, he invents a double, talking about him in the third person. This avatar underlines the disappointment, as if he was saying “I could have come to that.” This “Self portrait as a drowned man” is false: it’s a self-portrait, but it’s staged: the artist could not have taken this photograph if he was dead. And astoundingly all of this was in 1840. Manipulation, as we address it can happen totally in camera too, and it has been happening for the past 180 years. The argument about the harm it is supposed to have perpetrated on the artform too must have been running like a parallel railway track since then. The tragedy that happened as a result of a great ostracization is that Bayard, who experimented brilliantly with the form of the new born art form found himself sidelined and not talked about in the same breath as Niepce who appeared with his heliograph in 1825 and Daguerre who gave us the Daguerrotype in 1839.
Subjective truth has always ruled the roost as it had always been the person looking through the viewfinder at the scene that was supposed to be holding the “absolute” truth to be documented who through his/her selection of the focal length of the lens used decided what to include or exclude in the frame he/she sought. It has always been a personal interpretation of what you perceived as the truth that the viewer was given.
Yet the photographer gets to be crucified the very instant, even today, if he/she through a deviation of form or style tries to assert his/her personal vision.
In spite of telling you this, don’t think that I am advocating that documentation is a fallacy that is valueless. It’s not at all so. A few photographers who might have started their practice in the analog period try to force their opinion about the practices and equipment of that period being superior to the practices of those who have gleefully switched over to the digital format and actually revel in it. It’s not as though the art form has lost its seriousness today. Outstanding work is being created today too as it was being created in yesteryears and mediocrity too could be encountered just as it could be in the ‘good old days’. Contemporary photography is not all about your craft or equipment alone. Some photographers go to the extent of staging the shots these days to tell their story. Also, frequency of work is also not a measure to judge an artist’s work or about your craft or equipment. Some photographers go to the extent of staging the shots these days to tell their story. Frequency of one’s practice is also not an essential benchmark to judge an artist’s work. There are many photo artists who conceive, shoot and complete a series over a few years. And there are others who shoot anything that comes their way and come up with scores of works every month. A look at the careers of Picasso, Klee and VanGogh would perhaps illustrate this better. In the end, what would indeed cement their place in the annals of the art would be what he or she tried to express and how. Quite often, promising photographers are derided and their work devalued by senior photographers citing these ‘deficiencies’ in their careers. Though I am a photographer who started his career while analog held sway (the reason being that I was fortunate to be born in 1964) and the digital scenario unheard of, my work today which employs staged shoots with models and ‘manipulation’ with software is ridiculed as being done at the behest of ‘one touch of the keyboard’. One can only laugh at such silly and frivolous remarks as they enlighten us about the commentator’s ignorance and do nothing else.
15. Pandemic and art, was isolation a gift for artists to reanalyze things?
Ans. Certainly. In every sense of the word, it indeed was…. though I wouldn’t term it to be a gift. It was an analysis forced upon the community too and it wasn’t the artists alone who had to analyze. Probably everyone working and living off the sweat of his/her brow had to. It was when the lock down was declared suddenly and then extended repeatedly that the world went topsy-turvy. Everyone was severely hit. The artist and the performer suddenly realized that his/her viewer and listener was unable to see or listen to him in galleries, museums and theaters. Even the places of worship were locked down and suddenly there was a great lull. Confined to their homes, people were uncertain of the activity that could create a bonding between them of any sort. The artists were hit really hard. Not only were they unable to perform and show their art to society, but they found themselves without an income as well. It’s not for nothing that necessity has been afforded the privilege of being the mother of invention. Artists, unhampered by other activities, started to work with earnest. Subjects, thought to be every day and mundane were photographed in new ways by photographers. Social media platforms started to be flooded with images of works created during the lock down and society held on to its sanity by creating, sharing, listening and viewing them. Online exhibitions were organized by art and photography groups, but an income seemed to be elusive. Pledge sales were conducted online and the images bought were printed and delivered to the buyers once the lock down was eased. Photographers were really hit as they couldn’t travel around searching for subjects or organize staged model shoots to express their concepts visually. Personally, it was a time of rediscovery for me and I started to conceive new works from my already shot frames and connected them to the tragic incidents that happened during the lock down (like the Aurangabad goods train run over accident in which 17 migrant laborers who were returning home were killed in their sleep). A totally different world, one that was quaint and seemingly indecipherable was staring at us. It was indeed a time of attempting to analyze life and everything associated with it.
Today, looking back on those troubled times, and the manner in which we have incredibly disassociated ourselves from an understanding that seemed to exist then and soar above the tunnel vision that religious and political fanaticism have, I wonder if we have learnt anything at all from the pandemic and its turbulence.
16. Please speak about the necessity of more art schools and art galleries in Kerala and India in general?
Ans. The necessity of Art schools…!!! I think we must be talking about educating our children about art and its relevance in a modern democratic society first. Have we even attained a semblance of modernity? Have we even traveled a quarter of the way to being true democrats? We should perhaps be seeking the answer to these questions first as these are very relevant for any art form to exist, evolve and attain a state of perfection.
We are citizens of a nation which is into its 75th year of Independence, and incredibly are still debating about the importance of art education in our schools or if it is needed at all. If we look at the state of art education today in the country that was ruling us 76 years ago, we would be surprised to find that the debate raging there isn’t at all about whether art education is needed or not. Artists like Mark Leckey and Marcus Harvey could be found to be advocating that the time for a total upheaval of the art education has arrived and it should be imparted in a more inclusive way. Incredibly, these artists run their own art academies in London that are deemed to be revolutionary in their approach and method, while we are yet to afford photography its deserved status as an art form even within the artists’ fraternity. That’s how absurd our situation is…!!! In spite of all these lags a beginning ought to be made at least now. Undoubtedly. It’s as important a matter to include art education in our syllabus as it is to include sex education too. Perhaps, with the enlightening that these two wonderful subjects would bring to us in our formative age, a lot of patriarchal thinking would be molted and we could find ourselves emerging from school as new beings. It is possible. A straight answer to your question would be that both art schools, art galleries and museums wouldn’t be harmful at all if they are run by or managed by enlightened people with a purpose. More of such people would definitely evolve if we involved them with a modern and democratic syllabus in our schools.
17. How new technologies affect your art practices.
Ans. I think that it should be made clear that new technology is not being incorporated only because someone invented it and it happens to be available. It is rather the search for a new form of expression that creates the urge in you to experiment with it and arrive at what you think is proper and right for the subject or content to walk along and arrive at its high point of enlightenment. That’s how you should be striving to use technology. Just as it would not suffice for us to be content with creating art for art’s sake, it wouldn’t do us any good if technology is used to merely make your imagery look quaint but without purpose.
Perhaps a bit more clarity could be arrived at if I enlighten you about the way I had used image editing software while creating the artworks of my series ” Barbecue Republic – a Requiem for Flesh”. It was a series in which a malaise was investigated into and I specifically needed the imagery to have a suggestive resemblance to an X – Ray or a CT scan. I used Photoshop to help me in attaining it and it made me a bit smug when quite a lot of viewers expressed that they felt as though they were looking at X – Rays hung out to dry during my solo exhibition of the series in Kozhikode.
The project I am working on presently demanded a totally different treatment of form and that’s what I have exactly been doing. My current practice being wholly digital survives on such innovative experiments and I find myself reveling in it.
18. Please speak more about your life, ideas and suggestions you have for youth and the art family?
Ans. Probably a bit of light shed upon my artistic pursuit in life would be helpful in getting to know more about my art. I don’t remember anyone in the family pursuing art in even a semblance of seriousness. There were a couple of aunts who used to sing at family functions. I had heard that one of them had learnt a few keerthanas from Semmangudi but she was contended with being a dutiful housewife and totally gave up serious singing. Her husband however was a renowned cartoonist working for Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil weekly but I must say that my association with them was extremely minimal. I was more of a literary guy in high school as the prizes I got were for story writing and essay writing rather than for drawing or painting. It was only after I joined college that I discovered that I could paint. I have already spoken detailed about how a tryst with Valsan Kolleri at an art camp made me realize the potential of art as a powerful tool of expression. Another great obstacle at that time was a dearth of money for everything in my home. My father was an alcoholic and almost every pie he earned was spent on drinking. It was in 1983 that one of my works was selected for the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi’s annual exhibition. It was a portrait I had worked in ink and pastels on paper as that was all I could afford at that time. I was so elated that my first submission had been accepted at a major exhibition. My works were regularly selected for the Akademie annual exhibitions and this continued till 1989. In the meanwhile I had started to be a regular visitor to the Kerala Kalapeetom, an Institute of Arts founded by artist M.V.Devan. Interaction with the artists and writers who used to meet up almost daily helped me get newer insights. One of my works was selected for a group show organized by Kalapeetom at the Venkatappa Art Gallery in Bangalore. It was around this time that I began to read The Illustrated Weekly regularly at the club of the factory in which my father worked. Pritish Nandy had just assumed editorship of the weekly and its content and design underwent a great upheaval. It was transformed overnight from a literary magazine to one in which visual art was given an equal importance. In depth articles on Bresson, Snowden, Capa, McCullin, Raghu Rai, Mitter Bedi and a horde of other photographers and their work were prominently published in it. Masterpieces were often published as double spreads that came to almost 18 x 12 inches. The weekly opened my eyes and mind to the possibilities of photography and I discovered that it was the itch that I should be scratching. I managed to get hold of a Lubitel TLR and using the money given to me for buying clothes for purchasing film started to shoot people in the streets and also my friends. Soon my father retired from his job and got a fairly good amount as his settlement. I coaxed him to buy me a camera which he reluctantly did. Let me add the details of a happening that could make you gasp. My father’s elder brother who was an engineer in a German chemical factory had died in a car accident and the Zeiss Ikon camera he had came into my father’s possession. This was in 1970 and I remember him having it till 1977 or so when on a whim he gave precedence for his alcoholic need over a family heirloom and sold it to a studio owner for a couple of hundred bucks. Imagine having a Zeiss Ikon at a time when you aren’t old enough to know how it is spelt and when you indeed want to start photographing having to beg your father to buy you a fairly decent camera because he had sold the Zeiss to buy himself a few drinks. In the end I managed to buy a used Pentax K -1000, a workhorse SLR that was the favorite of the wedding photographers of the time. That was how it was for me in the beginning. I didn’t have a father or an uncle who was a photographer having an array of cameras and who ran his own studio. Today, when photographers remark with pride about the privilege they had enjoyed in their childhood from having born in a family which was keenly associated with studios and photography I am tongue tied for a moment as I have nothing similar to say. I began photographing weddings and events and started to assist my journalist friends in their assignments for the newspapers they worked for. All these required a penchant for photographing people in their varied moods and the experience gleaned then has stood me in good stead in my personal photo series assignments later and even now. Though I had a bit of a success with my photographs for the press (A photo feature with credit was published in Front line on the Total Literacy Campaign in Kerala), I had to take up a job in the Railways as the eighties were not suited for everyone to survive through a career in the arts alone. You either had to establish yourself as a wedding photographer which I wasn’t too keen to. I was posted in the Tiruchchirapalli Division of the Southern Railway. In 1993, soon after my wedding my wife had a resurgence of a psychosis for which she had undergone treatment in her teenage years. It wasn’t safe to keep my camera and accessories at home as she had a tendency to smash things during the sudden bouts of violent moods that visited her. I left my kit with my brother and my photography came to an abrupt end. It was only much later that I could restart it with a serious intent (in 2004) when her bouts of violence subsided due to the treatment that she underwent. Things again took a nosedive when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had to be on treatment for around five years. In 2017, once again succumbing to a deeper urge to photograph seriously, I started to work on a series of images. A year later in 2018, I opted for a voluntary retirement from the Railways though I had another seven years of service as I had by then started to find managing both my photography and my job a lot difficult. I have gone into answering this question detailly as it suggests options to overcome your darker times in life. I don’t think that one’s age needs to be a barrier in realizing a passion.
19. What will be the art and photography culture after the end of contemporary art, I mean what will be the next genre of art?
Ans. Too many experiments and developments are going on in the field of photography that it would be a futile attempt on my part to try and answer this question. It would be mere soothsaying and I would definitely say that it could be well off the mark by light years. There is a great churning happening and it would be wiser if we could be patient enough to wait and see how matters settle down. The last few years have thrown up flotsam which are at much variance with the ones earlier. NFTs and AI software like DALL.E 2 have thrown up very interesting and revolutionary channels of creativity. It remains to be seen how much water would run through them and whether it would change the course of the river itself.
Hariharan is currently into a lot of involvement in art, He is one of the authority on photography that I encountered.
3 replies on “Hariharan’s thoughts and journey as an artist”
A must read interview for every art enthusiast to brave walk through road less traveled….
An interview which gives a view of the matter to a non artist….. Good one…
Loved the read… Expecially as Hari and myself grew up together as neighbours.
It really is such an elaborate and thought provoking interview with a renowned artist. Actually Mr. Hariharan is a gifted writer too. Many of his works have been published through Online Indian Express and some in The Hindu also.