Book Review: Zen and the art of seeing

Photographer Jagdish Agarwal’s coffee table book, 100 Photographs, showcases some of his best work over 50 years. All the pictures are in black and white, considering he is master of the medium and prefers print over digital.

In 100 Photographs he lets his pictures do the talking. “I like taking pictures which were not there a moment ago and will not be there the next moment,” Jagdish says.

After 50 years and collecting more than 50 awards, both Indian and International, Agarwal is still in search of that perfect moment, that arrives like ‘mannah from heaven’ for a split second and is gone.

In this book one sees him transforming the mundane into the sublime. For example in the picture ‘Two porters carrying heavy baggage’, he waited until the duo arrived in his frame. Till then, all he had was a fence and the wasteland. Then the fence became an essential prop, giving depth to the picture and worked in co-ordination with the workers and the landscape.

Another picture is that of a Warli painting juxtaposed in front of a modern day building, depicting the city’s evolving cultural and urban landscape.

Of course, one of his most brilliant and dramatic photograph is that of the monk walking beside a Buddhist monastery in Thimpu, Bhutan, shot in 1989. The monk ‘entering’ the ray of light for a second, is the ‘moment' Agarwal was waiting for.

There is direction, reverence, contrast of form, and above all a picture telling a story. Like Alex Webb says: “The possibility of one particular photographer's pictures lying around the corner is never realised until the photographer is there. It is one of the enigmas of photography.”

Another eye-catching picture is ‘Bamboo vendor handcart’, Kolkata, 1989, where two vendors are pushing a handcart full of bamboo. Note the smooth horizontal lines of the bamboo in sync with the horizontal architecture. Seems like Agarwal has a penchant for his figures entering his frame from the right.

‘Marathon Runners’ is a case in point. Every object here just flows in perfect rhythm, the runners, the ambassador car, and the taxi and all are in sharp focus. Now that must have been a difficult picture to shoot considering that the photographer must be travelling at the same speed as his subjects.

‘Poor couple sitting in the house without door and roof’ is a picture that tugs at your heartstrings. He has sensitively captured the resigned posture of the old lady sitting at a doorless entrance in conversation with another that graphically brings out the impoverished existence of a people living without hope and forgotten from the country’s fabric.

The rural landscape, the cityscape, the people, their idiosyncrasies, textures, objects, lifestyles, trees, rocks, portraits are all masterfully shot with control and versatility that makes this book a must have. For your copy contact Jagdish Agarwal on 022 22044016.

Book: 100 Photographs

Author: Jagdish Agarwal

Publisher: Stonemill Publishing

Pages: 120; Price: On request