Life through LIGHT

With the camera as his tool and light as his muse Mahesh Nair captures different moods of Mother Nature in his book Let There Be Light. The book — with essays by experts — offers a range of perspectives on the effects of light in the world around us. Excerpts:

A woman carries water across Nalsarovar, Gujarat.
SHADOW PLAY: A woman carries water across Nalsarovar, Gujarat.

Photography comes from the French "photographie" which is based on the Greek words phos (light), and graphis (stylus, paintbrush) or graphκ (representation by means of lines or drawing), together meaning "drawing with light." So, the essential element for photography, apart from the photographer, the subject and the camera, is light.

While everyone agrees on the definition and the techniques of photography, the question that has been debated for years is whether a photograph is just a record of a given moment or does it transcend that specification and move into the realm of creativity and art. The debate occurs more so because of the so-called objectivity of the photographic medium as compared to any other visual art form.

This book looks at light and the way it affects us. And it does affect us every day, every night, all the time — from the first cry of a newborn baby to the time that our eyes close for the last time. Let There Be Light... is a tribute to this ultimate resource and my somewhat inadequate journey to capture those moments that show Mother Nature amidst light — suffused, diffused, enveloped, penetrated, enhanced — in the splendour of its many forms of breathtaking beauty. — M. N.

The hues of the setting sun lend a surreal charm to the placid waters of Dal Lake, Srinagar
Orange haze: The hues of the setting sun lend a surreal charm to the placid waters of Dal Lake, Srinagar.

The debate still rages on. In addition, the advent of digital photography has changed the landscape completely. Earlier, the photograph could either document reality or could move into the realm of art by using various techniques including aesthetic composition and the imaginative use of light. Today, with digital technology and superb software, the photograph can be manipulated in several ways, so that the end result has nothing to do with reality as perceived by the cameraman. In essence, even documentary photography could lose its objectivity since an event can easily be created on the computer through digital manipulation. This ability has completely changed the principles of photography over the past few years and will further evolve new styles in the future. For argument's sake, if earlier, there were two streams of photography - documentary and artistic, the digital revolution will add a third stream which I would call "Digital Art Photography". This would help create a new form of visual art which, though rooted in the reality of a photograph, will lend the photographer the ability to freely express his artistic intent much like a modern-day painter.

Light is a silent brush that paints the surroundings in magical colours. Nair captures this at Taman Negara, Malaysia.
Light is a silent brush that paints the surroundings in magical colours. Nair captures this at Taman Negara, Malaysia.

The purists from amongst the photographer community argue that this dilutes the skill of a photographer. When I first tried my hand at photography, the notion of the photograph as a mechanical reproduction of a scene versus being a digital output of art fascinated me. My experimentation was aimed at determining if the photograph could transcend the reality reproduction without moving into purely computer-manipulated images. To me, the fascination was in going beyond the obvious, to capture the essence, the unseen and the unsaid, so to speak. With nature as my subject, I found that I could easily use known techniques and play with natural light to create scenes that were very dramatic.

Light, or to be more precise, the play of light and the shadows that it creates fascinate me. As a child, it fired my imagination. I would live in a world of ghosts and make-believe creatures. At night, I watched the shadows that crossed my walls with fascination. When sunlight streamed in through the curtains of my windows and created new forms, I let my imagination fly. Now, from behind my lens, I am left engrossed by the beauty that it lends to nature. Light in its myriad avatars is all around us but usually we do not notice it. Over the centuries it has fascinated and captured the imagination of people from all streams of life. Even religion uses light to capture our most precious auras. Look around and there is light playing around us, over us.

My journey with nature started some time ago when I tried to capture its beauty through my lens. As I delved deeper into capturing that splendour, I realized that what makes the difference was just light... and its play. From simply capturing the beauty of nature, I found myself looking for compositions where light made Mother Nature even more fascinating - be it the majestic mountains with their snow-capped peaks, the vast undulating sea, the shadows in a verdant forest or the cracked and parched earth in the desert.

— Mahesh Nair

Excerpted with permission from Let There Be Light by Mahesh Nair. Lustre Roli. Pages 184.