Monday, April 29, 2013


Arvind Garg is a photographer living in New York. This is part I of a two part interview.
all images Arvind Garg and may not be reproduced without permission.

It was one of those strange chance meetings that left us fast friends. Some years ago Arvind wandered into the reception for a photography show I was participating in. We launched into a conversation about photography, literature, art, and travel and have continued these themes to this day, albeit over good wine and food. I'd like to thank him for allowing me to interview him. - DM 

DM: Tell me about your background, what drew you to photography and what in your background influences your photographic work.
AG: My uncle, Balwant Gargi, who was a writer, was the first photographer I ever knew. He lived in New Delhi and when I was a small boy in the 1950s he visited us in the small town of Bathinda in Punjab, India, he would take our pictures. He had a twin lens Rollieflex camera. He would mostly take portraits of family members, close ups of faces in natural light for which we sometimes had to go to the house roof, or sometimes he would light the face with the pedestal lamp in the house. He would take the pictures and go back to Delhi. Weeks, sometimes months later, there would be a package in the mail carrying just a few of the photos but all in large 8x10 size, that he had gotten developed and printed by the best  known lab in the capital, the Mahattas. These photos left a deep impression on me and over the years they formed the family album. All my siblings and I still have these portraits in our family albums; in fact they form the backbone of old family memories from the 1950s and 1960s. 

DM: You and I share a love of street photography. To me it's the sense of discovery of the unexpected and the challenge to create a photograph that is both journalistic in its storytelling, but also evocative. What does this genre mean to you? 
AG: Ever since then I have carried my camera with me everywhere I go, and I rarely return home without a new image taken in the street or other public places. Street photography suited me perfectly as I was already a good walker by nature. This kind of photography helped me really “see” the world and then try to select an image in it that would not only reflect life but also hopefully be an aesthetic object in itself. After I moved to New York City in 1985, street photography became an all-consuming activity, for like Paris and Rome, New York City seemed to be built for street photographers. I discovered and found my New York (for every Newyorker has his or her own New York) through street photography.

I became aware of the genre called “street photography” only when I came to America in the mid1970s. I was a student at University of Wisconsin in Madison and there in 1976 I bought my first SLR camera (Pentex K1000). Cartier-Bresson was everyone’s favorite photographer at that time. His images, along with those by my other favorite, Kertesz, intoxicated me and my photographer friends like Dennis Church and Lewis Koch. His candid photographs of people not only of Paris and France but from all over Europe and Asia seemed to capture the rhythm and poetry of everyday life of ordinary people in different cultures. 

DM: Who are the photographers that have influenced you?
AG: Except for the early influence of Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz as mentioned above (Oh, I almost forgot Eugene Atget whose images I was in love with in my early years as a photographer), I am not aware of anyone else’s direct influence on me. But there are photographers whose work I have consistently admired since the very beginning and I am sure their imagery has influenced me indirectly and unconsciously. Among them I would name  Stieglitz and Steichen (somehow I always think of these  two together), Walker Evans, Clarence White, Brassai, Minor White, Manuel A. Bravo, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek and  Josef Koudelka, Mark Ribout, Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan and a few others whose names are not coming to my mind right now. As you can see this list is dominated by French and American names. Among Indian photographers Raghubir Singh was an influence in color photography of exotic Indian places, and later Raghu Rai’s photojournalistic work in India also interested me greatly. 

DM: Your photogravure work is so beautiful. First, can you explain what this process is?

Konarak Temple, Arvind Garg
AG:  Photogravure is an intaglio process by which an image from a photographic negative is first transferred to a polished copper plate which is then etched in fine and continuous gradation that produce the original tonal values in the image when the etched plate is inked and printed like any other etching.  It was a popular printing method during the early years of the twentieth century. If you look at some famous images of Stieglitz or Steichen,  you will find that they were printed as photogravures. 

I was lucky to get my initial training in photogravure process in a class at Manhattan Graphics Center taught by Lothar Osterburg , known in the photogravure world as a master. He taught with humor and had a lightness of touch as he gave demos and answered your questions. 

I loved the look and feel of photogravures, the use of etching paper and ink and their soft tonality fascinated me. It was perhaps the first time I actually enjoyed getting my hands dirty rubbing the ink into the etched copper plate, and yes, the smell of ink. And how magical it felt to pull a printed image out of the etching press, especially when it came out good. 

DM: You don't do much work in this method anymore, why?
AG: It is a labor-intensive process, and it involves so many delicate steps any one of which can go wrong and you would have to start all over again. It is not cheap either, and for some reason it is not as valued as it should be, in the photography market. I guess I got tired after a few years of doing it, although the process still fascinates me. I also moved on to other things like self-publishing books of my photographs and now to painting and drawing. 

DM: You and I are both old enough to have started with manual cameras. How has the digital revolution influenced and/or effected the way you work?
AG: Like most serious photographers I hesitated to buy my first digital SLR. It felt like giving in to technology at the cost of authenticity in your work. But once I started using my Nikon D200 which I bought in 2006, there was no looking back. If one is a part of the photography universe, there is no choice about the technology you will use these days. Digital photography has obviously made enough progress to compete with the film process in quality, but in addition it offers new opportunities not only to create imagery but also to share it with others, the latter being equally essential to the experience of being an artist. 

DM: I think it's fascinating to see the process. What was great about the contact sheets was that you could see the thought process of the photographer. I take one or maybe three photos of a subject and I tend to compose in the camera rather than cropping on the contact sheet beyond some extraneous edges. Do you tend to take a lot of photos to get what you want, and what is your composition process?
AG: One certainly shoots more frames using digital camera as opposed to film camera, but the framing and composing habits remain the same, I think. I have always tried to compose my pictures in the viewfinder. Still, with the availability of photoshop software it is impossible to always remain true to the original composition and not to crop the original image here and there a bit and give it a new form. I don’t see anything wrong with that. 

DM: I love Village Women In Alberca as an example not only of portraiture, but also a photo that speaks to the culture of your subjects. Do you have something specific in mind when you do portraiture?
Alberca Women, Arvind Garg 
AG: That particular image of the Alberca women in a Spanish village outside Salamanca is definitely one of my very favorites in all my life’s work. I was In Salamanca during some random travels in Spain. Salamanca has one of world’s most beautiful main squares, I think. There in a bar I met two young and eager photographers who then offered to take me to this village on the outskirts of the city. What a look at the rural Spain it turned out to be. Cows and sheep roamed the street as in India. The elderly, dressed in fine clothing, sat around chatting and laughing. This group of women, with ancient faces and curious expressions, happily accepted to be photographed by this foreign visitor. They seemed to be as amused by the experience as I was. That moment was one of the highlights of all my travels anywhere in the world. 

DM: Brooklyn Children. Wow, this is quintissential street photography. It's a moment, it's attitude, it's atmosphere. Were you talking with the kids, or did you happen on the scene? What were the circumstances that led to the image? 

Brooklyn Children, Arvind Garg
AG:  While shooting the boys playing with the water, one of them asked me for money I think. I don't remember if I gave him this dollar bill or he showed me what he wanted, but I thought this turned out to be an eloquent image about the preoccupation with money in America (even about the preoccupation with dollar bill in the whole world), so I used the image in my America book. 

DM: I would think that doing stock photography is good training ground for producing spot-on composition and effective storytelling. How do you think the commercial aspect of doing stock photos has influenced your work? 
AG: Professional stock photographers take their work very seriously and shoot from the angle of what sells out in the commercial market. They have editors working with them, they hire professional models, they “create” imagery for stock sales that their agencies demand. 
Even though I have sold my images for decades for editorial and commercial use on my own and through photo agencies like Getty and Corbis, the two big ones, I almost never take a photo with stock sale in my mind. I tend to walk around and take photographs of what I like visually. I have therefore been lucky that many of these images have been used in publications such as the New York Times and many travel and other magazines and text books, as well as sold for commercial use by my photo agencies.

DM: I'd like to continue to explore more of your work, talk about the books you produce and what you are working on now. (Interview to be continued in Part II)
Part II of my interview with Arvind Garg will appear at the end of next month. Meanwhile view/buy his books HERE

My interview with Elizabeth Sayles, author/illustrator will be pushed up due to the timing of her exhibit. She is co-curator of the exhibit Ghost Army on view at the Hopper House Museum Gallery, through June 9. A film by the exhibit's co-curator Rick Beyer about these WWII artists will air on PBS in May, locally May 21. Check your local listings. 

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