Surendra shows his very special photo series celebrating the beauty of plants and vegetables and speak about his joy for photography.
This wonderful image probably epitomises what got me going in the direction of abstraction and my favourite themes. It was taken in 1930 by Edward Weston, a pioneer of photography as fine art. Only very recently, I found that he wrote about it in his diaries; yet the image had already conveyed to me everything he says:
“It is a classic, completely satisfying, ’a pepper’ but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused: this new pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.
To be sure, much of my work has this quality…but this one, and in fact all of the new ones, take one into an inner reality, ’the absolute’, with a clear understanding, a mystic revealment. This is the ‘significant presentation’ that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing “through one’s eyes, not with them”: the visionary.” [Edward Weston, The Daybooks II, p180]
By minimising or removing the context of a picture, we are left with the elements of design: shape and tone. As a two dimensional media, photography can only indicate form and texture but as this image of a pepper shows, it can do so very well.
For most of my pictures I have the camera close to remove backgrounds and references outside of the subject itself. This series, entitled Organic Forms, is a celebration of the beauty of plants and vegetables: the vibrant and living, but also those in decay and in the case of the winter lotus shots, the sublime quality of death. In a way, they are portraits of vegetation in different stages of their life cycle.
Apart from the technical elements that the craft requires, to operate a camera and develop film, I try to keep my mind out of the action and let the pictures come from passion and play. Even when arranging a set up, such as the Seven Shitake, I am never certain how the negative is going to come out and always look with excitement for the surprise at the end of the development. This is particularly so when finding a subject in nature, as with most of the pictures in this series and the rest of my work.
I try not to pre-visualise a finished print. I often start out with the camera and a search for an unknown image. It can feel a bit frustrating, even boring at times, like a kid kicking a can down the road. Often, the more I go out with confidence in what a great shot I am going to find, the less likely I am to come back with anything worthwhile. The closer I am to not knowing what is going on, the closer I am to emptiness and all the better for it. This is a meandering, not a spacing out. I am looking carefully but I do not know exactly what for. Usually, something in the landscape will pull me towards it. It might even be in a familiar landscape like my own garden and I may have looked at this subject many times before. Yet, today, it grabs my attention and I have the scent of a picture.
It takes me quite a while to play around with lenses, how to frame the image, how close to get. I am a terrible companion to have on a walk when in this mode. Many a friend has gone off by themselves for an hour only to find that I am still tinkering with camera angles not far from my original position when they come back. Sometimes onlookers gather when they see my camera pointed at a muddy pile of lotus leaves or a section of a tree trunk. They search for the hidden animal or flower lurking in the corner of the frame. Finding none, they wander off with a shrug and puzzled expression.
Something visceral stirs when I am onto a picture, a bit of hunting instinct but much more joy and wonder at what I see through the viewfinder: “Wow, isn’t that amazing!” Looking with fresh eyes and feeling this in the mundane and unspectacular is so exciting. Inspecting the negatives later can be a different story that often ends in disappointment. It is a wonderful journey, a meditation on self deception as much as the pleasure of discovery. Sometimes my mind gets hold of an image like a dog with a bone. A lot of energy can be spent in travelling to a particular spot or an hour used waiting for wind to abate or clouds to move. In those situations, I try to convince myself that it was all worthwhile and something great must be waiting in the negative. I can watch myself twisting and turning to squeeze something interesting out of what was a wasted effort in the first place.
Now, working digitally, I have more tricks up my sleeve than I did in the darkroom and I can go on and on and on… As I tend to work with collections of similar images, at some point I review and compare the individual pictures. At that moment, the executioner appears and suddenly the hours of work on what was essentially a hopeless negative are beheaded into the trash. Ho, hum… this all seems to be part of the process, too. The unfounded hope and ill spent efforts add contrast to the straightforward or unexpected that works smoothly from start to finish, just like life in general.
How much we need the failures and the dead ends to savour what, from time to time, seems to go well. Not only that, we need the defeats to realise that our essential, neutral nature is not fussed by any of it, anyway. It is just part of the play. Once I spent a great afternoon after a two hour drive, clambering over rocks when the tide was out, snapping happily away. Back home, I realised that nothing had registered as, although the camera made the right noise, it had not taken one single shot. I could still see in my mind’s eye some of the images and realised how much I had totally enjoyed that afternoon, clambering and shooting. There was no end product, no film to develop or pictures to print, so what – it had been great fun!
Text and photos by Surendra
Surendra started to take photographs at Ko Hsuan in the UK in the early nineties, completed a City and Guilds Certificate in Photography at night school and, in 1994, became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society by submitting a portfolio. He has had exhibitions in various countries including Tokyo. He lives with his partner, Amrapali, in Japan where a local exhibition of 40 prints is scheduled for August 2015. The pictures can be viewed at surendraphoto.com