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shooting b[l]ack- a different space of encounter

Recently, I read Teju Cole’s eye-opening story on Roy de Carava ‘s great love and commitment for shooting black life when ‘black’ and black presence were not fashionable [nytimes Teju Cole ‘what is dark is not empty…” feb 22 2015]. De Carava was an intriguing and poetic photographer who died in 2009.  Cole and De Carava brought me back to a time and place when I didn’t like seeing myself in pictures because they tended to be dark, or fuzzy, or faded or a combination of all three. In a society where lighter skin is better among the indian population, I avoided the camera’s gaze; avoided being shot in dark light which made me darker. As an appreciator of photography then with friends who were amateur photographers, I suspected the printed photos to be victims of calibration issues, but wasn’t sure.  Only later, when I came to the US and dabbled in portraiture and general photography development, did my suspicion turn into truth. I discovered why the camera disliked shedding light on me, and others like me, and  I saw how technology arose out of specific circumstances. I understood how mechanical tools [ex light meters, under or over exposure, darkroom techniques including developing] were manipulated to see the subject behind the lens, and that it wasn’t the advanced amateur shooter at fault as much as the system set up to see the image. It was the system of inherent calibration which was manipulating the shooter and every corner photo studio, which would print photos for customers like me, as is, as they were shot. I discovered here that seeing was calibrated to the white skin.

Cole’s article explains that seeing was invisible to black or dark skin because the dynamic range of film emulsions were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensibility to brown, red, yellow skin tones. Whiteness was normal behind the lenses of all cameras, whether movie or SLR, whether in my country, or in the US. Therefore, the camera would always suggest that dark skin always needed light and improvement, and it was the task of better photo studios to shed light on dark skin during development. The eye behind a camera or a person saw white or light skin, and pink skin for women. Once, during one of the first weeks of my arrival in the US, someone at Bloomingdale’s [clearly not de Carava!] told me I had yellow tones and makeup would even out my yellowness and endow me with pink skin. I do like pink, but wondered about the unnatural combination of pink skin on a brown body. I got used to being ‘yellow-skinned’ and while she spoke I was thinking of curry, which is also yellow, but so delicious. Why would I want to change curry or my skin?

De Carava’s work explained why my photos were the way they were. Looking at his work showed me just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph or how much could be imagined into the shadows. He resisted explicitness, and concentrated on human dignity and soulful. He found life situated in the inner spaces of the subject, and though De Carava came into prominence during the Harlem renaissance, his photography reminds me of the the seventeenth century french painter George de la Tour whose paintings reflected nocturnal effects of light and shadowy effects of his subjects. De la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio, whose close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro was radical.

I see de Carava’s photographs as a black and white version of de la Tour’s paintings, but in stark crisp, deeply contemplative comparison.

decarava 1rdecarava 2

de carava 3de cara 4

Cole’s article also made me see and think how biased mainstream culture still is in the way it shoots people whom it wishes to condemn tout de suite: Trayvon Martin hooded, dark and dangerous compared to a white hooded man who looks hot and studly. Or Michael Brown murdered in Ferguson recently, often described and shot as a demon. Or the many hijabed women in our xenophobic world ominously shrouded in black, shot and presented in photos or cartoons sans beauty, sans dignity. These were/are shot as either guilty, criminal and oppressed. If the camera wishes to criminalize, it will. The camera is still contemptuous and still desires to shoot white or light skin, sometimes killing dark skin consciously or unconsciously or perhaps by default [setting].

Artists like Andrew Dounmu, Steve Mc Queen and Ava du Vernay continue the tradition of de Carava, whether in color or black & white or sepia: Dounmu’s Mother of George [2013], Mc Queen’s 12 Years a Slave [2013] and du Vernay’s selma [2014] are full of the intensity of black presence that de Carava depicted so beautifully in his photography. The black presence and skin in these 3 films are exquisitely shot, and explode with beauty, light and color. The visages are striking in their composition.

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mother of george 1mother of george 2

12-Years-a-Slave12 yrs a slave 1

I will now go back to my old photos to re-see my opacity a la de Carava, and bask in the shadows which embraced me. What is dark is neither empty nor blank, but full of light and with the right see-er can open into many glories and beauty.


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