I miss the magic of photography

 

Cameras are everywhere. A concert, a dinner, a picnic or even a gym workout is not complete without cameras to freeze those not-so-precious moments. These modern gadgets don’t care about vantage points or lighting. Quality is not a priority as mobile phones, tablets, SLRs and handy cams jostle for space at every occasion. The overwhelming desire to capture images is understandable. These pictures can be viewed later or shown to relatives and friends. And of course, it has to go on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Technology has been a great leveller. And digital revolution took the mystic out of photography. It’s aim and shoot. Click and view. That makes everyone a photographer. Photography has never been easier, never been more popular.

But I miss the film. I miss the suspense: the time between image capture and printing. I miss the elation, when the prints came out the way I imagined. There was magic, there was mystic. Photography was an exhilarating experience. And photographers were only hired to capture weddings and other such precious moments.

Those were the times when photography was the domain of highly skilled professionals. Enthusiastic amateurs with their SLRs and home labs in bathrooms passionately pursued their hobby.

Photography was a blend of art and science. You needed an artist’s eye to find the right composition. A bit of physics helped calculate the exposure and depth of field with the combination of aperture and shutter speed. Then there’s the small matter of film speed.

It didn’t end with the capture of images. The film had to be processed and the negative images transferred onto photographic paper. That’s where chemistry came in. The exposed paper travelled through trays with developer, hypo and water bath. This was for monochrome.

Colour pictures followed a more complex process. Mercifully, machines made it easier. It became affordable too. Along came aim-and-shoot cameras thrusting photography into the hands of common man. And the digital dawn killed films and made instant viewing a reality. Photography underwent a seismic change.

Life became easier for amateurs and professionals. But there were some downsides as well. I catch myself shooting randomly. Gone are the days when each frame was carefully considered long before the shutter was released. Film was expensive, each of the 36 frames counted. With high capacity memory cards, shoot now and tweak later became the mantra.

Imaging software can rectify most mistakes. If the composition is askew, use the crop tool. If the picture lacks punch, bump up the contrast. Underexposed? Don’t worry, enhance the shadows. These are just basics.

Digital may have spawned a new breed of photographers. But the haunting images and pictures that leap at you come from the soul of a thorough-bred professional. Remember Eugene Smith’s pictures of mercury poisoning in Minamata (Japan), Nick Ut’s iconic image of napalm bombing in Vietnam and Steve McCurry’s portrait of a green-eyed Afghan girl in a Pakistan refugee camp.

Phone cameras and even DSLRs are good for hobbyists. They shoot fine selfies and help flood the social network. That’s it.

Well, look at this way. It’s your daughter’s wedding. Would you trust your nephew or hire a professional? My recommendation: If your nephew is not a professional, get one!

How I saw a movie without seeing

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The chase in Duel.  Photo courtesy: Universal Television

Remember Jaws? The movie still sends a shiver down my spine. The opening beach sequence is still vivid in my memory. I stepped into Steven Spielberg’s world of movies through this chilling thriller. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark only increased my interest in Spielberg’s craft.
Fear, the fear that gnaws at our bones, was the engine of Spielberg’s early movies. I found it fascinating. So when some friends huddled together one afternoon to discuss movies, my contribution was on Spielberg: how he thrives in portraying the fear of mere mortals, ordinary people struggling to stitch together a life.
“So you haven’t seen Duel,” one of my friends said.
“No, I haven’t heard about it either,” I replied.
“The fear factor you said is brilliantly portrayed in it,” he said, adding that it is a Tom-and-Jerry game without the comical interludes played out on a highway.
Sreekumar was a compulsive story-teller. He doesn’t need an invitation to launch into one of his narratives on books or movies. Duel obviously delighted him. And he was quick to figure out that there was an audience.
For the next hour, Sreekumar turned Spielberg, narrating how a road rage turned into a breathless battle for life. Sreekumar’s narrative skills are admirable. Mimicking the truck’s ear-splitting horn and harping on the details of the sequences at Chuck’s Café, he fleshed out the scenes with his words and actions.
Rapt in attention, we followed every word that tripped off Sreekumar’s lips. His hands would come up when describing the speeding truck looming behind the Plymouth and his body swerved when the vehicles came around the curves at great speed. He brought to life a cat-and-mouse chase gone wrong.
And the finale. It was so beautifully described that when he stopped, there was silence.
“Beautiful,” one of us said.
It sure was. So good that I badly wanted to see it. But I never could, for years. The images from Sreekumar’s narration remained etched in my memory. Almost as if I had seen the movie.

*  *  *

More than 30 years later I watched Duel. I was dumbstruck at the clarity of Sreekumar’s description. I knew what was coming, how the scenes will turn out. But there was more to young Spielberg’s precocious skills. The frames, the juxtaposition of the truck and the car, the subjective shots, the use of spaces in the frames, and the pace were breathtaking.
It was not just a movie about terror on the highway. It is a commentary about lives of ordinary people.
I realised that in his attempt to focus on the businessman car driver’s inability to spot the trucker, Sreekumar left out some crucial elements — parts that threw light on driver’s frailties.
The truck was, in fact, a trailer. Visually and metaphorically it made a huge difference. The car driver’s telephone conversation with his wife was never narrated, and that held hints on some of his traits. More crucially the fight at the café, it was not emphasised enough to show the car driver’s physical weakness. And his botched school bus rescue was completely missed. They mattered in the end.


This was first published on gulfnews.com

 

Three shades of love

Midnight
Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke take a walk through the island of Peloponnese, Greece in Before Midnight. Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics

In 2013 Before Midnight arrived. Nine years before that there was Before Sunset. Go back another nine years, and you get Before Sunrise. They form an unlikely trilogy, a saga of love over 18 years.

I was in the prime of my youth when I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. I fell in love with it. I loved the plot, characters and the acting. The story spanning less than 12 hours was riveting: a romance between two strangers in their early 20s who meet on a train. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) impulsively asks Celine (Julie Delphy) to get off the train, and they talk and walk through the streets of Vienna at night, discovering each other and falling in love before parting. She had a Paris-bound train to catch, and he had to fly home to the United States.

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Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy make imaginary phone calls in a Vienna cafe in Before Sunrise. Image credit: Columbia Pictures

It could easily have been boring. Imagine two people talking about mundane subjects of boyfriends, girlfriends, music and death for almost the entire length of the movie. Here’s where you admire Linklater’s script, dialogues and filmmaking. The long sequences capture the flowing conversation, and you almost feel as if you are eavesdropping. The movie stayed with me. And the train journey struck a personal chord.

Years later, I came across the sequel. I also learned that the story of Before Sunrise was based on a similar personal experience. The sequel, Before Sunset, was born out of the Linklater’s attempt to translate his experience into a story. He drafted in actors Hawke and Delphy to co-write the script for the sequel.

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Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy catch up on their lives during a ferry ride in Paris in Before Sunset. Image credit: Warner Independent Pictures

So when Before Sunset came, I was very curious. Did the American and the French student meet after six months, as they promised? Paris? What happened at Vienna? Jesse and Celine had moved on in life, matured into responsible adults. After the unexpected reunion, they walk through the streets of Paris and ride a ferry, catching up on their lives. And he has a plane to catch, before sunset.

The approach and treatment are strikingly similar to the first film yet there was something very different. Hawke and Delphy subtly lift their characters to a new level. The two may have gone separate ways, but the connection is apparent even after a nine-year gap: you find it in their smiles, laughter, looks and the whole body language. I found myself willing them to rekindle their love.

Linklater kept alive the mystery and chemistry of romance in the first two films, and he could have easily turned the third into another fable of love. Instead, he chose to make Before Midnight into a brutal dissection of a midlife crisis, collaborating again with Hawke and Delphy on the script.

Set in Peloponnese, Greece, Jesse and Celine are in the forties, their love and life worn out by the ravages of time. The dancing eyes, impish smiles and endearing dialogues gave way to furtive glances, sneering looks and barbed verbal attacks. Insecurities and annoyance bred by a life together spring to the surface as they spew vitriol revisiting one bitter memory after another. It was so superb and so vicious that several times I wondered whether it was the same couple who ignited their romance with unsaid words and kept alive their love with a yearning to be with each other.

At one point, Celine asks if Jesse would invite her to get off the train if they had met at this minute. Jesse’s response reflects the reality of the struggles that love must overcome to survive.

Before Midnight is a brilliantly crafted movie. To me, it is the best of the trilogy. Each of the three films is unique, but together they represent the best love story.

In real life, Linklater’s romance fizzled out. His muse died in an accident in 1994, a few weeks before he started filming Before Sunset. He learned of Amy Lehrhaupt’s death only in 2010, long before the work on Before Midnight began.

Such is life!

 


This article was first published in gulfnews.com in 2014

High fear on Capilano

Capilano-3w

The glass bridge in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China, I’m sure you have seen it. The video clip went viral on social media some time ago. They have a glass walkway too, the Sky Walk that curves around a cliff draped in mist. The two transparent paths offer stunning but vertiginous views. Look at the drop, it is terrifying. So terrifying that some visitors could be seen crawling on all fours, bawling like children. I know the feeling. I know it.

Heights scare the daylights out of me. My head spins, my palms become clammy. Oddly enough, I enjoy cable car rides. Flights too have never been a problem, although I worry every time I fly. But that has nothing to do with heights.

I have acrophobia, a fear of heights. As a child I was fearless, climbing cashew trees and slithering down tall mango trees with ease. I could scale smaller coconut and areca nut palms without a qualm. I don’t remember exactly when heights started to freak me out. It must have been after my school days; because that is when my tree-climbing came to a halt. When I found out that I was acrophobic, I tried to fight it. The results were disastrous. Not that it stopped me from trying. Well mostly. I’ve always avoided rollercoasters.

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Last year, while on a holiday in Vancouver, I had an opportunity to put my fears to test with an obligatory trip to see the Capilano Suspension Bridge. The Sea to Sky Gondola ride went well the previous day, but the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park held untold terrors for me. Not to begin with. Because the Cliff Walk gave me a lot of confidence: I had walked around the ledge, nonchalantly looked over the railing at the canyon and even took pictures. The suspension foot bridge, however, turned out to be a beast.

Built in 1889 with thick ropes tied to Douglas fir trees, it has been a favourite of adrenaline junkies, movie stars, rock stars and royalty. About 450 feet long, it rises 230 feet high above the Capilano River.

The bridge was packed when we got there. Children of all ages ran back and forth on the narrow path. The elderly too crossed it with slow but steady strides. That was enough motivation for me. I mustered enough courage to step on the bridge.

Fifty metres out I looked down at the canyon and the gurgling water below. That was a mistake. It reduced me to a quivering wreck. I stopped for a while, gathered my wits and bravely resumed my slow trek. And then the bridge started swaying. My heart leapt to my throat, sweat ran down my ankles.

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The swirling wind made the swaying worse. But I determinedly waved away my daughter who ran back to help and scowled at my wife who offered her arm. I wanted to conquer my fears. And I did not want any help to do it. I was certain the bridge would not collapse. There was no way I would fall off it. Yet I cowered in fear. That’s acrophobia and me.

With one hand firmly fastened on the steel cable on my right, and clutching my camera in my left hand, I stared at the finish and inched forward. I made it to the other side. That’s when my wife casually reminded me, “Now we’ve got to go back.”

Well then. It wasn’t going to be easy. But I would not let it stop me, not that I had a choice. Another challenge lay ahead. Extreme Forest Adventure: rope walkways that linked wooden platforms high up in the trees. If the suspension bridge couldn’t stop me, I was not going to miss this.

The return trip was uneventful; I seemed to have managed, if not overcome, my fears. But the soles of my feet still tingle when I look back at those moments on the bridge. Spine-chilling, yet thrilling, it was a walk to remember.

I’m still toying with the idea of riding a rollercoaster. Bungee-jumping, I certainly won’t do it. But skydiving, that is on my bucket list.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on July 1, 2017,
under the title Withering Heights. 
http://bit.ly/2vvQUAg

Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna

Chasing glaciers in Alaska

South-Sawyer
The South Sawyer: out of bounds

Misty mountains, dense pine forests, floating icebergs, slithering seals, pods of whales, grizzly bears. That was what the Alaska cruise promised. We boarded the MS Volendam in Vancouver. A mid-sized ship that navigates the Inside Passage, it would take us to Tracy Arm Fjord, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.

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The North Sawyer: up close

THE SAWYERS

Alaska’s capital Juneau was our first stop. We hopped on a catamaran for a thrilling ride through Stephens Passage on our way to Tracy Arm Fjord. At the end of this inlet was the twin Sawyer Glaciers. First we sighted ice floes. Then icebergs. Pine forests filled the valleys. Silvery rivulets raced down great heights. There were thin waterfalls and cascades too. As St Peter cautiously motored into the fjord, hilltops became bare rocky outcrops; shrubs grew in patches. A snowy peak rose in the distance. A glacier stood at its base. The South Sawyer Glacier. We stood enchanted by the river of ice. Our enchantment abated when we found our path completely blocked by ice.

Our captain promised another glacier whisking us north. North Sawyer was not as majestic as South Sawyer. But it lent itself to closer examination. Jagged blue edges gleamed, ice and sand mixed to offer a rusty hue. We watched in silence, a silence only broken by falling camera shutters. The ice didn’t break. No calving. You have to be incredibly lucky to see that.

Skagway
Magical ride: Skagway to White Pass

THE TRAIN TO WHITE PASS

An elegant train waited when we docked in Skagway. Shiny black carriages drawn by a bright green and yellow diesel engine. Each of the beautifully restored coaches bore the name of a lake. Our train to White Pass Summit. What a ride. Green conifers lined the route along a fjord carved deep by a glacier long ago. The 172km railway line (built in 1898 over 26 months) is an engineering marvel with climbs of nearly 1,000 metres over 32km. Engineers, foremen and workers had blasted rocks and burrowed hills to build the narrow gauge rail line.

The Skagway community sprung from a gold rush. Stampeders, they called the prospectors. The mad dash for gold in the late 19th century sparked what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. At the peak of the search for yellow metal, Skagway boasted of a community of 10,000. Now there are around 3,000 people, mostly living off tourism and fishing.

The ride to White Pass was a journey into the past. Of desperate men and women braving Arctic cold, unforgiving terrain and ruthless criminals in search of fortune. As the train climbed higher we moved to the viewing platform; chilling winds lashing. A river canyon plunged down one side. A road wound its way on the other side of the river: a toll road that once brought riches to the builder who even charged dogs. Bridges and tunnels too. Soon a cantilever bridge (the highest when constructed in 1901) came into view. Of course, it’s no longer in use. The train took us to the summit, more than 2,750 metres high before heading back, its engines switching sides, seats flipped so we faced the other way.

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The Margerie: the queen of Glacier Bay

THE MIGHTY MARGERIE

Mist wreathed the mountains when our ship eased into Tarr Inlet. We were in Glacier Bay, a US national park 105km west of Juneau. Cruise ship services to the 25-million-acre world heritage area, one of the world’s largest protected areas, is tightly regulated; the prime season runs from June 1 to August 31. We had timed the holiday right. Picked the right ship and itinerary. The home of eight tidewater glaciers: this was to be the highlight of the trip.

It was early morning, dank and dark. A steady drizzle fell. Glacial winds tore into us as we reached the deck. We refused to budge. Wilderness, the Alaskan wilderness, unfolded before us. A stream of ice floes swept by. Snowy mountains inched past, mist swirling around. They had an ethereal quality, a lack of clarity. Squawking seagulls swooped for fish. A couple of glaciers broke the pattern. In the distance was the Margerie Glacier. Margerie was magnificent. A mammoth blue ice sculpture, rising majestically from the sea. As the mist began to clear, Volendam drew abreast. The fractured crystalline edges of the glacier stood out like splayed fingers. Only 76 metres of the 110-metre-high glacier is above the water level. Named after French geologist Emmanuel de Margerie, the 1.6km wide glacier flows 34km from Mount Root to the Tarr Inlet. We were gazing at a product of Little Ice Age. Time stood still: 4,000 years remained frozen

Ketchikan
Creek Street in Ketchikan

SALMON CITY

Welcome to Ketchikan, the first city of Alaska, said an arch on the street as we pulled into the port. Behind it a quaint town. The town that boasts itself as the salmon capital of the world sits in a valley of pines set against ubiquitous mountains. Flowers bloomed on the sidewalks of narrow streets beside bright coloured buildings; a long totem pole stood at the end of a road; rows of boats swayed on moorings, the air redolent with salmon.

We joined throngs of tourists hunting for souvenirs on Creek Street.  Among the stores was Dolly’s House welcoming visitors from across a rickety wooden bridge with a board that proclaims “Where men and salmon come upstream to spawn.” More souvenir shops crowd even more streets with pubs serving Alaskan beer and salmon jostling for attention.

A pretty town, that’s Ketchikan: our last port of call. A promise, little else. Disappointing it was. Particularly after the bewitching beauty of Alaska: magnificent glaciers, ancient fjords, lush green valleys, magical train rides.

THE FINAL FRONTIER

Alaska is the final frontier. Where the shadowy mass of whales casually slides into icy seascapes; white-headed American eagles feed chicks on ice floes; glistening seals sun on rocks; deep ravines frame thick pine forests. Only the bears were a no show. I was fine with that. For Alaska put on quite a show.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on June 12, 2017. http://bit.ly/2vwZgYE
Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna

 

Federer: the magician returns

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Illustration: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News

 

What makes Roger Federer’s Wimbledon win special? It helped raise his haul to a record eight Wimbledon titles and 19 Grand Slams! At 35, he became the oldest winner at the All England Club; now that’s incredible.

It is a mystery too. Grass courts are slick. Tennis ball skids, it comes fast and keeps low. And the bounce uneven. It’s brutal on older legs and slower reflexes. That is why Federer’s triumph is all the more remarkable. And it came without the loss of a set, a feat last recorded by Bjorn Borg in 1976.

Wimbledon is the cathedral of tennis. It has also been Waterloo for many. Ask Ivan Lendl, Thomas Muster or Mats Wilander. But Federer thrives here. The Swiss served notice of his prodigious talent here, humbling the lord of the turf, seven-time winner Pete Sampras, in 2001. It was here that Federer won his first Grand Slam singles title in 2003. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since he grew up in Basel, Switzerland, idolising Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Sampras – all Wimbledon legends.

Federer, however, didn’t turn out to be a serve-and-volleyer. He went on to become a complete player. A player who could stay back and out-duel the best of baseliners. A player who could charge the net to put away volleys. A player with technique straight out of the coaching manual. When he plays his one-handed backhand, the racquet stays almost perpendicular to the ground at the start of the backswing, pure copybook style. He could hit it flat, slice it and pack plenty of top-spin.

FIZZING FOREHAND

Federer’s forehand was a powerful weapon. It fizzed and dipped. His serving was not thunderous, but fast enough. More importantly, his serves hit the corners of the box. Aces flowed. He could always serve his way out of trouble. His second serve was potent too. The kick-serves even caught Sampras off-guard.

He brought a deft touch and subtlety not seen since the days of John McEnroe. He was fleet-footed and athletic; his court-craft astounding. More Grand Slams and ATP titles followed. Comparisons with tennis legend Rod Laver only served to highlight his sublime skills. Federer was at the peak of his powers; it was pure joy to watch.

FEDERER MOMENTS

Federer’s racquet played like a Stradivarius, as the Guardian writer Sean Ingle put it, and the American writer David Foster Wallace compared watching him play to a religious experience. There were moments of sheer genius. Wallace called it Federer Moments.

“The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. Here is one. It’s the finals of the 2005 US Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to centre, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centreline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot into the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him.” This is Wallace’s description of a Federer Moment.

ERRING BACKHAND

One-handed backhand has become an anachronism, but it is Federer’s trademark shot. It was not as steady as his forehand. It soon became his Achilles heel. First Rafael Nadal and later Novak Djokovic pummelled his backhand relentlessly to elicit mistakes.

Nadal’s methods were so effective that he soon became Federer’s nemesis. The Spaniard merely had to turn up to defeat Federer. The Swiss master lost the psychological battle. He wallowed in self-doubt, losing matches from winning positions. To Djokovic, to Juan Martin Del Potro in the US Open finals. The magic vanished, the master turned into a mere mortal. But Federer kept bouncing back, even winning the occasional Grand Slam. But the cloak of invincibility was gone.

After 2012, Federer hit a slump. A Grand Slam drought ensued. And worse, he was beaten by virtual unknowns. The end seemed near. A knee injury forced him out of the circuit for five months. It was time to pen his tennis obituary. But what followed was Federer’s miraculous rebirth.

The 2017 Australian Open title, which included a victory over arch-rival Nadal in the final, was the turning point. The Swiss maestro won 32 of his 34 matches this year. He skipped the French Open to preserve his aging body. Wimbledon brought him the 93rd singles title of his career.

LEANER, MEANER

So, what has changed? He’s leaner. Meaner. Gone is the hesitation. Here’s a man enjoying the game in the twilight of his career. No pressure. Every win is a bonus. He has adapted too. From a racquet with a head of 90 inches, he now plays with a bigger head (Wilson Pro Staff RF97 Autograph). He’s become more aggressive, keeps the rallies short.

Federer’s game is still intact. He is still ripping his backhand; still finding the edges with his serve; still covering the court effortlessly. He is still a purist’s delight. And, he is still winning Grand Slams. That surely makes Federer the greatest tennis player of all time.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on July 21, 2017. http://bit.ly/2vZdJQi
Illustration: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News