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Swarup Chatterjee: From Painter to Photographer

Why does a successful painter and graphic artist suddenly decide to toss his paints and brushes and take up photography? Well in the case of Swarup Chatterjee of Mumbai, it was two things – the challenge of expressing his imagination through a light capturing contraption, and pure laziness!

I exaggerate the latter, but he does cite the years of drudgery lugging heavy canvases around and shipping them off and picking them up again if they didn’t sell and paying for the privilege, as definite inspiration. The zero weight of binary code was very attractive to him 8 years ago when he made the switch, not knowing all that much about photographic equipment and that the combined weight of his gear would add up over time. In more ways than one!

Below is a broad selection of 24 Chatterjee images, showing Swarups multi-faceted style and main themes to date. At our request, the photographer has commented on each image as part of the extended captioning we thought would be of interest to Photography Life readers.

Holi India
God is #1 – Taken on Rangili Galli where the famous Latmaar holy happens. Before Latmaar dry colors are tossed about in anticipatory celebration and the environment is electric. The difficulty in capturing an effective frame is finding a subject and/or color contrast in all the chaos!
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/4.0

In the beginning and even now, Swarup did a lot of experimenting with his image making, which is one of the great luxuries of the digital age. He would take his camera to the streets of Mumbai or Kolkata where he was born, and shoot not what he saw through his lens, as much as what he saw in his painter’s imagination. On canvas he could shape his imagination with a full palette of colors, various brush strokes and smudges, and slowly watch it take form. Working with the camera on the other hand, meant working at light speed with much less precision and a lot more “canvases” to get things just right. Working the whirling energy of the Indian street with a variety of slow shutter techniques requires a lot of patience. It might take 50 or 60 frames to capture something that works, but when it works it works!

2.-Barsana-Latmar-Holi_Chatterjee
Holi Latmaar! – Latmaar is the mock beating of men by women who get to take out their frustrations once a year. In the center you see a woman with a heavy, hardened bamboo “lathi” banging down on the woven shield of the man. This situation seemed ideal to use the zoom-blast technique, whereby I employed a slightly show shutter, focused center frame, and zoomed quickly in and out. The faster the rotation process, the more intense the radial blur created. At the time photographer David Lazar was next to me on a balcony we had reserved, as well as some photo tour participants to whom I was introducing the technique. It was really a lot of fun, the kind of scene one does not soon forget!
Canon EOS 6D + EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 30mm, ISO 160, 1/10, f/2.8

“For me – the whirl of the Indian street – is a kind of motion picture flashing frame by frame until it smashes into my imagination and triggers the shutter. And if I am lucky, that whirl is captured in a way that both intrigues the eye and carries a story.”

3.-Nandgaon_-Swarup-Chatterjee_Holi-India-Dancers
Dancing for Holi – The joyous movements of these ladies at Holi Festival in Nandgaon presented a perfect opportunity to use both zoom-blast and slow shutter “smudging”. The techniques help show the energy, movement and the feeling on the street. The lady smiling in the center is what makes the image work for me, and not appear as too abstract.
Canon EOS 6D + EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 17mm, ISO 400, 1/8, f/22.0

Swarup didn’t want to do impressionistic photography per se. He wanted to combine elements of impressionism as compliments to his street, documentary and travel work. Art with a purpose beyond eye candy. His loves these kinds of images but only employs goes after them instinctively in a given moment, rather than routinely. He also loves teaching his various techniques to other photographers, whether in his regular workshops in Mumbai or co-leading his annual Luminous India + Holi Festival photo tour with David Lazar.

4.-Barsana-Swarup-Chatterjee_Holi-India-Eunuchs
Dancing Eunuchs at Holi Festival in Barsana. These eunuchs, also known as Radhas, are a very well respected part of Holi in Barsana & Nandgaon, and indeed are treated as holy persons. Like gurus, it is considered auspicious to touch their feet and accept their blessing. The speed of the shutter needs to be slightly less than the rotational speed of the dancer. The same method can be applied to anything in motion.
Canon EOS 6D + EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 35mm, ISO 100, 1/5, f/20.0

To further examine his inner approach, we asked Swarup to compare camera and canvas more directly:

“When I was painting the friction of brush against canvas (or charcoal on paper) was where mind met reality and sparked creativity. Once the brush or charcoal did its initial work, I’d get in there with my fingers or thumb and smudge to add depth and/or a sense of movement.  

5.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Holi-India-Barsana
Powder-Dome – While Holi gets celebrated inside the Nandgaon temple, there are often blankets of red, vermillion and yellow created by the reveling worshippers. The powder acts like thick clouds before a thunderstorm and sudden darkness descends. It lasts for several seconds before the colors fall and the light returns. Holi is a celebration of the onset of Spring and its colors. The colored powders are sourced from locally grown trees, no synthetics are allowed.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 95mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/8.0

To recreate “smudging” with the camera, I experimented with slow shutter speeds; slow shutter speeds with zooming; and slow shutter speeds with various camera movements. By these techniques you could say the light falling on objects acts as the paint, while the movements act as brush, or thumb doing the smudging. Just another way of looking at it.”

6.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Holi-India-Drum-Tired
Drummer Exhausted – After many hours of revelry and merrymaking over several days, climaxed by “Samaj”, drummers are exhausted. I was quick to capture this brief moment, made more effective by the drummer being draped by orange powder in a sea of red. Samaj is the apex of Holi in the Braj region.  At the end when everyone is drenched in powder, they all join in singing songs of Samaj, which creates an intensively positive energy felt by all who are present.
7.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Holi-India_Camel-Fair
Dust Up at the Pushkar Camel Fair – This “man” tending his camels is actually a young boy. Captured in the late afternoon.
8.-Lone-Rhino-Chatterjee_India
Lone Rino – The Kaziranga National Park in the Indian state of Assam is home to the largest population of one-horn rhinos in the world.  Their horns are often cut to keep poachers away. This photograph was shot during an early winter morning safari from atop an elephant.  The lone person or animal is a theme that I personally find carries a certain emotional resonance. Fog adds an extra visual and emotive element to an otherwise very simple photograph.
9.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Jama-Masjid_Old-Delhi-India
Alone at Jama Masjid – The great ancient mosque in Old Delhi sees few visitors during cold winter mornings. Seeing this woman walking alone in the fog looked great to me, but I wanted another element. So I startled the nearby group of pigeons, and I had my frame!
Canon EOS 6D + EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 16mm, ISO 1250, 1/100, f/22.0
10.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Sadhu-Gulls-Varanasi
Gulls on the Ganga – Sadhus in Varanasi can often be seen feeding the birds after their sunrise meditation. I invited this one onto my boat heading up the Ganges, and he just did his thing.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/400, f/10.0
11.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Trance-Varanasi
Trance-Fixed – Courtesy of a timely beam of sunlight piercing the shadows, I spotted this intoxicated man in one of the innumerable ancient dark corners of the holy city of Varanasi. He was so well intoxicated he took no notice of me as I moved closer and closer and took several photographs. He was completely natural and within himself. I don’t think he ever did notice me!
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 60mm, ISO 100, 1/160, f/4.5
12.-Sacramental-Trance.-Varanasi-India_Swarup-Chatterjee
Sacramental Trance – Taken in a doorway in Varanasi, where the old Shaiva sadhu was partaking in the sacrament. The burning I did in post gives him a disembodied feel, as I’m sure the charas he was smoking did for him as well!
13.-Swarup-Chatterjee_The-face-street-portait
The Expression – Candid street portrait taken in Pushkar. I had noticed him for some time, and his expression was always in some form of angst. Emotion written on a person’s face, even if I don’t know what it is, is always something I look for.
14.-Swarup-Chatterjee_Barsana-Holi-Sadhu-Smoking
Holy Ganja – Devout followers of Lord Shiva are often devotees of smoking ganja. The light & smoke combination, along with his telling head and neckwear of holy Rudraksha seed and mini-skulls, made for a nice documentary opportunity.  This photograph was taken at Barsana during Holi 2016
15.-Horse-of-Mumbai_Chatterjee_slow-shutter
The Black Horse of Mumbai – This image comes the closest to my days using charcoal on paper. People think of charcoal as black, but it offers is an amazing array of greys for the smudging thumb. This image recreates that look with a slow shutter and moving camera. The white sky in the background provided the “paper”. The idea was to briskly move the camera to create the illusion of a horse in motion. It took several dozen tries to get an image I was happy with. Very little needed to be done in post processing. Just the basics.
16.-Juhu-beach-Mumbai-Swarup-Chatterjee
Juhu Junk – The beach in Mumbai is not exactly Bora Bora beautiful. But you make the best of what you have. In this case it was an old piece of discarded Styrofoam that made for a very unique frame. With the sun setting I waited for the man to enter the frame and took one shot from sand level. Some people like this image, some don’t. I do, and I often show it in my Mumbai workshops as an example to make something unique out of seemingly nothing.
17.-Sanctum-Santorum-ñ-Raudat-Tahera-India_Swarup-Chatterjee
Sanctum Santorum – Taken at Raudat Tahera shrine in Mumbai. I saw this shot forming as I approached and moved quickly to get the man walking by in motion blur with the sitting man reading.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM @ 64mm, ISO 100, 1/6, f/8.0
18.-doc.-Chatterjee-Street-Widows-Varanasi-India
Weight of the Wait – This elderly woman was sitting outside Mukti Bhavan in Varanasi when I passed by. Mukti Bhavan is a 12 room hospice of a sort, where people who feel on the verge of death can stay to await it. If they don’t die within two weeks, they must give up their room to someone else. This image is part of an ongoing documentary project about the Street Widows of India.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm, ISO 500, 1/160, f/4.0
19.-Swarup-Chatterjee-street-abstract-series
The Shroud of Kullu – Shooting slow shutter in crowded markets is always a fun challenge for me. The technique used was quite similar to the Black Horse of Mumbai – slow shutter with camera movement. This was taken in an adjacent lane, and the one worthy image I made that day!
20.-The-Wrestler_Swarup-Chatterjee_Varanasi-India
The Wrestler – Kushti wrestling goes back thousands of years in Varanasi. While public interest has dwindled, the wrestling akharas are brimming with students. The humorous way this wrestler picked up his training club (cemented weight on the top of a wooden rod) was irresistible.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 82mm, ISO 640, 1/400, f/4.0
21.-Jodhpur_India_Ramayana-Porcession-Swarup-Chatterjee
Ramayana Man – This shot was taken during Ram Navami while I was on photo tour.  I was inside a restaurant with the group when I heard a noisy procession approaching and hurried outside. These Ramayana actors were approaching fast in the crowded street and I barely had time to reach my camera around some onlookers at arm’s length. I shot blind and hoped to get lucky.  Seeing the camera he stuck out his tongue just as I hit the shutter. Lucky indeed.
Canon EOS 6D + EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM @ 33mm, ISO 8000, 1/200, f/2.8
22.-Religion-Gone-Wild-2019-Khumh-Mela_Swarup-Chatterjee
March of the Nagas – This was taken in the most crowded place of all, the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, where tens of millions of Hindus gathered to worship and celebrate. The naked warrior ascetics known as Naga Babas, are the main draw for photographers. Getting position to shoot them as they charge to splash into the holy waters of three converging rivers, was a battle that began hours before sunrise. The only way to get a clear angle was to shoot blind above my head. With some cameras you can use a fold down screen to help, but with enough practice you can get pretty good at shooting sans viewfinder. Whatever it takes in the moment.
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM @ 24mm, ISO 160, 1/500, f/3.2
23.-Equanimity_Buddhist-Monk-meditation_Angkor-wat-Cambodia_Swarup-Chatterjee
A Monk’s Bliss – Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I happened upon this priest in a quiet corner of the great ancient wat. I was reticent to disturb him with the sound of my mirror, but after a few minutes I could not resist. I took one shot and he didn’t seem to hear a thing. I took one more and backed off. About five minutes later he came out of his meditation and smiled gently at myself and my guide.  During the ensuing conversation we learned his name was Kagsing. He explained he had dreamed ‘from his heart’ as a small child to one day enter a monastery and follow the Buddha’s teachings as a way of life.  I asked if he had heard me take his picture. “Yes and no”, he replied. “You want selfie?”
Canon EOS 6D + EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 105mm, ISO 2000, 1/160, f/4.0
24.-Baby-Buddha-Smile_Cambodia_Swarup-Chatterjee
Baby Buddha – Shot in a small village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. While swinging gently in a hammock – as is common in Asia to keep babes quiet and napping – I was lucky to see that special kind of sweet bliss seen on a particular “Smiling Buddha” figure. She never fails to make me smile.
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