Monday, 23 March 2015

Chitpur Local Photowalk

With a name that sounds like a local train, Chitpur Local is an event, or rather a collection of events aimed at reviving Calcutta’s Chitpur area, which was once known for its association with “Jatra”, the popular Bengali folk theatre form. Two photowalks were part of Chitpur Local and I decided to join in. Chitpur gets its name from the temple of Chitteshwari, and Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) is one of the oldest roads of Calcutta. Old roads = old architecture, I thought, and hence decided to join in. But the theme, I was told wasn’t flat architecture, this was more in the nature of street photography, and the best photographs would be used to create picture postcards of Chitpur. I decided to do what the pros do, shoot with a “prime” lens. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, no zooming. I chose the only prime in my arsenal, the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, and turned up at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, on the corner of Chitpur Road and Lal Bazar Street.

Rabindra Sarani in the morning presents a stark and extremely high contrast scene. The fa├žade of the Mercantile Buildings, which is at an angle to the street, is hit by extremely bright sunlight, and thanks to its pale yellow colour, appears almost blindingly bright. The sun however, was to my left, and tall buildings cast shadows all over the other parts of the street, making it very dark. Try and take a picture of this, and you have a problem. Expose the building properly, and everything else is blackened. Expose everything else properly, and the building gets totally bleached. One solution to this dilemma is to use HDR, but just then, I noticed something else. There were gaps between the buildings on my left, and there were slivers of sunlight on the road, perhaps some twenty or so feet apart. Anyone who passed through these spots would catch the light. So, I came up with a plan. I framed my picture, and waited patiently for someone to walk down the road, and at the precise moment that they stepped into that light, I opened my shutter. Since I am no expert in predicting human movement, I of course used the high speed burst mode, or what is pejoratively referred to as “spray and pray”. As luck would have it, the first person to walk into my “light-trap”, so to speak, was a cop. And here are the results…

Ok, I’m not saying this is going to win me the Pulitzer or something. But what I am saying is that this is new for me. This thinking, and planning, and scheming, I had never done this before. Of course, photographing buildings takes planning; deciding when the light will be best, which side to shoot it from, things like that. But buildings are easier to shoot than people; they never move. I doubt I would have done so much thinking if I was using a zoom lens too. I’d just zoom in, cut everything other than the building out of my frame, and have a completely boring “full frontal”. As I continued shooting with the 40, I found things to be getting easier. Yes, on my camera, it was effectively a 64mm lens, and that meant that it was a bit too tight at times, but I adjusted pretty fast. All the zooming in and zooming out happened using my feet. More work for sure, but a lot more fun as well. This was a whole different kind of photography; a new experience. I noticed there was a lot happening on this street in the morning, and there was a chance to create images that would have a lot of contrast of a different kind. There were goods being hauled using archaic forms of transport right alongside the latest cars. There were people who were starting their day, brushing their teeth, while large groups of goats were being led, no doubt to a nearby abattoir. There was the glorious chaos of a market selling fruits, vegetables and meat while cooked food was also being sold. And there was this policeman, sitting calmly under a tree and perusing the morning paper, oblivious to the traffic rushing by right beside him.

Perhaps this is what street photography is all about? If it is, then I must say, it takes a lot (and I mean a whole lot) of hard work, thinking on your feet (and often on your knees), and patience. You can’t expect to turn up at some place and immediately get great shots. You need to turn up ahead of time, you need to sit down and observe, sense the rhythm of a place, and only then, will you have some inkling about what you should be doing. Although that was not the original intention of Chitpur Local, the event opened up a whole new world for me. Wish me luck as I take my first steps into this world, and if you’re into street photography, share some tips and stories with me, will you?

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • Check out the Chitpur Local FB page here.
  • Thanks to Iftekhar Ahsan for leading the photowalks. If you want to take a walk with Iftekhar, check out Calcutta Walks.
  • Thanks to Rangan Datta for his company and for some awesome sweets at Makhanlaal’s outlet in Natun Bazar. Check out his blog here.

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