Photo Focus: Raghu Rai

Welcome to Photo Focus, where I examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs. Furthermore, this is inspired by an idea a professor of mine always discussed in graduate school. He would talk about what about the photograph brought the viewer in and kept his or her attention. I will discuss what draws me to the photograph as well as, give a description of the photograph, a formal analysis, and discuss the meaning of the photograph.

Most of the time (at least with the photographs) I use in Photo Focus I am drawn to them because of their compositions. With the photograph for this week’s Photo Focus, Backdrop Series 7 by Raghu Rai, the primary reason I am drawn to it is because of its subject matter. The photograph, which you see above, contains a painted backdrop. Painted backdrops have played a significant role in the studio portraiture of India throughout its history. I have always wanted to use a painted backdrop myself but since I am not much of a painter I never have. As always, with this post, I will give a formal analysis of the photograph and then use the formal analysis to interpret the meaning of the image.

Backdrop Series 7 is ultimately a portrait however, it is not traditional. The right half of the frame is filled with the painted backdrop of green and yellow browns of foliage. A girl in her early teens is standing on the backdrop. She is wearing a traditional Rajasthani outfit in orange with a black head scarf, many bangles on both arms and a large necklace. On the right side of the photograph the scene around the backdrop can be seen and is filled with the light yellow of the desert sand two-thirds the way up the frame. The remaining third of the frame is filled with a grey-blue sky. In the foreground, there is a sitting man in white wearing a Rajasthani turban. On his right side there seems to be a vessel or musical instrument. Behind him are two young boys. The boy on the right is taller and the boy in the left has his fingers in his mouth. At the edge of the frame, on the same plane as the boys there is a man’s leg, he is wearing blue pants. At a distance, behind the two boys there is another boy looking at the camera. In the distance there are men with camels and carts.

This photograph does not employ as many formal elements and principles as many of the photographs I discuss however there are some. One of the strongest elements is the line created by the edge of the backdrop. This line creates two distinctive areas of the photograph. One is the fantasy space of the backdrop, the other is the reality of the desert. the rule of thirds has also been used to place the girl in the photograph. Using this placement along with the fact that she is the largest body in the frame lets the viewer know she is the main subject. Furthermore, color has been used to draw the viewer’s attention to the girl as she and the backdrop have the boldest shades. The left side of the photograph is dominated by the yellow-brown of the sand and camels but all the colors are subdued. The arrangement of the man and boys are also important. Although all of figures are looking at the camera, the man and boys create an arch which brings the viewer back to the girl. Furthermore, the men, camels and carts in the background are so small there is less information for the viewer to observe which brings the eye back to the foreground and ultimately the girl.

With an educated guess, I would say this photograph was made at the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan either before or after the main event. From my analysis above, it might be obvious that the focus of this photograph is the teenage girl. The traditional outfit the girl is wearing leads me to believe she is from a tribal community. While Indian society is still male dominated, the tribal communities are not as bound to the system. Traditionally, women in India would only go out escorted by a male relative, however, it does not seem like the girl is a relative of any of the males in the photograph. The man and boys seem to be interested in the performance of the photography rather than the girl. I also think the idea of performance is important to this photograph. The way the girl is posed with her hand on her hip, she is adding a bit of sass to the photograph. Furthermore, her facial expression is serious and gives her an air of confidence and maturity. In a way, the photograph reminds me of 19th century photographs of girl that today we would think of as pornographic. Even though this photograph is not sexualized it is still dominated by the male gaze, but the male gaze is directed at the camera or the viewer not the girl. As a foreigner, I read the photograph as display. It is like the “others” are encountering one another. The girl knows she is being viewed and is giving her viewers attitude and the man and boys are looking at the viewer with curiosity.

The idea of performance is also important when considering the history of photography in India. The painted backdrop has been used in photography globally to create new environments for the sitters to be photographed in. It has been argued by Christopher Pinney and others that the painted backdrop in India has been used for Indian to show themselves in another world. Painted backdrops of western kitchens and skylines with airplane props. The painted backdrop here becomes a fantasy because the painting is of foliage and the photograph is taken in the desert. Many times we want to be surrounded by things we are not and in the desert I am sure you wish for rain which is one thing  the foliage could represent. This play of desert and lush greenery adds to the performance of the photograph.

I enjoy this photograph because I think it plays with the history of photography in the Orient and Asia. Without hitting the viewer over the head the photograph touches on the male gaze, the female body, and the use of painted backdrops in Indian photography. The use of color and line keep the viewer returning to the girl who returns their gaze. I think this photograph is successful because of its composition and subject matter. When a photographer is able to play with many aspects of photography and art history in one photograph it is going to be successful.

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By |2018-10-15T12:31:21-05:00December 2nd, 2016|Photo Focus|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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