Navroze Contractor

Interview of Navroze Contractor by Lata Mani, 13th Feb 2008

LATA MANI: How did you start taking pictures of jazz musicians? Did you conceive of it as a project or did it just gradually develop?
NAVROZE CONTRACTOR: I did not think of it as a project but because of my love of music it was only natural that when I started photography I took pictures of musicians. I first heard jazz in 1957 when I was thirteen and it hit some kind of a chord. I still remember hearing my first jazz record. I had gone to meet Ms Gira Sarabhai with her niece and there was this music playing. I was quite stunned. I had never heard anything like it. There was never any access to live jazz music in Ahmedabad. It was only records. I couldn’t become a jazz musician but I was in awe of the people who played that music. So when I started to photograph I took pictures of jazz musicians.
LM: You studied art and photography at M.S. University in the early 1960’s at a very exciting period in its history.
NC: Yes! I started in 1963. Our college was so inspiring with Shanko Chaudhury  N. S. Bhendre, K. G. Subramanyan, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Kakkar. Vivan Sundaram was my roommate. All these great guys were doing all this excellent work. The first year you did a basic course and people generally took up the subject in which they scored the most marks. I scored the most in sculpture. But for some odd reason one was not allowed to take photography with sculpture! You could either do pottery or wood carving. So three months into sculpture I switched to painting so I could do photography. My heart was really into photography.
LM: How did you become interested in photography?
NC: In everyone’s life there are times when big things happen. In the same year that I first heard jazz, 1957, I saw the photography exhibit, “The Family of Man.” It was the first time that I saw pictures by great photographers from all over the world, all in one place. The exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen and it starts with Nature. The first photograph was “Sunrise” by Ansel Adams. The caption read, “God said let there be light and there was light.” It then goes on to show photographs of human beings, love, childbirth, adolescence, irrational behaviour like conflict, then eventually it ends with death and then again childbirth.
LM: The cycle of life.
NC: Yes, the cycle of life. There were about five hundred photographs taken by nearly two hundred photographers. My mother took me to see it in Ahmedabad and I decided then and there that I would become a photographer.
LM: Why?
NC: One thing I could see was that it made you travel. I love travelling. Then it gave you the freedom to go into different countries and places and also to look at things more acutely. That was my impression at that time. We looked at these photographers as great heroes. They went to strange places, to difficult terrain, they photographed conflict. I was more drawn to the adventure side of it initially and also, to the photojournalism side of it. Not the glamor or industrial side of photography which would have paid my bills more easily!
I was quite certain that I wanted to be a photographer when I left school. I was in an experimental high school set up by Madam Montessori herself. We were made to travel and to look at things differently. Ahmedabad was also brimming with culture at the time. This was true from the 1950’s, through the 60’s, to the early 70’s. My mother’s generation was very active in dance, drama, puppetry, music. There were a constant supply of artists, performers and Hindustani musicians.
LM: So you were steeped in a kind of cultural ferment?
NC: Yes! In fact, my grandmother on my father’s side was a cultural tyrant. She made us children sit in the first row when musicians came to sing in her house. I remember getting scared once. So a lot of family members of my generation had a negative reaction. They went straight onto Elvis Presley and rock and roll in response!
My mother’s side of the family was very interested in Western classical music, as Parsis are. My mother’s elder brother was also living with us in the family compound. He played music every single day. He had a very good sound system and the whole compound would listen. We knew when he had come back from work. For two or three hours daily he would sit down with his drinks and listen to music.
So even without any formal training, I would know that Fayyaz Khan was singing in my grandmother’s house or that Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or that pianist was playing in my uncle’s house. I’m talking of recordings, of course!
LM: You have said that the jazz sound was something that you had never heard before and that once you heard it you were hooked. What about jazz that drew you to it?
NC: Later in life when I read about how people get attracted to music, I learned that some people are attracted to music by melody but most people get attracted to music by rhythm. Rhythm is closest to your heart.  It is the most constant thing. There is a rhythm in your life…. In jazz the bass walks. Everyone I know who has been attracted to jazz has been attracted by the beat of four, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Later on I learned that jazz is played in sixteen beats, just like teen tal in Hindustani classical music. I think I was very attracted by the rhythm and the fact that as soon as you heard the music you simply got absorbed in it. You start keeping time. Your whole body converges with the music because it draws you in. I was seriously attracted by the rhythm in jazz.
LM: That comes through in the pictures. You capture the immersion of the musician in the music and the experience you represent is a physical one. Clearly, you experience jazz in that way also.
NC: Well, I think that started when I began to do photography. When I started photography I was interested in documentary photography. I went out into the villages, to people, to the down parts of the city where I think life is exciting. It never excited me to take photographs of middle class and rich life. It just never did. Perhaps there was a calling to do the work that I have done.
I can put it in words thanks to Buckminster Fuller. I once took photographs of him when he had come to Ahmedabad. I printed them and kept them ready hoping that one day he would return and look at my pictures. They were very good photographs. People would often ask me what photography meant to me and somehow I could never find the words to express myself. Then Vikram Sarabhai invited Buckminster Fuller to Ahmedabad and I got an opportunity to show him what I had taken. He wrote on one of the photographs, “You have shown what needed to be shown.” That became my line.
I think that there is a need to show certain things, to draw people’s attention to all that is happening in this world. It is not only about high fashion and fast cars, classical music and concert halls. That’s what drew me to jazz: it is the underdog’s music. It is the music of freedom, of protest. Growing up in the 1960’s we were all leaning towards the left and thinking about these issues a lot. And as I grew older and read more, I was drawn further and further in that direction.
I decided that I would take photographs of jazz musicians. I took them for myself. I decided that there was no need to show them to anybody. I used to give the pictures to the musicians I had photographed if and when I met them again. It was like singing in the bathroom, seriously!
LM: You’ll have to explain that!
NC: You may be a good singer but you don’t want to sing in public and your cherished time is when you go to the bathroom and you sing. And it is a precious time. So for many years I never showed anyone my jazz pictures.
There was also the problem of loving jazz while living in India, questions about what the Indian ethos had to do with the jazz ethos. All kinds of stuff was going on. Kids were influenced by rock and roll music, the Beatles, and questions about the relevance of such music were posed by the media. Today no one asks these questions but in those days people would ask me about the relevance of listening to jazz all the time.
I had three or four friends who like me listened to jazz. It was fantastic. If we got a record (and it was very difficult to get jazz records in those days) we would first listen to it in one person’s house, then another person’s house, then another person’s house…We would have dinner parties and drink parties just so that we could share the record! I started to collect records even before I had a music system.
So my jazz pictures remained as they were. Then in 1965 or so the Baroda artists and intellectuals started a Gujarati magazine called Kshiteej. It had essays, poetry etc. They asked me if I wanted to put one of my jazz photographs on the cover. I thought it was fantastic that someone wanted to publish my picture without even seeing what I had done. I had gone to listen to Loius Armstrong in Bombay with my little camera, sitting very far, feeling very shy to go up near the stage. It was a tiny picture of the singer. I had put the enlarger on the ceiling and exposed the picture on the floor but even then it was not more than four inches! They published that. After that I did not show my pictures until I was invited in the 1990’s to the US to exhibit my photographs.
LM: But you continued taking pictures.
NC: Yes. I continued taking pictures, logging my negatives and putting them away. Very occasionally in those years friends would ask for a photograph and I would print it up for them but nothing more than that.
LM: You studied painting alongside photography. While you were drawn to photorealism in photography, in painting you were attracted to surrealism. Do they speak to two different aspects of your personality? What is the relationship between these two very different representational forms?
NC: During that first year in M.S. University I studied the history of art. In my childhood also I had access to art books because my mother had studied at the Royal College of Art in the UK. I was very fascinated by surrealism and Dali. Realism is very important to surrealism. Your life study, your studies of objects have to be exceptionally good. Only then can you make the object or subject melt. You make it real and then you twist it, play with it. Surrealism is interested in the unconscious, in dreams. Dreams are similar to what I have just described. They can be very realistic and then suddenly something happens that is unreal. So I started to paint like that. I practiced remembering my dreams. I knew that this was far from my everyday reality.
Photography brought me down to earth. My photgraphy teacher at M.S. University was Bhupendra Karia. He was a brilliant man, a hard taskmaster and very young when I started studying with him. His story is also amazing. He came from a business family in Gujarat. When he had finished at the J.J. School of Art his father asked him where he would like to go. He said he wanted to go to Japan. He went there without knowing a word of the language. He studied Japanese and did his B.A. and M.A. in Fine Arts. Then he returned to India. He had studied under a teacher who was very, very strict. And he was the same way.
Karia believed in the discipline of precision. He drove me to perfection. He would lock me up in the darkroom from Friday night to Sunday night. He would give me food through the windows. I had to make 100 prints to show him. He would tear up 80, sometimes 90, of those prints! But I had the whole week to photograph. He told me that to photograph one had to go out into the street. Photographs did not come to you. You had to go looking for them and, if you did, then they would come to you. Now, this was in complete contrast to painting in which I could be alone, go to sleep, and get up and paint.
LM: The painting would come to you.
NC: Yes. It was all my inner stuff. I had to bring it out onto the canvas.
LM: Was there ever an interplay between your photography and your painting in this period?
NC: No, they remained separate. Photography remained for me a pure form of art, somehow. I did not want to twist and turn. I never crop my photographs. I don’t print just details. I print the whole frame: what is in the camera at the time I shoot is what you see in the print. I don’t like a picture editor to crop it or to make it small or big. I have taken trouble and put much thought into it and I do not want to alter it.
LM: So composition is important.
NC: Very important. Composition and light are most important. Everything else can be learned but nobody teaches you composition and light. You learn through observing. This is where painting helped me. Every photographer of any quality turns to Rembrandt to learn how to use source light.
Western master photographers had the Renaissance painters to refer to. But Indian photographers and cinematographers have no reference point because our miniatures have neither perspective nor light and shade. They are flat. In photography you play with perspective and you play with light. The Renaissance painters did just that. This is why Indian photographers have been influenced by other photographers and by Western art. Now I am not saying that one is better than the other but that the traditions are different. When I went to study cinematography in the US the first thing I was told was to continuously observe light. If you switch off the light there is no photography.
LM: It is interesting to hear you talk about light in context of the way the jazz photographs capture movement.  The performing musician is in constant motion. This movement is manifested in your images by the interplay of light and the poetry of the suspension of subjects/objects within your compositional frame.
NC: Cartier Bresson coined the phrase, “the decisive moment.” When you click the shutter it is your moment of decision. In every picture you take there is a decisive moment. Why did I not shoot 1/30th of a second before or after? I am unable to explain that. There is an intuition at work. It is true of sports as well. For example, we know that there is a time when the body is under maximum stress and tension and it has come to zen. That is what you try to capture when you photograph any performing art including jazz.
Jazz is always a surprise. Each night is different. If you wait for a phrase that you heard the previous day it may not be played at all or else it may be played sixteen times!
LM: So, we are now in the jazz club. I am sitting at a table listening. You have your camera in hand. We are watching a performance. Recreate your process. You say you don’t crop and what you saw is what we get. Do you take hundreds of photographs and select one that you think represents the decisive moment? How has it worked for you? You worked before digital. Printing up the pictures would have been very expensive.
NC: When I started studying photography film was very expensive. Even so, when he was teaching me to print Bhupendra Karia told me that I should expose one roll every day. This was when I was exposing one roll every week! When I later went to study cinematography in the US I found that students there were shooting ten rolls a day because for them film was cheap but time expensive!
However, the photographers that I have admired did not take hundreds of photographs. Cameras were manual. Motor drives came very late in the day. When the motor drive came then everybody started clicking ‘chik, chik, chik, chik, chik, chik.’ Six pictures were the fastest you could take. Of course digital has now made all this history!
When I went to France in 1969 I met Cartier Bresson and showed him my work. I was surprised to see that he would go off on his assignment with a little camera and two roles of films in his bag. By contrast most other professional photographers were carrying huge bags with all kinds of lenses and many rolls of films. He told me a very interesting thing. He said if you place a frog on a typewriter and it jumps up and down all night, by the next morning it would probably have typed a word! He was speaking of the reliance on fluke.
Good photographers are those that have cut down the possibility of fluke as much as possible. Fluke is a very interesting phenomenon in photography. You are aware that something is happening and you pick up the camera and shoot. I have done it many, many times… I don’t know, maybe God brings everything together, action, composition, light, the exposure, the steadiness of your hand…it all happens in a split second and then the moment is gone.
LM: Ultimately it’s an instinct honed to perfection by discipline.
NC: Yes. It takes years and years to observe things and people and how they behave and so on. I don’t know about others but it is certainly true for me. When I go to a jazz performance I don’t start taking pictures until I am really into the music, until the musician has fired me up.
LM: So you go first as a lover of music and when you take pictures it is as a lover of jazz.
NC: I go first and foremost as a lover of jazz. I will tell you an interesting story. When I was in the US with Eddie Moore, since he was an established, bi-coastal black drummer, he knew everyone who was anyone. He put me right in the middle of the jazz scene just as soon as I arrived. It is usually very difficult to gain entry, go backstage etc. Since I came through Eddie, there was a certain degree of trust in relation to me.
At that time Thelonious Monk was very sick. Monk has been my all-time favourite composer and piano player. In Western classical music it is said that if you can play Bach you can play any other classical composer. In the same way, in jazz it is felt that if you can play Monk you can play anything. Monk is an unapproachable character but Eddie Moore used to hang out with him. I kept asking to go meet him. Monk had at the time shifted from Manhattan to New Jersey.
Anyway, Eddie and I went to see Monk in hospital.  He was in a room with a big window. Monk was standing at the window framed by the Manhattan skyline. I would have made a lot of money if I had taken a picture. But I thought it was not right for me to take a photograph……And I don’t regret it.
LM: We can see the restraint that comes from a deep appreciation of your subjects. That sometimes means that you do not take that photograph….By the way, what did Cartier Bresson say about your photographs?
NC: I had met Cartier Bresson in Ahmedabad. He used to come often. I had wanted to join Magnum. I was 25 years old and had some 50 prints. He took about forty five seconds to look at the prints and then said I should come back in ten years! I did not get disappointed but it was very hard.
LM: Well, those were the days when people were so committed to their art that to say come back after ten years was a statement of confidence in your capacity to grow and mature.
NC: I wish I had had the wisdom to look at it that way…
LM: I’m not sure that I could have said that to you when I was twenty-five!….Music and photography: do they have anything in common?
NC: I’m sure…rhythm, movement…the only difference is that in photography you take a picture and it becomes history but music just goes away, you have to remember it. You cannot pause music. I think in a way my photographs have probably paused that moment for jazz.
LM: Say more about how you work with light. Jazz clubs are so poorly lit.
NC: I have lost so many pictures because of that. There is only a certain amount of slow shutter speed that you can use. And then you have to hold the camera steady.
LM: You never use a tripod while shooting in the jazz club?
NC: No! It would make me very conspicuous and would disturb other listeners even if not the musicians.
LM: How do you get your hands to be that still?
NC: It’s only practice. It has nothing to do with strength. It is an internal thing.
LM: Were most of these pictures taken from the table at which you were seated?
NC: No. I go on the side of the stand. I go quite close to the musicians. Gradually the musicians know that I am not disturbing them, not using a flash, not getting in the way of the audience. Then they let you have your way. I am most comfortable with natural light…this would include bulbs if I were shooting indoors at night. Jazz clubs are underlit. Jazz has always been music to listen to and not to see. Popular music on the other hand is all about seeing. It is a spectacle: which is why you need 10,000 lights and 20,000 watts of power. Contemporary popular music comes on to you unlike jazz or Hindustani where you are drawn to it. You have to pay attention or else you will miss it. I know it is time to take a picture when it calls out to me. Somehow it falls into place. But I have lost many rolls and many pictures because of poor lighting. For instance, by absolute fluke I was once invited to master drummer Elvin Jones’ birthday party. But because he was wearing a white suit and he was very dark I could not get anything! The contrast was just too much.
LM: In some ways the challenge of taking photographs in such a setting creates its own opportunities. For instance, it enables you to bring forward the interiority that is such an aspect of the jazz performance. On the one hand the performer and the audience are in a dynamic relationship with each other. But on the other, the performer and the music are in a prior, primary relationship. Your pictures convey an intimacy that is at the same time flat.
NC: Because it is a two dimensional picture.
LM: Yes, but it is also the combined effect of your restraint, respect for the music and the musician, and the spatial and lighting conditions in which you are shooting. This is why I have written that the subject here is not just the musician but the musical process itself.
NC: One thing I learned from Bhupendra Karia and have practiced ever since is respect for my subjects. But I have also been fascinated by the respect jazz musicians have for the masters among them. When I went to hear Max Roach in San Francisco (one of the pictures I took is in this catalogue) I was in exalted company. I never thought I would rub shoulders with such greats drummers, Tony Williams on one side, Billy Cobham on the other. Many were younger drummers at the peak of their career earning more than Max Roach, but the master was playing and they were there to pay their respects. They would sit through all three sets until closing at 3am! It was most touching. It brought me to tears every night. We in India have our own ways of respecting our master musicians, falling at their feet etcetera but we hardly find such commitment from fellow masters as this. How many musicians do you see at a music concert here?
LM: Given your love of Hindustani music, how is it that you have not photographed Hindustani musicians?
NC: I don’t know…I have taken pictures here and there, of Bhimsen Joshi for example. But I find the Indian milieu very cluttered and disturbing.  When you go to a music concert, behind the musician you have a huge photo of the sponsor, garlands hanging, microphones stuck into the singer’s mouth. It is a real mess unlike in the past when musicians would be singing in a simpler setting. I think I am put off by that.
LM: Let me ask you a different kind of question. How have developments in technology shaped your art?
NC: Until a few years ago we had to take a photograph, process the film, go to a dark room, learn how to print in black and white. Color is easy. You throw in the roll and 36 pictures come out the other end of the machine. There is no machine that can automatically print black and white photographs even today.
But the world has moved on. In cinema we have moved from film to video; then in video from analogue to digital. In one sense it has become easier and easier to capture images that are not bad. I have switched from analogue to digital completely. I have not bought a roll of film in three years. A lot of people have a problem with change but I don’t. I was one of the first in India to absorb video as a cinematographer. I went to Japan to study at Sony and everybody looked down at it.
Digital photography is barely 20 years old and photography is 150 years old. So there is a vast difference in their development. The things you did laboriously by hand in the darkroom are now being easily done on the computer. This kind of development has really helped fashion and industrial photography. A month ago I saw a student exhibition of fashion photography in Ooty. The models were absolutely stunning. On asking I discovered that the models were ordinary college girls but that the students had access to a program of skins which they used to substitute the model’s own skin with Aishwarya Rai’s and  Jennifer Lopez’s! A few clicks and the job was done! Every bit of unwanted hair was removed, every wrinkle smoothed out.
Previously this work was done with a brush by touch-up artists. The touch-up artists were the most highly paid in the photography business! No photographer was as highly paid. And the touch-up artist at Playboy was the most highly paid among them. Just imagine a 35mm slide and the artist using a brush with one hair taking out goose pimples! Now there are programs that do this work. You see people who are 100% perfect. And it is ugly.
LM: It’s surreal though only in a metaphorical sense since as an art movement surrealism had a serious mission! Surrealists were not trying to construct an imaginary reality which is what the contemporary fashion project is all about. They were trying to take something that you recognise perfectly well and make it strange, make you see it in a different way.
NC: Exactly! But to get back to the issue of technological advances, the down side (and this is something that photographers are fighting about) is that the photograph you send to the publisher may be different from the one that appears in print. In colour photography day becomes night and night turns to day. They can do anything. The fight now is over the status of the original. What is your signature? The upside is that you can do whatever you like. The downside is that when people take pictures now they don’t care.
LM: Because they can fix it.
NC: Everything is fixing. That word itself downgrades your art. The cameras have become such that you point and shoot and 60% is alright.  There is no need for fine tuning. My teachers had said, “If the source is as close to perfect as you can make it, then your final print will be as close to perfect as you can get. Take out the element of fluke as much as possible. Read your exposure. Take your time to focus because nothing is going to run away from you if you really want it. And then slowly, you will learn to work fast.” But now with automatic focus and motor drives people are clicking away without even looking.
LM: Who are the photographers who inspired you?
NC: My inspiration was definitely other photographers of the world. And here the story of Life magazine is very important. Henry Luce the publisher of Life believed that the world should come to your feet. Remember there was no television at that time. He was the first person who pulled out all the stops for photographers. In exchange the photographer was asked to take pictures that no one else was taking. So all the great photographers, Italian, German, Spanish, American, once worked for Life magazine. That was the window for all of us.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, Roman Polanski and Andre Wajda were also growing up. They have talked about how in their teens they used to hang around the American embassy and wait for issues of Life to be thrown out. Then they would tear the pictures and put them under their pillow! I used to do the same thing without being aware that this was happening in all parts of the world. I have heard the same story from Vietnamese photographers. They also told me that they believed that the images being filed by American photographers were really important in stopping the war.
You must have heard the phrase “the China syndrome.” Henry Luce’s photographers went to China only knowing that someone called Mao Tse Tung was creating trouble. Within two weeks of the photographer arriving in China the images would start becoming pro-Mao. Luce was told his photographers had “the China syndrome” and should be brought back! Some were recalled but he found that the same thing kept repeating with other photographers whom he assigned to cover the story. Finally Henry Luce decided to go to China and see for himself. When he returned he put Mao on the cover of Life magazine!
The same thing happened with Vietnam. Photographers were sent to Vietnam to show the valour of the US soldiers. But they saw a pointless war: young men getting hurt and hurting everybody with their massive fire power. Photographers were accused of having the Vietnam syndrome but they kept filing the same kind of pictures. It changed the heart of Americans.
As far as individuals, I have been most inspired by W. Eugene Smith. I tried to get him to be my mentor for a Rockefeller grant which would have allowed me to spend a year in New York City taking pictures of jazz musicians. This was in the middle 1970’s. It would have been wonderful but he refused to take me on. He was not the sort who worked with anyone but I did not know that at the time.
Anyway, one reason I was admire by Eugene Smith is that he actually changed the lives of the people he photographed. One day I would like to do that. It is very difficult. Like every good photographer Eugene Smith worked on and off with Life magazine. They sent him to South Carolina to photograph a black midwife who worked there. When his pictures were published such large donations poured in that she was able to set up a clinic. In the last part of his life Eugene Smith went to Minamata, Japan and documented the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in a community downstream from a factory which was dumping mercury waste into the river. His photo essay did a lot to bring awareness to the whole issue of pollution. I went to his exhibition once in the US and the lines were simply not moving. People would stand in front of a photograph for ten or fifteen minutes really looking.
LM: What about Indian photographers?
NC: Raghu Rai is a photographer I admire. Bhupendra Karia, Kishore Parikh, Mitter Bedi, Jahangir Gazdar, Dayanita Singh are other names I would mention. Photographs are like paintings. Some people complain that the same pictures are being exhibited again and again. But a good photograph will always remain a good photograph. One may shoot thousands of pictures over one’s life and show only sixty out of which forty may be repeats. This is because those are one’s best pictures and people still want to see them.
But what I find irritating is that people no longer seem to want to see pictures that disturb. It seems as though it is better to have a photograph of an apple than of a poor woman in a village. This trend seems to have started in the US and is to be found here also. I don’t know if there is compassion fatigue or what. But the pictures that are popular are those that are easy to buy and hang on your walls. This is also part of the game. You need to sell your photograph in order to live and the gallery owner has to sell to pay for your exhibition.
LM: We live in a world obsessed with the moving image. Everything is constantly moving and everyone continuously stimulated. It is difficult to get people’s attention because they are most often scattered. Do you think that the cumulative fatigue of all this might open the space for still photography to once again assume an inspirational or transformational function in getting people to stop and look?
NC: I don’t know… But let me tell you a Coltrane story about the artist and his audience. Before going to the US to exhibit my jazz pictures in 1995 we had a two day show in Bangalore. You know how openings are: everybody comes, drinks, talks and goes. I had been reading about Coltrane. The interviewer had asked him, “How does the audience inspire you?” He said that when the set started there would often be only one or two people in the club but that as the night wore on, the place would get packed and the atmosphere fully charged. However, he and his band played with the same intensity whether there were two or two hundred people listening! And, he said, the few who were present at the beginning at times listened more closely and received more than the crowds that came later. People who really respect their art and pray to it will perform as well for one person as they would for five thousand people. So whether one person comes and spends a bit more time looking at your pictures or whether 500 come to your exhibition, it is only those who want to see who will see and those who want to perceive who will perceive. But you have to remain true to yourself and to your art.
* Lata Mani is an Indian feminist and historian who currently lives in California.