The Music of Life was made in collaboration with Whistling Woods International (WWI), Asia's major Film, Television, Animation & Media Arts Institute. WWI’s impressive credentials within the international film industry have been reinforced by their recent inclusion in trade paper the Hollywood Reporter’s list of the best film schools in the world.
The calibre of its industry expert teaching staff and their ongoing professional practice is typified by award winning Bollywood cinematographer and director of photography, Rajen Kothari, who visited Bradford to spend two days with Trevor Griffiths during a short break in the filming schedule of his latest movie. Rajen has worked on more than twenty-five films since 1982, most recently Blue Orange (2009), Well Done Abba (2009); and Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008).
Rajen met with Trevor to discuss future collaborations between both institutions, but primarily, the introduction of conventional photography at WWI. In these days of rapidly accelerating technical advances setting up darkrooms in an institution as equipped with the latest hi-tech wizardry as WWI might seem an unusual step.
But Trevor and Rajen, both highly respected in the industry, are adamant about the need for students to learn traditional techniques to support new technologies. Trevor advocated traditional training as “without learning that technology you have nothing to act as a foundation for new technology.”
We were privileged to capture these two masters in conversation.
Rajen advised, “I know each of us is very passionate about this and have spoken about it for the years we have known each other. A photographer needs the ability, the technical skills and knowledge. Today all technicalities are available on the net but knowledge is something you only get in studies and absorption. Techniques keep changing with time but once you have acquired knowledge and the love of film – the physical touch of negative film, print or film print – it gives you an intimacy and creates something special in your looking. You always retain this within your being and can call upon it. But this special quality requires the acquisition of deep rooted knowledge.”
Trevor enthused, “In Bradford we have the largest photographic archive in Europe on our doorstep at the National Media Museum and our students can book a visit and handle very famous pictures. For instance, although I have seen Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez in lots of books and displayed in a gallery, it does not compare to when I actually held it. If you can touch these pictures, can hold them and feel them, they mean so much more. In the darkroom as you are processing your film you feel and see the images emerge. That is the magical moment of being a photographer.”
Rajen explained, “This is the difference between clicking a picture and making a picture. When you look at Trevor’s Long Road Home – you know the person behind that picture as it comes straight from the heart. Like any great works from the history of art, heart and mind and eye connect. This ability makes you a studied photographer. At that moment you are making history. You learn to appreciate and you learn skills which you apply through life, for learning never ends.”
Trevor lamented, “People don’t get that opportunity any more. We are one of the few Schools of Art & Media in the country to offer colour printing in the darkroom. Most, if they use film at all, send it out for processing and even these outlets are declining. It is a huge loss.”
Rajen said, “On digital there are no restrictions. You can shoot 5000 pictures in a day but to sort out and select one is a tedious and tiring process. Clicking multiple images means that you are not paying attention but when you are restricted to a roll of film with 24 frames, you are more careful re light, exposure, framing and composition. Limiting yourself and making the most of available material is a good starting point to becoming a photographer.”
Trevor noted, “Students inevitably find an exercise I set them where they are working exclusively with a tripod extremely difficult. I tell them to set up and only when you can say that you would purchase this picture can you press the shutter. At the end of the day they are worried because they have taken hardly anything! Slowing the whole process down like this starts a thought process that is transformative. It is easy to adopt the machine gun approach and fire off lots of shots on digital but much harder to really focus on the exact shot you want.”
Rajen explained, “When roll of film is processed your thought process is crystallised in that moment. It is the same when an editor is physically cutting a film. The time taken between the movements involved in processing in the traditional form is essential as it allows you to think about what you want that image or frame to say. You devote more time and energy to way that image is coming to an audience.”
Rajen argued that rushing was an obstacle to knowledge, extending his theme to studies generally. “When browsing on the net your brain is simultaneously deleting what you are not looking for. When you read a book you have to be more focussed and spend time. That concentration means retention and understanding is much better with books.”
Trevor reckoned, “Where you place exposure is crucial and requires so much information in thinking and considering what you want to say, for instance in my photo of trucks at Kramer Junction. Trucks were the important element to me because of my history but it was about going back and slowing down. You don’t get that with digital photography. The criteria changes and you have to think about all the elements of the sky and the detail if I press the shutter.”
Rajen said, “Because Trevor has gone through certain things in his life this shows in his photography. Someone who had not shared that kind of intimacy with trucks could not have taken this image. Your entire process of being a person and taking the picture reflects in the picture. Before taking an image, you should always pause. Pauses are very necessary for image makers, be it films or photography.”
Trevor disclosed, “That truck picture reminds me of where I came from which is so emotive and so positive in so many ways. This is so important to remember and be true to as you become a professional photographer. I am passionate about teaching moral and ethics in photography. As photographers we have a responsibility and it is too easy to misrepresent or abuse our power. We have a duty to act with integrity.”
Rajen suggested this honesty and self awareness removed barriers; “Your ability to become one with your subject is essential. Unless you can establish that communication you can’t take great photographs.”
But both emphasised that it was not only reflective time and true focus that enhanced the quality of images in traditional shooting, but the practice of keeping all frames was also crucial.
Trevor said, “On digital you press, look and delete rejects. You are taking out the essential process time which enables you to value what you have taken and you have no archive. This is destroying our heritage which comes from a batch of negatives. The action of just press delete is fatal.”
Rajen added, “The digital images may be corrupted in ten years or files may not be readable later as technology changes. When you return to a picture after time has elapsed you see it in a different context. Constraints lead to instant decisions based on a particular purpose but a photograph will have a value beyond that which may not be immediately apparent.”
Trevor urged “I understand that if pictures are bad you might make an instant decision to edit, but if you choose a picture for that moment, the minute you stop shooting, put it onto a hard drive before you start looking at to edit. Keep all originals to go back to and hold on to. If we don’t we will delete images that should be our heritage.”
Trevor suggested even if photographers are not concerned by their historical legacy but are purely motivated by self interest they should retain all their images. He illustrated this with an example of a recent request for images from his own archive. He said, “A magazine wanted to buy some old photographs from me. They offered me an obscene amount of money but wouldn’t say the purpose. As they wouldn’t say what they wanted to use them for I refused and the offer kept going up. It transpires that years before I had taken pictures of members of the aristocracy when the ladies concerned were considerably younger and slimmer. The magazine wanted to make unflattering comparisons with the way they looked today. Obviously I was not prepared to be party to this although if I had low moral and ethical values, I could have made a huge sum from the sale as the pictures now had a large commercial value. Yet if I had deleted those unused pictures I would have missed the opportunity.”