Here is the captivating tale of how a young Australian advertising and fashion photographer on assignment for an insightful client created a transcendent and heartfelt documentary on the ancient tradition of rug making in rural India.
Q: Can you provide us some background information on your India rug images and where they were taken?
A: These images were shot at various dyeing plants, mills and weavers in North India regions of Kolkata, Varanasi and Delhi. These locations were in rural areas outside of the cities.
Q: What was the purpose of shooting them?
A: My client, Armadillo & Co. Rugs, wanted to capture the A-to-Z of their rug manufacture to promote to their consumers the natural/organic way these rugs are made by hand in rural India. This also shows their latest range of rug designs and styles so it helps them to remain up to date with their promotional imagery — to see current styles going through production. Armadillo have since produced a catalogue of the images.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: Rug portraits! … OK seriously I think it is a mix of genres, namely:
– environmental portraits of the people making the rugs and material
– documentary of rug production/manufacture
– advertising showcasing the final product
Q: What did you hope to achieve with these images and do you think you accomplished your goal?
A: The client asked me to capture “gold” imagery that would showcase their organic manufacturing in an artistic way. In other words they wanted me to provide images that are honest, informative, beautiful and eye-catching to help consumers understand the intensity of craftsmanship involved in each and every handmade rug.
The client was very happy with the results and I was too considering it’s a different style of subject for me compared to my typical fashion and advertising work.
Q: What camera equipment did you use to shoot them?
A: A Leica S2 with 70 mm lens
Q: What made this equipment particularly suitable for covering this assignment?
A: The 70 mm f/2.5 Summarit lens is very versatile so I was able to work with it for the whole assignment spanning 7 shooting days. The short depth of field I used was enabled by this very sharp, fast lens that renders accurate colors and tones coupled with the power of a medium format sensor allowed me to capture some real magic. When the images are blown up large they are simply beautiful in terms of detail and texture in both in-focus and out-of-focus areas.
All the images were shot with available natural sunlight with some bounce reflector usually positioned behind the subject. A lot of the locations were small, dark and dusty, so to be able to handhold a medium format camera at slow shutter speeds and get the clarity and sharpness out of the lens was really great. I didn’t want to use artificial light … that would have ruined my style of shooting organic.
Q: You indicated that you shot these images exclusively with the Leica S2 and the 70 mm f/2.5 Summarit lens, which you describe as “very versatile.” What do you think accounts for this versatility, and what ISO settings did you typically use to capture these available-light images? Also, can you tell us something about when and how you used bounce reflectors “coming from behind the subject” to even out the illumination?
A: Yes the 70 mm is the go-to lens for almost anything I shoot commercially, particularly in tight spaces like this rug assignment. However, sometimes with my fashion work I find the 70 mm a bit wide for shooting vertical compositions, so I shoot my subject horizontally and then crop it into a vertical. The S2’s high-resolution medium format sensor allows me to do this without losing any detail. It’s like having 2 focal lengths out of 1 lens. I do have a 120 mm lens but sometimes that is too long! My next lens purchase will be the 100 mm lens – that is going to be ideal for me…and it’s primed to become my new “most versatile” lens!
Regarding lighting, this assignment took me to many locations surrounding 3 cities – Kolkata, Varanasi and Delhi. The only way to tackle each different location and keep the flow of imagery consistent was to find a sunlight source and then try to throw that light back into the image area via bounce reflectors, mainly white but sometimes silver depending on the contrast levels I needed to make the image pop. Sometimes we had to take clay tiles off the roof to get the light in – I was determined not to use artificial light in these images because I wanted an organic feel. My ISO levels were always set at 160 to keep noise to a minimum. My aperture also was fixed for most of the assignment wide open at f/2.5. I find the S2 is very well balanced with the 70 mm on it…I can handhold at ¼ sec exposures with sharp results.
Q: After having covered this traditional art and craft, what is your impression of the process, and do you think you were successful in capturing its essential character? Did you discover anything that was unexpected, uplifting, or maybe even depressing in bearing witness to this ancient tradition, or have any emotional connection to the people you photographed?
A: I was amazed at the entire rug making process, each step is simple but complicated, and one’s patience levels need to be high to do good work – I think my imagery does convey this. Shooting the images with minimal depth of field helped me give each image a section of intensity and rich detail, similar to what it would look like if we were the eyes of the artisan. So much time and effort goes into each rug, with a chain of people involved. It’s something we all take for granted of course. As ancient hand made traditions go, it’s great to still see this process being accepted amongst consumers. After seeing the rugs being made, it’s easy to understand the unique quality of a handmade rug over a machine production. All of the above does relate to photography as well, and I do see similar parallel aesthetics. Although there is a method in photography that can be clinical and produce reasonable results, ultimately the human hand and eye is required to give the final image substance that makes it real and appreciated because of it.
Q: On the whole these images are sensitively executed, well composed, and provide a good picture of the handwork, patience, and talent required in creating these rugs. However the only image that practically moved me to tears is this one showing a pair of beautiful old hands lovingly poised over what looks like numerous strands of magenta colored wool. To me this image embodies tradition and dedication. Do you agree, and can you tell us where you shot this picture, what it actually shows, and please provide the tech data?
A: This happened during my favorite shoot day – the outdoor natural dying plant in a rural area outside of Varanasi. This image best describes my client’s brief of gold imagery. In fact they have chosen this image as the front and back cover of their brochure. There is so much job dedication and life experience in these old hands. The man attached to these hands has the job of stirring the fabrics in a hot cauldron of natural colored dye. It’s hot and taxing and his shoulders are constantly pulling and twisting the fabrics around via a large wooden stick. He was a short man and quite slight. On the day I was shooting he was working with magenta dye. His palms were different colors; his right hand was black from bearing the brunt of his wooden stirring stick, the left hand was magenta. The right hand in India is typically known as the “hand that feeds the mouth” and this is usually kept clean at all costs; the left hand is used for other functions, some too dirty to mention!
Q: This image is another masterfully composed picture showing a woman in a brightly colored traditional loose dress meticulously working over a small circular spiral rug in a buff hempen material, surrounded by loose ropes of the same material and her tools. It’s an environmental portrait all right, but it is much more than that. What does this picture mean to you, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Visually there is a bit of chaos surrounding this lady with raw materials engulfing her. It suggests that she has a long way to go before the allocated twine is completely woven. When this rug is finished, it is large — sometimes eight feet in diameter. The needle she was using was very powerful and the twine she was pushing through was very tough, so a fair amount of finger strength is definitely required. The needle is dipped into a little tray with oil to help the piercing process. I watched this lady for a while (I wanted the circle she was weaving to be bigger before I shot) imagining how much time, strength and occasional finger pricks she must endure for each rug. What was I thinking when I was shooting? I was concentrating very heavily on her hand rhythm so that I could catch the motion in a delicate manner, because the speed she was going at, despite us asking her to go slower, was way too fast for the human eye to keep up with.
Q: This image is fascinating because it’s dominated by the loom and balls of thread in the foreground and the worker in the upper left-hand corner is almost incidental except that he is actually forming the pattern of the rug. Why did you compose the picture in this way and what aspect of the rug-making process do you think it conveys?
A: The job of the artisan in this image is like doing an extremely hard jigsaw puzzle. It’s a highly detailed rug and intensely important that each thread goes into the right channel of the loom to produce the design. Each ball of colored thread is attached to the rug in different areas of the pattern, the weaver works from right to left weaving each colored tread into the required channels and then combs and compresses the fabrics with a metal hand tool into the previous horizontal line; this reveals the pattern line by line. He does have a blueprint pattern to follow, which is on a large laminated graph paper and also has thread color swatches. However most of the time I found these blueprints lying around out of eyesight, like they were maps to a place he had travelled too many times already. I wanted this image to showcase the raw beauty of the materials going into the rug along with the intense work that is required to produce such a design by hand. The symmetry of the whole image is comfortable to look at, but then offset slightly by the artisan. This helps to highlight the actual method of the process, by breaking the symmetry in this way.
Q: This one shows a beautiful woman wearing an amazing red-dot patterned dress and headscarf diligently making thread on a traditional spinning wheel. It brought to mind images of Gandhi, who used the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-sufficiency. Since the actual wheel is somewhat blurred, as is the vertical wheel on the far right, you must have used a relatively slow shutter speed to capture this image. Can you tell us what your mental concept was in creating this image and please provide the technical data including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO?
A: The spinning wheel is a big part of the process in making the yarns – so it always had to be a hero image, which represents India too as you mentioned. This image had to be simple and organic to maintain the traditional feel. There was a number of qualified women in the village we could have chosen to do this but there was something about this lady’s sari that caught my eye. Red is such a great color to grab attention. There was a neat little window in the centre of the roof above the loom, and I had my assistant hold a translucent reflector under this window at a 45-degree angle, which helped spread the light and soften and channel it towards the woman. Otherwise the space was very dark for photography. Shot at 1/15 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 160.
Q: The off-center composition of this image is very effective in capturing the visceral feeling of this part of the rug-making process and the fact that the rug maker’s foot is hanging obliquely off to the right with the tip of his toes outside the frame imparts a certain dynamic tension. Do you agree, and what’s actually going on here?
A: Yes the V shape of his body and crop of the foot and head going out of frame helps divide the rug into finished and unfinished areas. I chose to shoot more of the finished rug section because it would be an easier for people who buy these rugs to see the finished product. Although there is only a small portion of the unfinished rug showing, I felt that was enough texture to dominate and suggest what is going on.
If memory serves I asked this dude to swap pants with somebody else. I was in a mood that day for fashion alliance with the rugs, and there was another image that day where a female hand was sewing a label onto a pink rug. I got one of the production team to drive 40 minutes to the nearest town to buy three different pink nail polish colors for that shot. I’m sure this sounds a bit obnoxious, but for me visual color harmony is very important when it comes to showcasing the relationship between artisan and rug; the artisans working while sitting on the rugs was also another way of showing this harmony. I have always considered myself a good color photographer and I promote myself this way.
Q: What are your feelings about creating what is, in effect, a documentary work of art at the behest of an advertiser? In short, do you believe that you had to compromise any aspect of your creative process to produce something that would satisfy the client or would you have created something similar if this were a personal self-assignment?
A: It was a different type of project for me, very refreshing to be honest.
Usually my shoots have many pre-production meetings, picking the bones of this prop, which color, those models etc. That’s a fine, if slightly paranoid, reflection of advertising in this day and age of endless imagery floating around. It needs to connect and represent the brand 100%…I get that.
However on this assignment my art and craft ability was to enhance another art and craft skill. My client was so cool about my shooting the images from my perspective and to make a collection of gold images that would give them the flexibility to use them in a variety of media — as long as the handmade process was showcased and the relationship between artisan and rug was organic.
This did feel like a personal self-assigned shoot, and I think that it’s a very smart (and rare) client that can tap into someone with creative skills and aesthetics and trust them to deliver. The same goes with buying camera or lighting gear. If I buy into a good company who make quality products then I know I will get the best possible result to enhance my skills.
Thank you for your time, Darren!
– Leica Internet Team
Darren is a Leica Akademie instructor. You can see more of his work here.