As a follow on to the article a few days ago about my experiences shooting medium format for low light reportage work, I’m presenting the promised cinematic set from Thaipusam 2016. I deliberately left a few articles’ gap between them rather than presenting them back to back; this allows a bit of settling time and objectivity between the two sets of images. It also brings up the question of stylistic choices: how do you decide?
As far as this particular set of images goes, here’s the underlying logic. Firstly, the nature of the festival itself is intense for participants and observers: as sensory experiences go, it’s an extremely strong one. Color only works to further reinforce that impression: it adds a level of vividness and transparent reality that ups immersion, and the dominant warm tones play with our subconscious. There are lots of yellows, reds and oranges, which somehow manage to keep the mood hovering between warmth/security and danger – there’s an underlying edge here that is evocative of something primal. It’s also the first time I’ve been 100% happy with the accuracy of the tonal palette represented; it’s about as close to reality as I’ve been able to achieve. Previous years were challenging because of channel clipping and overall hue shifts thanks to the mixed (sodium vapour, mismatch fluro, tungsten, halogen, low CRI LED, neon etc.) lighting sources and high ISOs involved (1600, if you’ve got f1.4 and very steady hands).
However, at the same time, the festival is something that has been taking place for hundreds of years; there’s a timeless quality to it that has somehow survived modernisation pretty much intact (LED signboards on the portable shrines being perhaps the exception to this). I feel that age is lost in color, and we get swept up in the immediate intensity of it all. Color grading also tends to be subconsciously evocative of a particular era in history – this is as much to do with technological development of film emulsions as anything else, but it’s quite easy for us to identify when an image was shot by the color palette alone – even if there are no other objects present that date the scene. It also doesn’t help that anything before a certain point is entirely monochrome, further reinforcing the impression of age.
Personally, this year was quite a different experience for me – in the past, I played the part of the stealthy observer, and stayed out of the way. There were also a lot more photographers; even though I’ve always shot at roughly the same time of day (or night, from about 1am to 4am when the processions are arriving from Kuala Lumpur) I was the only one in the main cave temple this year – there literally was nobody else present with a camera whose sole purpose was photography. It’s nigh on impossible to manage being stealthy with a medium format rig, either. I needn’t have bothered. Soon upon arrival at the top of the stairs, I was singled out by one of the devotees in trance, who abandoned the crowd of people seeking blessings from her and came over to me. I received some blessings of my own, and a marked forehead. After that, still in trance, she turned and left. The same thing happened with several other groups of devotees throughout the night – even though they often couldn’t see me visually through the trance (or had their eyes closed), they would often specifically single me out, beckon me over, and in more than one case, signal for me to shoot. Some situations were just not workable because they were in dark corners of the cave, and there was nowhere near enough light, but I went through the motions anyway. This was better than an all-access pass – I guess I got lucky, and I’m extremely pleased with the resulting images. The lines between observer and participant blurred.
In the end, both presentation styles called to me with equal strength. The cinematic stuff was closer to the real (surreal?) experience, but the monochrome felt a little darker, edgier and more in tune with the visceral underlying pulse of the festival. I curated these two sets and processed them accordingly. But as far as a final presentation goes – at some point, one has to decide which path to follow, and that’s where the internal conflict starts. Beyond immediate visual appeal – it’s arguable for many reasons that an image that’s strong in monochrome can also be made strong in color and vice versa, especially with judicious use of the channel mixer tool in conversion – the answer probably lies in what the intended message or story is. I think the real challenge lies in deciding if the image is for immediate consumption (‘disposable instant gratification’) or posterity. As much as we aspire to make every image one to last, I find most images to fall into two distinct camps: the kind that hit you hard now, but don’t really offer much else on closer contemplation, or the kind that are continually rewarding but require some intellectual investment on the part of the audience.
Images in both camps are very, very rare and difficult to make deliberately (aside from simply reading too much into unintentional elements, of course). Actually, it’d be interesting to know what proportion of the two types of images were made with an end audience in mind (usually a client) vs purely for the artist’s own satisfaction. In this case, I submitted this color set to the agency – again, the question of immediate editorial consumption arises – and curated the monochromes purely for myself. I wanted to challenge the notion that a colourful festival has to be presented in color. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve seriously considered this question and both shot and processed withs that duality in mind from the start: you’ll notice the cinematic images also work as taller aspect ratios, and the light is monochrome-friendly, too. (The one exception to this is the title image, because there’s simply no way this composition works as a 16:9 landscape.) I see this as something I’m going to have to address again in the final curation of Paradise Lost – In hindsight, I’m still pleased with both sets, though it would be interesting to revisit this question again in a year or so. MT
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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