In the early months of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not long after India enforced an initial spate of lockdowns, Delhi Whatsapp groups began to crowd—unexpectedly—with images of blue skies. In a metropolis recognised the world over for its toxic haze, the return of a clear sky was confusing, pushing its residents to speak out on social media. “Good?” one message read, referring to the air, “it’s positively alpine!” Albeit a response to a refreshing change in a traffic-choked city, such enthusiasm also demonstrates our fraught relationship with nature; one that is often expressed through photographs.
The images of emptier cities and bluer skies from the time of the pandemic tell us a story about ourselves, making us unwitting spectators of our own absence in the natural order of things. Depopulated landscapes, abandoned and seemingly overgrown, suggested a return to nature. Though they weren’t really deserted at all, but filled with something else entirely—a projection of meaning more to do with us than our environment.
Through the tools of metaphor, symbolism, narrative and assumed documentary truth, photographers over time have wrestled with the tensions inherent in our spectatorship of the natural world. To what extent is a photograph of a landscape simultaneously inventing that landscape in our own image? How is our relationship to nature changing in light of global heating and a now-complete realisation that time is running out? Do the older conceptions of pure and perfect landscapes bear any relation to a world undergoing a very real and visible degradation? All photographs of the natural world today are unavoidably tainted by the knowledge of the precarious balance on which our environment stands.
The four photographers in this exhibition explore, in distinct but comparable ways, the possibilities inherent in representing and engaging with natural landscapes and their associated contexts and possibilities. At this time of environmental crisis and collapse, older ideas of the timeless and sublime picturesque have become charged with overlapping fields of meaning—politics, mythology, metaphor, communal history, personal sentiment—and pose to their chroniclers a deeper challenge of imagination.
Karthik Subramanian’s photographs of the Kaveri river in southern India, which he made through the course of a 72-day long walk along both its banks for the series Idai Veli (meaning “gap” in Tamil), is an attempt to redefine a river he has known since he was a child. Due to its position between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the question of who owns the Kaveri is politically fraught, added to the precarious nature of its flow—once drought-prone and more recently vulnerable to flooding. At the heart of this question are people whose livelihoods, identities and cultural histories depend on a river that is often governed as a line on a map. Subramanian’s monochromatic images have an unrestrained proximity to their subject, attempting to move beyond political cartography and enact a kind of sensorial mapping inspired by his grandparents’ stories, folktales and the traditions of Sangam poems.
Further north in the subcontinent, over 2,000 kilometres away, we find the setting for Nishant Shukla’s series Seeking Moksha, which began in 2011 with a pilgrimage to the source of another river—the Ganga in the Himalayas, undertaken with the purpose of collecting water for his grandfather, a Hindu priest on his deathbed. On his return, however, his grandfather had lost all memory of Shukla, prompting a deeper and more private search for the root of the compulsions in us all to look for meaning—and at times, ourselves—in treacherous and sublime natural expanses. He returned multiple times after the incident, often fantasising about becoming a hermit himself, bringing back material traces from his journeys, including wildflowers, earth, stone and, of course, several photographs. People rarely appear in these images, but their yearning, desire and internality is at the heart of his approach, where, as he puts it, the landscape can act as a “blank canvas” for the possibilities and failures inherent in human quests.
Currently based in the mountain ranges of the Nilgiris, Gayatri Ganju’s work expresses an atavistic and personal sense of co-existence with the landscapes she photographs. Her work The Dragon and the Goat emerged from a six-week residency in southern Switzerland, and engaged with the lush wilderness of the Verzasca Valley and her place as a visitor within it. Many of her monochromatic images were made at night, using external flashes and long exposures—including those of the trees on display—extracting from their surface a layer of postcard-like beauty that one has come to expect from the region; and also one that has had a history as an idyllic landscape in the Indian imagination over the last century. Ganju’s dynamic and exploratory style invites the viewer in, sharing with them her vision for and connection with the landscape in all its vast, powerful, dark, beautiful and fragile intensity. Like for Subramanian and Shukla, walking is central to her work, and her moody and feverish images reflect the paradoxical sense of control and unruliness that being alone in landscapes engenders. “It was liberating to walk at night as an Indian woman,” she adds, “knowing I was the most dangerous thing around.”
While natural landscapes can serve as canvases for our personal projections and explorations, they are also equally, and crucially, inhabited spaces with evolving social and communal histories; spaces over which networks of metamorphoses, migrations and marginalisations play out in large and small ways. Soham Gupta’s two series Eden and Angst—though distinct in their approach and emotional tenor—attempt to grasp the slippage between the personal and the social, violence and negligence and anger and cynicism, while also challenging the overly rigid distinctions between portraits of people and places. Gupta first produced Angst, a project that earned him international attention for his focus on the underbelly of Kolkata through a set of nocturnal, gritty and attentive portraits of those at its margins. Eden, on the other hand, has a gentler touch, more poetic and premeditated. The photographs depict a fictitious urban landscape ruined and reclaimed by overgrown nature. Themes of entropy and decay dominate both series, and their evocative power stems from their ability to hint, but never explicitly state, their terms of engagement for the viewer. As Gupta says: “What gives one a feeling of hauntedness? Probably something that’s not clearly stated, that is shrouded in mystery, that is not explicit.” Gupta’s photographs reflect this preoccupation, wherein the landscape isn’t simply a space for external reflection or extrapolation, but one of confrontation and unnerving intimacy—almost corporeal in its connection to us and the stories we tell ourselves.
Through their individual approaches, the bodies of work discussed here both behold and problematise beauty as the principal system of valuing natural landscapes through photography. As John Berger once wrote of the English countryside, “sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” This exhibition offers us one way of looking behind that curtain.