Twenty months after the pandemic forced him to suspend his mid-career retrospective, photographer Rohit Chawla pulls out all the stops with an exhibition that merges art, design and portraiture
“I can’t let myself be carried away by the banality of documenting everyday life. The digital paradigm is increasingly about the staged image that a professional photographer creates from scratch, much like an artist of old,” he said on a call from Delhi. “Instead of taking the photo that I see, I make the image that I want.”
His outspokenness translates into highly conceptual frames: from eloquent portraits of famous personalities to fine art and fashion photography. There’s an evocative one where a lone tree overshadows actor Nafisa Ali – to portray loss – in his 1994 tribute series to avant-garde designer Rohit Khosla, or that of a rectangular box that frames the leaders of opinion in its out of the box series.
Now, 70 of those design-focused photographs from his 40-year journey are featured in a new exhibition. Title The eye of design, it stands in the 8,000 square foot experience store of furniture brand Spin in New Delhi. The space, says Chawla, complements her design aesthetic and helps reach new audiences beyond the usual gallery crowds.
Chawla’s date with photography dates back to his teenage years when he bought a Canon AE-1 camera from photographer Raghu Rai’s brother. His first photograph, taken at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi in 1981, is also part of the exhibition. “I have always liked the symmetry of forms. A certain graphic minimalism and a play with space define my style; that hasn’t changed so far,” says Chawla, who spent two decades in advertising, including a long stint at J Walter Thompson, before turning to editorial photography.
This show also marks the launch of Design Edit, a platform organized by him in collaboration with Spin. “Social media has democratized design, and India is going through a kind of design revolution. The idea is to emphasize all areas of design through events, exhibitions and conferences,” says Chawla , who plans to travel with him to Goa and Pondicherry next. The Silent Portrait, his mid-career retrospective suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here, he selects six photographs that cross art, design and portraiture.
The actor’s portrait was part of a series made by Chawla for Tehelka in 2013. “Photoshop was not used at all. Instead, we created a cabinet with fiberglass corbels attached to the ceiling with ropes. The set had a tunnel feel and to bring out the contrast I pulled the strings of the birds to create a sense of movement and drama. Maybe I was inspired by Hitchcock The birdshe laughs. “The most important aspect of being a photographer is that there are no happy coincidences. Every aspect is planned and I learned this discipline through advertising.
“He’s one of my favorite artists and design is a strong element in everything he does,” says Chawla, who photographed Dodiya as part of his ongoing series on Indian masters in their sacred space. – the studio. “I went into his studio with a clear idea to create a diptych, but in a way that felt like a single, seamless image.” A feat he achieved using props available in the studio.
Having photographed 300 of the world’s greatest authors, Chawla considers Tan “the most impeccably dressed.” The portrait, an ode to his style, was made in 2018 at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “She kisses the Japanese designer [Issey] Miyake in full glory, and his signature pleated fabric added that graphic texture and geometry that I look for in my images.
In 2016, Chawla traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos with a single goal: to recreate with the Chinese artist the haunting image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found stranded on a Beach. “My editor Aroon Purie wasn’t sure I agreed, but I was very convincing. The sun was low and I only had a minute to take the picture. The photograph quickly went viral. “It brought the world’s attention to a slowdown [reportage of the] refugee crisis in the mainstream media. So that served the purpose. Political art only makes sense if it is not limited to the incestuous vanities of most art biennials.
Chawla, who wanders between Delhi and Goa, met the American actor-producer in the sunshine state. “We went for a ride in the Mini Cooper and it was the thing of my dreams. His laugh, his mole, the way he closes his hands… These are such important elements of his personality that I wanted to highlight them”, explains the photographer, who imagined this grid of creation in four images to do justice to his portrait. “It is the only portrait which is hung on the wall of my house.”
Chawla conceptualized this image in 2013, as the reluctant author’s (and his own) angry response to the Supreme Court judgment at the time upholding Section 377, a law criminalizing homosexuality. “I arrived at his house at 7 a.m. and he had just woken up. Her hair was disheveled. He was going to fix it to make it presentable, but I managed to convince him to shoot as is. So we took a few images with the directional light from the window further emphasizing the imperfections. After sharing the image with him, he called to say he was not comfortable with it and his mother thought he looked a bit like a thug. He came to my house in the evening and we did a new shoot. When he saw the new manicured images, he realized that the first image worked better. At a time when the country wasn’t quite out of the closet, it was incredibly brave of him to agree to do this shoot for the cover of India today.”
The eye of design is on ffrom November 20 to December 5 at twirl Experience Shop, Chattarpur, New Delhi. Design The edit dialogues will take place at 2 p.m. on November 28 at Spin.