Artist: Ganesh H Shankar

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Artist: Ganesh H Shankar

Postby Madhav Jois » Mon Feb 11, 2019 4:29 pm

"Ganesh H Shankar hails from a small village, situated amidst the thick forests of western ghats. He has been doing photography for more than two decades. His images have been published in many reputed magazines. He is a contributor to IUCN. As he says, he has treaded many paths in nature photography. His unique approach to nature photography emphasizing creativity and art has made him the one the most recognized photographer from India. He has won many awards including WPOY 2016. He is one of the cofounder of CNP in 2008.

Ganesh's images have had great influence on our CNPian Adithya Biloor. He is very intrigued by Ganesh's approach to Nature photography. Keep reading further as he tries to uncover the artist's mind through a series of questions which manifested itself as a thought provoking discussion. You can read more about Adithya Biloor here.

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At the beginning, like many of us, Ganesh was captivated by beauty of nature and tried to represent it as beautifully as possible. As the saying goes 'creative mind never rests', he has moved from mere 'capturing the beauty' to embedding deep philosophical thoughts to his photographs. In the early and late 2000s his colour images with emphasis on colours and composition were considered as benchmarks in creative composition. His subtle sense of colours had transferred a mundane scene into something extraordinary. While being at the pinnacle of this genre he moved onto b/w photography. Some of the images he made in b/w in kaziranga, Assam and Corbett natural park were one the best b/w images from those places. These are just some of the examples of various journeys he has taken.

Below are the excerpts from his artist's statement which shed some light on his work.

"If we believe that the purpose of art is to transmit feelings or emotions (as thought by Leo Tolstoy) pursuing nature photography as a form of art is an interesting challenge. Wrinkled face of an old person can evoke far more feelings/emotions compared to wrinkled face of an animal. A tear drop on a child's face is unmistakable. It is easier to feel other child's pain as our own. Can we relate similarly to expressions shown by other life forms found in nature? We simply don't understand and can't reciprocate to most of the expressions seen in the nature. So, if my work of nature photography as art has to be rooted in 'transmitting emotions' then I must admit I have not figured out how to portray natural history as art which can effectively communicate feelings or emotions.

Further, just realistic representational portraits/landscapes seem to fall short of art in my mind."

"My "artist's statement" above was written a few years ago. I think a there is a minor but a subtle change which I need to make now. I still want to make images which are emotionally touching. However I want to de-emphasize "want to make images" in the last sentence. The act of making images or images themselves are insignificant compared to the mystery of the Nature, of which we are part of. All that I can do is just wonder about it, may be for rest of the life? "

In this interview we have tried to explore some of his journeys. The questions may look a bit closed and restricted at first, but we are sure after a couple of readings and close study of his work, this interview will show how an artist takes inspiration from many fields. Also there are already many interviews of him online and on magazines. We think the interview in CNP should contain more than what he said earlier and the best of his.


Q. We know your childhood has a tremendous impact on you and your photography. We have seen a series from you made with a mobile phone of your childhood village. Can you please share it? Why did you make this series? what is the role of your childhood in your photography and where do you place this series in your photographic journey?

I vividly remember those long walks in the Western Ghats jungles along with my grandmother to bring our cows and buffaloes back home, about 4 plus decades ago. Only we two in the jungle, no one else. The eerie silence, at times melody of gently flowing streams in the woods and chirping birds are still fresh. My grandmother lost her husband an year plus after her marriage and returned back to live with her brothers. For some reason I ended up living with my grandmother in their house, away from my parents. Financially ends barely met in the house. I was closest to her in the house and she was to me. I grew up with her stories of the jungles, tigers lifting our live stocks etc. At times the silence in jungles was scary. However, she was very brave. She had nothing to lose I guess, except me. Needless to say we were on foot in the jungles. My love and deep respect for nature came from childhood. Those three peaks in Western Ghats closer to home always remained mystery, then and now (for a different reason).

I use to go to a small school in the village. Society was far more divided then compared to what it is now. My interaction with ‘bacchees’ and ‘naagees’ of the society is very fresh in mind. Some of them may be in their nineties or they have left this world by now. It pains now when I think about how the society then has treated some of them. I silently take solace in:

“ಏನರ್ಥವಿದಕೆಲ್ಲ ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ” (“What does it all mean”? A line in Mankuthimmana Kagga by DVG)

A few years ago I visited my village. The Konkan Railway track which came later has divided my village into two pieces. The houses of neighbours, paddy fields are non-existent now. That mango tree which I use to visit every morning during fruiting season in summer must have got deeply buried under the rails.

I went to Bacchi’s house to see her. She must have been in her early nineties. I am a stranger to everyone in that house now except her. She did recognize me - “ಯಾವಾಗ್ ಬಂದೆ ಮಾಣಿ?” (when did you come, boy?) She asked with a broad smile on her face. I spent some time with her. We both made our days lighter. I made an image of her using my phone. I felt those sharp rectangles and lines on the wall contrasted nicely with curves of her time etched on her forehead!

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I then went to my school in the village. Nature seem to have claimed most of it. I silently stood alone amidst debris in my school room and remembered the bench on which I use to sit. The days of crossing the heavy streams during monsoon days with ‘ಓಲೆ ಕೊಡೆ’ (a low cost umbrella made using palm leaves) did flash through my mind.

I hope this gives a short account on my childhood. Yes, it has a definite influence on me and my images.

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A decade ago I use to enjoy making Kafkasque images, often in B&W. Probably they have their roots in my childhood days, without my knowledge.


Q. Can you please share with us the photographs and photographer that had deep impact on you during different stages of your journey.

My technical photographic foundations in photography came from reading John Shaw’s books on nature photography. His images appeared technically perfect and were pleasing to my eyes when I started nature photography in 1993. I also enjoyed some of the B&W images of Nick Brandt. However, deep inspiration for my photography came from my own life, connections I had/have in my society and from some literature influences, in particular poems by Da Ra Bendre, Gopalakrishna Adiga and Chandrashekara Kambara. I think some of those muted tones in my B&W images of nature I made a decade ago have their roots in poems like ‘ಯಾವ ಮೋಹನ ಮುರಳಿ’. Now inspiration for my images comes mainly from philosophical literatures.


Q. A decade back you were considered as one of the best macro photographer in the world. Your pictures from 2007- 2010 were magical. You had an unique approach to mundane subjects which transformed them completely. Then you moved onto b/w photography.
Why did you make the shift?


I was never one of the best macro photographer in the world. Like any other macro photographer I just knew to how keep the subject parallel to the film plane to manage the narrow depth-of-field of macro lenses! That said, I get bored doing some kind of photography for 2-3 years. I keep contradicting myself and keep exploring different things. Probably that is in my genes. It happens without any conscious effort. I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad. It does not matter I guess.

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A few years ago I started converting most of my images to B&W. I use to remember my past more vividly than present. I felt B&W served the purpose better.


Q. Your first b/w image was of a tiger ( Of course shared). That was not a very good image compared to your other photographs till that day. Did you feel the fear of failure that day? If yes, how did you overcome that? Can you please share that image and your photo series 'Stopping by woods" made in 2012?

Yes, it was not a good image. There was no fear of failure either. The experience of making that image was very unique though. The tiger behaved more gently that day compared to a few hundreds of us, the “nature lovers”, blocking its way in its own home.

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Series: Stopping by the woods

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Q. Can you share the photographs that were close to your heart at various stages of your journey? And some explanations too.

Here are some of the images I made during last couple of decades. A few initial ones like those butterflies with dew drops were technically perfect and they appeared beautiful. I enjoyed making some of them. Later I wanted to be a creative nature photographer! I used special equipment and techniques to make images. Shadow of the bats, moths in flight, butterfly on flower etc belongs to that category of images.

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Later I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to convey emotions in my images. Feeding elephant cub, last leaf, chained elephants, egret take off, elephant cub in the grassland etc are some of these attempts.

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Now, I want to pursue what I call, philosophical nature photography. Temple and roots, leaf showing fine structure, moss on sculpture, feathers on grass among other images belong to this category of images.

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Q.You are a deeply philosophical person in nature. Can you share how below aspects have influenced you?
a. You have equated the mathematical theory 'countable set' (?) to your perception of god. A little about this and it's influence on your photography?
b. You are an avid reader of Kannada poets like Da.Ra. Bendre, D.V. Gundappa. What is the role of literature in your photography?
c. You are a big fan of "Critique of pure reason" by Immanuel Kant. What is the role of philosophy in your photographic journey? And something about Kant also.


Oh, you still remember what I said about uncountable and countable sets?! I guess it was 2-3 years ago.

In mathematics there are two kinds of infinite sets – countably infinite sets and uncountably infinite sets. A set is said to be countably infinite if we can count each element in the set. That is, if we can assign numbers, 1,2,3,…. to elements in the set. For example, the set of all even numbers is a countably infinite set. I can assign 1,2,3.. like this: 1 -> 2, 2 -> 4, 3 -> 6, 4 -> 8 etc. In contrast all decimal numbers between 0 and 1 is an uncountable set. There is no way to count them like we did above!! ( Uncountable Set & Cantor's diagonal argument)

It is not difficult to prove that set of all computer programs that can ever be written is a countably infinite set. Computer, a human creation, approximately can handle only this countably infinite set. I was then thinking uncountably infinite set belongs to God! Further, while computer can handle only countably infinite set, our mind, the God’s creation probably is more powerful than computer. It is a long discussion. But then, who is God?

Five years ago my mother became sick and later got bed ridden. She started losing her physical functions one after another and finally passed away an year ago. Those years were emotionally very draining. I use to feel helpless, frustrated, guilty, humbled, sad.. Yet I had to attend to some of the essential duties for a living. Philosophic literatures loaded onto my phone/iPad were my companions on a long journey to office every day. They provided me with some new insights.

I just loved Will Durant's commentary on Spinoza’s “Ethics” and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. I enjoyed reading Einstein’s religious and philosophical views among other literatures. Some of these made lasting impressions. My religious views turned from theism to pantheism. Kant’s thoughts on unknowable attributes of a “thing in itself” was appealing. Kant showed limits to my own reasoning and made me more humble. He had a convincing reason to the fact that God can’t be proved by theoretical reasoning. I now know how to respect others’ religious views better while retaining mine!

A decade ago in CNP we used to have long debates about science and art. We clearly separated them. By science we kind of meant what is in typical science books - experiments, proofs, mathematics and equations. By art we meant conveying emotions, brush, colors, painting, beauty, etc. At times, I tend to think, we held science a bit lower than art in our passionate discussions.

What a novice view that was!!

Most compelling view on art, in my mind, comes from Einstein, not from Picasso. Picasso, shared just his personal opinion as “Cubism”. Beyond academic and historic interest it is not alive today. Opinions will have shelf life. Truth is for ever. Einstein spent his entire life searching for the absolute truth behind this universe, not his personal opinions. In his own words:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead - his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. -Albert Einstein."


If we look up at night sky we see all those beautiful twinkling stars, where our Gods live. Do they? Don’t they? What is the source of all these order and beauty? What is the truth behind them? Einstein, in his all humbleness thinks we are not given enough wisdom to understand it. He also thinks “God does not play dice”. Do God exist? Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God”. For Spinoza, Nature itself is God.

I personally don’t subscribe to “inner world” and “outer world” views expressed in some of the philosophic literatures. While I respect those religious views, having seen a bird nest from day one on a small tree in front of my house till it flew away with an young one, I am convinced that as a species I am not very far away from it as a Nature’s creation. I don’t believe we humans are very special creations of nature having super natural inner powers, except that our brain may be a bit more advanced than other creations in nature. That I guess was the source of the disagreement between Tagore and Einstein.

Einstein asked Tagore - "Do you believe in the divine isolated from the world?".

"The infinite personality of man comprehends the universe.
There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the universe is human truth." – said Tagore.

However, for Einstein,

"the truth is independent of human beings."

For Tagore,

"if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing."

Einstein, who strongly believed in truth beyond human existence declared:

"Then I am more religious than you are!"

Who is right? I think Kant is! (though I tend to side with Einstein).

In a related note, I loved this quote:

“Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately, it is the philosopher, not the protozoan, who gives us this assurance – Bertrand Russel”

Human emotions have its roots mainly in survival of human species. Obviously, I did not solve this problem for myself. I am living with this problem, which I made for myself, thanks to Nature! However, it is no more a deep mystery to me.

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"A good natural history image!"



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"A sad natural history image" (because it resembles us, the humans)



Image
Famine in Sudan - Copyrights - Kevin Carter (image hot linked to its Wiki page)
"A shocking image!!" (alas, it is us!)


If we switch the subjects in Kevin Carter's above image, "Famine in Sudan", assuming, in the image the vulture is dying and the boy is looking at it, would it have won the Pulitzer prize? At best, it would have become yet another good "conservation photograph" for the use by vulture conservation organisations (and forgotten the next day). However, as photographed, it is a shocking image and it deserved the Pulitzer prize! Recently I read a phrase called "ethical killing". We have decided to cull down a species in some country to keep the numbers under control to "preserve the nature and balance". Of course we are talking about "human ethics" not the ethics of the species being culled. I think it calls for taking Bertrand Russel's quote above more seriously, not just as a good joke.

That almost brings me to my current interest, philosophical nature photography.

What would I portray?

Whatever I don’t have answers for. They will be my responses to wonders and mysteries of nature. More importantly, these images will not feed my ego, unlike my images which made in the past.


Q. Recently you are concentrating on making images of high resolution by stitching and stacking. Why you feel the need of big files and prints? You have always made and enjoyed prints. What is the difference between then and now? How important are prints in your current photography?

Nature is a huge canvas. On a computer screen 1300 pixel images which I made 2 decades ago and now may look similar. There is an important difference in them which may not be apparent when seen on a monitor. Back then the intent was to show “see, how beautiful it is”. Now the intent is “see, what a magic it is! How did it all happen?” It has moved from enjoying the aesthetics to enjoying the mystery behind the nature. All that I can do now is to wonder about this magnificent and mysterious creations by Nature.

One may download this small image (still 13 MB) and open it in Photoshop to view it in its original size to relate what I am saying. At 1300 pixels it does not make sense to post it on the web.

“God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things - Pablo Picasso

I think Picasso missed the point! Human creativity has its needs and roots in survival and ego. Beyond that, time is better spent on understanding Nature’s creativity and mystery.

It is hard to believe billions and billions of mutations over 4 billion years explains everything that we see today. Similar to universe which we don’t understand I think we don’t understand the mystery of creation of different life forms. I don’t believe in a personal God creating all of us, however I do believe that we don’t understand it enough. While “Intelligent design/Irreducible complexity” tied to existence of God is unscientific, “Intelligent Design/Irreducible complexity” just as another name for mystery of creation beyond the theory of evolution is very appealing to me. Framing it differently, I think theory of evolution beyond a point is distasteful. Did God play dice? Probably not!! In spirit, of course, I don’t think such biological systems are are designed by “God”. However, I think we don’t know enough about them and still are a mystery. I wish it is that way!!

Now, I need to see images huge, very huge, in life sizes and beyond, to appreciate nuances of Nature’s creations. This needs extremely high resolution files. Stacking/stitching is one way to get them. I still can’t afford a full frame medium format camera.


Q. Why photography? Why not painting , singing or dancing?

Survival instincts made me what I am today, thanks to Nature. May be in next incarnation, if one exists!


Q. Can you share role of CNP in your personal photographic journey?

Photography is not just about photographing. It is only a small part of it. It is also about seeing images made by others, understanding their views, discussions on the images and related topics. My best time spent on photography comes from CNP. My own photographic visions have grown in the soil of CNP.


Q. Tell us about CNP. Any experience, any photograph, photographer, discussion , moment from CNP that you want to share here?

At the end of the day we need human connections. CNP has been my home away from home where we could bounce ideas and discuss. Being a niche small forum of photographers with similar interests made this group much closer, like a small family. The CNP meets have been very rewarding. I still remember the first one with a few of us on the top of Kodachadri. Two years of working together on the memorable 3 volume coffee table books have been phenomenal. Those countless meetings, image selections, jokes, nervous waits for RD to return from printing press are very fresh in my mind. The book launch was a memorable event. I still can’t believe it all happened. CNP has been my second home.


Q.You have taken many paths and journeys in photography in general, nature photography in particular. Any suggestion/ advice to the young mind that wants to try it's hand in creative nature photography?

Professionally I don’t qualify to give an advice. One thing I realized over the years is, as a hobby I need to do it for myself, not for my ego. This clarity is essential to sustain and make it more meaningful.


Q. One question that I haven't asked here that you want to answer ?

Let me share only the question. :)

“When will you stop photographing? Will you?!”


Additional questions by CNPian Ravi Prakash!!!
Q. Throughout your journey as a photographer, what has remained constant except Change?

Enthusiasm to go to wild to photograph, at 4am in the morning, every day if I could afford it to.


Q. What goes through your mind when you have your finger on shutter button?

Going through all the elements in that tiny rectangle to decide whether it is worth pressing the trigger.


Q. You have won Wpoy 2016 by capturing a natural history moment artistically. However you have not posted that particular picture on CNP. Can you tell us the reason?

We have prepended C to NP! While the winning image is nice & rare natural history moment I felt it fell short of C in CNP!



Thank you Ganesh for going down the memory lane and sharing your thoughts & feelings behind the images. We wish you all the success in your pursuit of understanding Nature.

This interview was conducted by CNPian Adithya Biloor.

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Abbreviations
WPOY: Wildlife Photographer Of the Year
IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature
Best Regards,
Madhav
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Re: Artist: Ganesh H Shankar

Postby Vikas T R » Fri Feb 15, 2019 7:35 pm

Thanks a lot Ganesh and Adithya for this wonderful interview. This interview helps all the people who may or may not know Ganesh closely to understand the philosophy behind his images.
"The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity."
-Vikas
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