Shibu Arakkal’s Latest Work Encompasses The Photo-Artist’s Philosophical Journey Through Four Decades Of His Life
Just keeps walking,
Spreading his magic,
These are the chorus lines from Black Sabbath’s debut album Black Sabbath and it talks about a mystical all-powerful wizard, but why would I choose to open a piece like this? Well, these lines and Bangalore-based photo-artist Shibu Arakkal have a lot in common. Arakkal, like others, never talks (his work does) and he spreads magic every few years or so. His newest body of work titled Four (on view till 24th September) is his philosophical journey through the last four decades of his life. Started in and around 2013, this is his first solo show in five years.
The works from this series are fragmented ensembles of semi-hyperrealistic mirrored montages, impressionistic black and white photographs and minimalist pictures taken with his iPhone (something he calls iPhonography, a term he coined back in 2014), and sees the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the Arabian Sea, as well as the wild landscape of the US and India.
It’s a chilly Saturday morning, I am in a relatively good mood because the tea had brewed perfectly, and my cabbie arrived right on time (without me having to give him the directions over the phone). Usually, I am anxious when I meet people for interviews, but this one, not! I was actually looking forward to it for a while—this meeting has been dragging on for over five months now. Arakkal is a busy man, planning the show has taken a toll on him, because he is a nit-picker, and a good one at that, but this trait of his is what makes him an ace artist in my book. As I make myself comfortable in a cab with a mucky back seat, I wish I reach his apartment on time. He dislikes waiting. Another 50 minutes, and I was sitting in his apartment in Whitefield, enjoying the view from his house, petting his dog Zoie, and sipping on some well-made filter coffee.
Arakkal is in his early forties but looks much younger, a grey stubble shadows his chiselled jawline. His hair, other than a few strands of white, is well-kept, and with a red polo shirt and a pair of distressed denim shorts, he is dressed for comfort. His show is in its last week, so he is relatively peaceful and is elated that it was received well, and things went as planned (well, most of it), he says in his slight baritone voice as the nit-picker in him emerges. He assures me that he has learnt to control that trait, but I highly doubt it.
Chapter 1: The backstory
Normally, when Arakkal starts a series or a body of work, he has a theme, or a concept that is already crystallised, a thought (process) that takes like a year-and-a-half, to two years, as it grows, it’s then consolidated into a workable concept. For instance, In his Skin Series (that he showcased in 2009), the essential question of the whole anthology was, ‘Why is a curve seductive and a line not seductive?’ “And that’s a heavy question, because when you dive deep into answering that question—a curve symbolises a woman, and a line symbolises a man. So, they have different traits,” he clarifies. Similarly, with Finding Nowhere (2012), the question was, ‘what would Bangalore look (like to him) if he could go back to a blank canvas and reimagined it’, which is why, the central theme of that anthology was to find Nowhere, and reimagine the city.
Four was rather impromptu, like any good piece of art it wrote itself. “I didn’t have a concept, I didn’t even know I was starting a series in the first place,” enthuses Arakkal sipping his coffee. “Do you remember the one with the fisherman, and the picture of the plan back ocean and the sky? He asks me. “Yes they were my favourites,” I answer back. “The ocean and the sky was the first one I did from this series and was shot in Kannur. Again, I did not know I was shooting a series at that time,” he points out.
To add some perspective, he was working on a commissioned assignment for the International Gallerie (2013). They had commissioned six to seven artists to strive on a body of work in Kerala that was personal to them. So this is what took him to Kannur to discover his father’s ancestral roots (the Arakkal family were the rulers the Kingdom of Cannanore and the owners of Fort St Angelo for over 600 years). In the untitled series, Arakkal took photographs of various mosques in Kannur. This is when he unconsciously ended up taking pictures for his present series as well.
The first picture of the series (Four) sees the plan black ocean and the sky (of the Arabian Sea), which he shot around 7 o’ clock in the evening, it was way past sunset, which is why the image looks really dark and there is hardly any light. Further, the shot was exposed for over 10 minutes.
When he composed the shot the horizon was at one-third. Immediately after he pushed the shutter button, a thought crossed his mind, “Why does the horizon have to be at the third, why can’t it be half, why can’t I split the image exactly into halves.” As he went along, he realised that when there are two halves, they have to be equal halves—not just in proportion, but also the substance that goes into each half, like the kind of colours, contrast and the detail they hold. “One half can be detailed rich, and the other half can be plain, (and yet hold its own) so then they become complementary—they are equal, and still, they come together to form a whole.” And he knew that that was going to be his biggest challenge, but he shot it, keeping the harmony in mind.
The fisherman, on the other hand, was the simplest to take, also he happened to be at the right place at the right time. This guy was fishing alone in a sea which looked quite calm but the sky was ominous, it looked like it was ready for a thunderstorm, but this fellow was peacefully fishing. Arakkal recognised the moment, and he took just one single shot. The capture that you see is the exact composition—without cropping, no adjusting, no Photoshop, nothing. “I know I am making it sound simple, but it’s not actually that simple to get a shot that you want. There will be something that will bother you, either the horizon will be tilted, or something or the other will happen. Then the exposure has to be correct, the contrast, the fisherman has to be exactly where you want him, without the horizon getting cropped. But with all that, you have to get it to what Henri Cartier-Bresson calls ‘The Decisive Moment’, where you fix everything and you say, now, and you fire the shot. It looks simple but it’s not,” highlights Arakkal.
He also created a lot of the iPhonographs throughout this period, like the one he shot in Varthur Lake, and many images of the sky which he mirrored later.
“Except two of the works, I have split all the pictures into two halves. Also, I don’t think they are fighting against each other, there is a lot of harmony, in fact, there is a lot of peace. Which in itself is a success to me, because only when you try it, you will realise that it’s not easy, it’s hard to achieve that,” adds Arakkal.
So, unintentionally, without even having a concept, Arakkal (over a two-and-half-year period), kept shooting a lot of horizons. And then, this horizon turned into a philosophically spur, ‘what is a horizon all about?’ In fact, in some of his artist notes, he calls it, the ‘vanishing point of hope’. “I started thinking what this horizon meant in my life, but I had no clue.” From there, the concept just kept evolving. Also, this was the first time he started work without a working title. He did not have a title till a few months before the show.
Chapter 2: Arriving at Four
“So, how did you come to Four?” I ask. “I kept questioning myself what this horizon meant in my life, and how those two halves fit in my life and then I realised that everything in life is broken up into two. Like you say darkness and light, Yin and Yang, earth and sky. Similarly, for me, I saw that dualistic nature of my life,” he answers promptly. Further, “Like, this is the first time you are seeing me in this avatar, no? I nod. This is my domestic avatar (gestures by tugging his t-shirt); you have also seen me in my professional avatar, right? Those two are disparate sort of opposites. Yesterday, I remember an artist saying, but isn’t that usually the case? Probably, probably not, I don’t know, for other people I cannot comment, but in my case, they are so disparate. When I go out, I have a certain demeanour about myself, but when I am home, I am different, I am more chilled out, I don’t talk as much, because I am running after my two daughters, (his 8-year-old daughter Zarah and his 10-year-old English Cocker Spaniel Zoie) cleaning up after them, worrying about more mundane things, about groceries, whose eaten, who has not, who has taken a bath, does my dog need to be cleaned, and things like that, you know? A different half of the dualistic life that I have.”
But, the series hit home only when he turned forty (last year). He says that he is not so big on birthdays, but this one was different. He knew that he had to do something meaningful, something that warrants his 40 years of existence, and throwing a party was not a part of the plan. Instead, he went to California. For a long time he wanted to ride a motorcycle on the spectacular roads of the California coast, and since motorcycling is a huge passion of his, it was an apt choice. He went on the trip and shot a lot of the series there as well, but then disaster struck, it was the same year he lost his father (Yusuf Arakkal). And that’s when it really consolidated the idea in his head, about what that horizon meant. “I hadn’t realised it till now, that that horizon was my dad because he was the only one who was constant for four decades of my life, everything else changed and when I say changed, I mean dramatically, so whatever the template, mine was clearly the road less travelled,” he recalls.
Chapter 3: Honour thy father
The series took a rapid turn after his dad’s passing. Shibu fondly calls him his North Star because his father was the person who moulded him into the person his is today. When he reminiscences his pre-teenage years, Arakkal remembers a painfully shy, timid, super hypersensitive boy—so sensitive that if you clapped loudly, he would burst into tears. By the intensity of the exchange, I knew he was not making this up. ‘My dad moulded me into this person who was ready for the big bad world because I wouldn’t have survived it otherwise’, he says. The no-holds-barred attitude (that is in everything he does now) came from his father. ‘Don’t hold back, you are what you are, but you are also more than what you think you are. You are not just limited to the imagination of what you are.’ His father used to remind him now and then. “He was harsh with me, (which I thought he was), but now I think it was for the better.”
He then tells me that the first car his father owned was a Fiat Millecento, he remembers because ‘It had a beautifully rounded booty,’ he explains gesturing with his hand and he learnt how to drive on that. He was 13 when his dad got that car as a barter for some couple of paintings from one of his collectors, (who today is one of Shibu’s collectors).
When he got the vehicle, it was Shibu’s responsibility to wash that car. Every time he cleaned the car, he would tell his dad that he had done what his father had asked for, his dad would then peek out of the window and ask him to clean it again, and go back in. He would do it again, call him out, and Shibu would get the same response. So, he was cleaning the car like four to five times every day. But he did not have the balls to ask him ‘why was his pop making him do this?’ “I was scared of him. I wished I wasn’t, but I was,” says Arakkal laughing.
One fine day he mustered enough courage to ask him, why was he making him clean the car more than once? His father just calmly said, “If you had cleaned the car properly the first time, I would not have asked you to do it the second time.” From that day, his goal was to clean the car like Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters. In his head, he was the best ‘fucking’ car cleaner on this planet. That teaches you two things, he says, “when you do something you do it better than anyone else around, or you aim for that. And the second thing you learn is you take pride in whatever the fuck you do. And this has always been the way ever since, all thanks to my father,” Arakkal tells me. So, through his twenties and thirties, Shibu became this ballsy person, so much so that there were times when his dad told him to calm down. But he never stopped him from doing things because he saw that fire, that desperation in Shibu. No wonder, the series is dedicated to his father.
Chapter 4: Going to California
Then his journey took him to California. The whole hyperrealistic works (coloured photographs) were captured in places like the Del Monte Forest, Moss Landing and the Pacific Ocean.
Once he landed in San Francisco, he went to San Jose and stayed there a while. From San Jose he headed to Scottsville to go to Monterey, that’s when he started shooting. (The riding came much later) That whole trip from Scottsville to Monterey, he stopped in places like Moss Landing. Shot a lot on the 17-mile drive to Pebble Beach. (the Pacific Ocean work was shot on the drive).
Interestingly, the shot of the Pacific Ocean was taken on a pinhole camera, and I am sitting there thinking, ‘who the hell does that?’ He recalls driving over the previous evening to recce the place and he drove down the entire 17-mile trail (and back) because he knew he wanted to shoot seascapes there. “So, I decided on the spot where I would shoot the next day. I was there at 5:15 in the morning and it was freezing cold. I was staying at an Airbnb at Pebble Beach, and I had to tell the folks there that I was leaving for a shoot early morning so that they don’t get too worried about where I vanished off. This is again the Pacific Ocean so the winds were strong, a problem when you are doing long exposures because you don’t want the camera to shake.”
Why did you choose to shoot with a Pinhole camera? “The fascination I have for pinhole cameras is because of the ultra-simplistic nature of that object. Basically, it’s a box with a hole, that’s all it is, there is no lens, there is nothing there. But, if you think about it it’s such a magical idea no?—a scenery that is outside, is filtered through that hole and is projected onto a sheet of film and it exposes that sheet of film. It’s is such a fantastic concept, man. I mean, think about it, I can’t ever get over that idea. In a nutshell, that’s what a camera is.
Every time I think about it I am blown by that whole idea. And the fact that it’s a pinhole, there is no lens, because there is no lens, the images are not ultra-sharp, in fact, they are not even sharp, you also don’t have a shutter, you can only control it by the minutes or seconds you expose it for, you don’t have an aperture, there are no bells and whistles, you cannot do whatever your digital camera does on that and my pinhole camera does not even have a viewfinder, so I can’t even see my composition.”
“How long did you expose it for?” I ask. “If I remember correctly, it was long, somewhere above 15 minutes, because it was so dark that early morning.” The aid that he uses for exposure when it comes to pinhole cameras is his iPhone, there is an app that allows him to measure the exposure. “So I got my ballpark figure (through the app), also, the other thing is, that the pinhole camera that I own has just four exposures, four sheets of film, that’s it and you better get it right, and the margin of error in (terms of exposure) a 4×5 film is greater compared to a 35 mm film. What I mean by that is, on a 35 mm film if you are off by one stop, half a stop or even two stops it’s not a great difference, but in a large format film if you are off by a third of a stop it’s a massive difference, you have to get it spot on.”
After that, close by was the Del Monte Forest, that’s where he shot the wooded landscapes. “When I was driving back to Scottsville, is when I shot the photograph you see of the electric poles. It was crazy because I was pulling over at lots of places you were not supposed to be pulling over,” he illustrates with a laugh.
Chapter 5: Making the cut
Four’s final set has three set of images, and each set has four works. “It’s twelve works because I have a thing for numbers. When I decided that the series would be called Four, three happens to be my lucky number, so 3×4=12. It’s not some other reason,” clarifies Arakkal.
But the selection process was painful since adding and deleting photographs can be tricky sometimes. Up until December 2016, the selection was different. (Four was supposed to happen last year, but since his father demise, the show was postponed). Also, in January/February, he did a few more works, for the same series, and he did not put a stop to the series. And when he shot new ones, he had to scrap some of his earlier selections. “Why it becomes difficult is because you are working with a microscopic view on the series for so long that you never step back and look at the entire thing from a larger perspective,” he addresses, looking at me. So, to smoothen the process, he showed it to some of his close artist friends, whose opinions he trusts, who he knew will get where he is coming from, understand the concept, his way of thinking, and they will be able to contribute. “Because you need a third person’s perspective. And I ran these through some of these people, and then the selection process became even more difficult because they come in with their set of ideas, they look at it a certain way.”
“You saw my iPhonography selection, with a single line (the horizon and nothingness)?” I nod in approval. “I don’t remember the artist, but I remember someone saying that there is nothing in the work. There is just one line that’s all. But I held my conviction on to that one. I said no, I want to show this. And I am glad I did. Because people who came to the show told me that those works are really bold. Also, I did not put it out there because it’s different from what other people are doing. I put it there for a reason. You saw the display, right? You start with the hyperrealistic works, then come to (the impressionistic style) black and white, so you are going from a hyperrealistic style to an impressionistic style, and then you come to minimalism, and when you end at those white works, you are ending at what I call nothingness, you know? Those white works are important to me artistically and philosophically. I wanted to create an image where I was thinking, how much I can take out from an image, how much can I cull out from it, but is still an image and is still engaging. I like the fact when people ask me, is that even a photograph? Yes, that’s a photograph. It’s not something I created on Photoshop, no. So, that process was really difficult.”
Chapter 6: Planning makes perfect
Nothing Arakkal does happen by chance, it’s all a conscious decision—right from how the works are showcased in the gallery, to how he plans and adds creative aspects to his work, everything is a thought out process. For instance, something really interesting about the hype realistic images is that if you look at those prints and you look at the image on a screen there is not much difference, which is a stunning factor. “I should not be complimented for it, but I wanted it that way. Because usually what you see on-screen and what you see in print are two different things. The experience is different. For me to arrive at that hyperrealism was a long drawn process. I have different styles of work, I am not like my father, you know? Who had one solid signature style of work, I, on the other hand, do different kinds of things. You can’t look at one work of mine and say it’s Shibu’s style. And when it comes to hyperrealism I have my own interpretation of it and how it does justice to my work,” he states. This is how he arrived at something he calls ‘Digital recolouring’.
After he has processed an image, colour corrected it, edited it and all those processes are done, he then takes the image onto Photoshop and works on each channel of the colour. For instance, he goes into cyan, and if there is a cyan aspect in that picture, he tweaks it to the exact hue and colour that he wants. So essentially, what he is doing is treating photography the same way a painter treats a painting—adding and tweaking colours accordingly. “This is why you are seeing those colours due to Digital Recolouring. And it’s the choice of paper (Hahnemuhle paper) that gives you this finish. Keeps the colours rich and vibrant and the contrast deep,”
The (exhibition) space also became a big factor, because he looked at so many spaces. At one point he even wanted to do the show in a basement parking of a hotel, but it didn’t happen for security reasons. Luckily, the present gallery (Gallery TIME and SPACE) he is showing at had just finished a refurb, and when he saw the space, he made up his mind. “I wanted a completely neutral space, where you are not really thinking about the space, also, you can’t look at these works in a small space. TIME and SPACE had a large area, and it had a completely neutral colour palette—with white walls and the ceiling was grey. I wanted to take the personal attention away from the space and focus on the work. And that’s what it gave me.”
Chapter 7: Climbing the hill
The series has been, without a shadow of doubt, the hardest series Arakkal has worked on. And none of his other series were easy. But, this thing sucked out every bit of faith he had in him, the only reason this series saw an end was because of faith, and nothing else. He just kept pushing and pushing. While he made sure that his camera did not move during long exposures near the sea, the challenge really was to retain control, ‘like how they say less is more’, and not something where you dump all your emotions. When you look at the works, there is a lot of restraint, but from the inside, he was bubbling. Also, having philosophical concepts and ideas are great, but you have to make them work in terms of a photographic body of work. The idea and the concept can be deep and powerful, but if the imagery fails, it will not leave an impression on the audience.
But, he wanted to see this through. As he says ‘he winged it as he flew.’ “I said to myself, I am just going to fucking reach this end at some point. Whether I can see it or not there is an end to this and I am going to reach there,” he fuels. In this case, he had to complete it by a certain date. Lucky for him the series was done before he started planning for the show. He was also going through a lot of his own personal struggles and all of that jumped him. ‘The thing is, as an artist, you cannot separate the personal and the professional, personal fuels the professional, and vise versa’. The struggle was to climb the next level, and by now he is pretty persuaded that he has. “I was waiting to see if I made it, once I opened the show, and from the kind of responses I got, I am convinced that I have made it to the next level. This makes me happy,” ends Arakkal.
For more details on the show, follow the link here.
Follow him on Facebook here.
Follow him on Instagram here.
For quotes and purchase (works from) of the series and his other works, write to him at email@example.com.
Cover picture shot by Nandith Jaisimha.