Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Prabuddha Dasgupta: crossing over

The cover of Prabuddha Dasgupta’s self-titled, posthumously published book of photographs is reminiscent of the elusive, nanny-turned-photographer Vivian Maier’s equally striking self-portrait. In a photograph that has Dasgupta holding a camera and looking straight at you, one can’t escape his casual demeanour, yet focused gaze. The camera is an obvious tool that reiterates the photographer’s gaze but it also is a barrier that the photographer needs to overcome in order to cross over to the subject’s side—an act of forgetting oneself and being receptive to everything that will make the image. And that is perhaps the essence of the late photographer’s work, which this book conserves.

Comprising 200-odd photographs divided between those shot on film and digital, the book is elegant, minimalist and true to his way of seeing. The opening image, a double-spread black and white photograph, is a telling portrait of a pregnant woman, standing top-naked on a beach in Goa. This photograph illustrates the comfort with which the subject breaks free of any expectation of the portraitist. As she looks into the camera, her foot gently stirs the wet sand, creating a small ripple—an element that lends critical balance to her own body and its exposed form.

Going forward, there’s a handpicked selection of the more classic portraits of artistes, celebrities and family members. Having perfected what is known as Rembrandt lighting, a technique that illuminates a small triangle under the eye on the side of the face that is less lit, Dasgupta offers more depth to his subjects, letting them perform in his constructed shadow.

The first section divider in the book quotes him admitting how the black and white medium always maintained the essence of his subjects better than colour. This is especially interesting since the section introduces us to a subject that one would think he was shy of—landscapes. So much of his work has been around people, especially women, that this section is refreshing in the manner in which it illustrates his understanding of the places he photographed, mainly Hampi in Karnataka. Dasgupta turns his lens on the ruins as much as on the textures that live in them. The detailing and the stark contrast is spectacular, much like fine paper etchings. It is clear that he was taken immensely by the grandeur of the rocks, the river and the trees. In the series is a dynamic photograph of two cows against the ruins. The one in the foreground envelops the ruins with its dark body, thereby leaving only a third of the frame to the rocks in the distance and the other white cow. This is an aesthetic spectacle at its best, breaking away from the structuralist leanings of landscape photography.

French novelist and art critic Edmond Duranty wrote famously: “A back may reveal a temperament, an age, a social condition." One cannot help but bring this to mind when looking at Dasgupta’s work on the female nude. In photographs where the viewer is looking at the back of a woman, apart from the alluring form, what is important is that while a face is usually a revelation in relation to its self, the world or the portraitist, the back is largely the reverse—especially when it is wearing no layer of cloth to alter its form. This then also brings to fore an interesting duality—that of the spectator and the subject both being the photographer’s object of interest. Not only did he photograph the women in the landscapes of their own physical selves, he also let their bodies engage with light and shadow, thus altering their physical form and exposing a second form within the original. If this isn’t nuanced enough, move to a beautiful still-life image, the composition comprising very simply a physical photograph—a couple, presumably nude—with a natural paper bend as it stands placed against a flower vase. The bend of the paper follows the curve of the woman’s body, lending an undeniably layered narrative to the visualization of the nude.

Tania Das Gupta’s intuitive editing of a huge body of Dasgupta’s work is commendable in the way that it never interrupts the rhythm of the book, regardless of the complexity of content. Equally important are the excerpts from interviews with him that lend a voice to the visuals.

It is his last work, Longing, that is the masterpiece—as powerful, poetic and fragile as Leonard Cohen’s music seemed to him in his lifetime. With an essay by British writer Geoff Dyer who introduces the work as “photographs that are rarely in the moment", Longing is the most intimate and emotional expression of Dasgupta’s life. A scene during a walk, breakfast, intimacy, an impression of self on an impression of another, a cat, a scream and a frosted window come straight out of his heart and right into the camera with seemingly nothing lost in translation. He preferred it that way.

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