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.
I am usually most attracted to color photographs because that is mainly how I work. However, I do have an appreciation for black and white photography as it was through black and white photography that I learned the craft. Black and white images often carry a seriousness or a heaviness that color photographs cannot poses. I will be ending the year by looking at black and white photographs by two well-known Indian photographers in Photo Focus. This week, I am examining a portrait photograph by Prabuddha Dasgupta through a description and formal analysis I will be able to get a clearer meaning of the photograph.
The photograph you see above is black and white. The frame is horizontal and split almost exactly down the middle. The photograph was taken indoors and depicts two men. The men are older with grey hair and beards; they sit in the foreground of the left hand side of the photograph. They sit on a simple bed with a stripped sheet in only their boxer shorts. The men sit side by side, touching. Each man has is right hand on the bed and is placing his weight on it. The wall behind them is bare except for the imperfections on it. There is one small niche in the wall to the right of the men. It appears to house a telephone. On the right side of the frame there is a doorway. The doorway exposes another room in the background. The doorway has sheer curtains hanging in it which have been pushed to either side. At the back of that room there is a single chair and an image hanging on the wall to the left of the chair. Just behind the chair and to its right is another door, which is partially open. Sunlight is pouring into that room so it is impossible to make out any of its features.
Now that all of the mimetic elements in the frame have been discussed the formal elements of the photograph can be explored. The most obvious formal element is the use of black and white. Using black and white photography over color eliminates the distraction a bright color might have in the frame. Black and white images place a heavy emphasis on shadows and highlights. Dasgupta has used light to create a more dynamic photograph. The use of contrast versus flat light also directs the viewer’s eye. There is side light or raking light coming from the left side of the photograph in the foreground. This gives great contrast to the men’s faces and bodies. Photographers use raking light when they want to emphasis the texture of something, in this case the men’s skin. This allows the viewer to understand the approximate age of these men. This raking light also attracts the viewer’s eye to the men as the bed and wall that frame the men is in a flat light or diffuse light. The bright light from the background draws the viewer’s attention back through the rooms so that they see the entire photograph and do not just focus on the men. As this photograph shows light is very important to photography, especially black and white photography.
Doing a formal analysis of a photograph leads the viewer to an understanding of what the photographer is trying to communicate. The most important element in the frame are the two men. The way they sit next to each other, their lack of clothing, and the use of raking light, tells us the photographer wants the viewer to pay close attention to the men, to examine them and compare their similarities and differences. I immediately question if these men are brother or cousins or possibly lovers. I also question what type of lives these men have had; they are thin but not malnourished. The man on the right seems to have some subtle definition in is bicep, so perhaps he did manual labor. The men both have serious faces. They seem to have the knowledge of time and experience. They are the type of men we could all learn something from. However, the Dasgupta is also highlighting the men’s living space. He wants to viewer to explore the rooms and have an understanding of its simplicity. It is a big space so the simple décor does not point to poverty, perhaps it points to piety.
This photograph is a nice example of a portrait. It gives the viewer many clues about the men’s personalities and lives. However, there is also a mystery. Through a photograph you can never really know someone, but through a photograph you can think you would like to know someone. The use of black and white photography has minimized the surroundings of the men so that the viewer focuses on them and then takes in the living space. Through light, everything is ultimately achieved in photograph, even when it is not the most dominant element of the frame.