“Nature is Everything” : Goutam Bose on Photography, Practice and Preservation

Pritha Mahanti


FRAGILE © Goutam Bose

Last month, almost by chance, I walked into a group photography exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata. It was organised by Expression, a photographers’ group from the northern part of the city. What caught my eye, particularly, was a series of photographs depicting different close-ups of snow surfaces. Every frame seemed to invoke an image in mind. For example, a crack in the snow resembled a bird, while a snow covered stone pillar could have been an ancient mask. I looked at the photographer’s bio and learnt a new word—nemophilist, one who loves wandering into woods and forests. But it’s not just forests that Gautam Bose loves to haunt. He is also drawn to mountains and snowscapes. So, here’s a glimpse into his passion of ‘finding rainbows on stones’. 

MELTING DUSK © Goutam Bose

Pritha Mahanti: So how did it all start?

Goutam Bose: I actually wanted to be a painter and had also taken the admission test in fine arts after school. However, I was born with an eye issue and my parents were not keen on me taking up painting as a full time profession. So as it usually happens, and I am a little embarrassed to admit it, I joined engineering and then started working. But I have always been interested in classical arts, be it music, dance or painting. I have been associated with a local dance academy for the last 12 years. At present, photography is my passion and obsession. I say obsession because there are times, for example, when I am thinking about images and composition while I am resting or falling asleep. 

DANCING WOODS © Goutam Bose

PM: You said you would love to be described as a Green Panther. I am assuming nature was always something you were interested in, right?

GB: Yes I have always been attracted to nature and I also love traveling. During my student life I was drawn to the sea and I spent quite a lot of time capturing coastal areas. Later, I fell in love with mountains and it has remained the same since then. I spent nearly 16 years trekking across northern India, primarily in Uttarakhand. By photographing nature, I have also been able to see the changes in landscapes up close. I went to Gomukh for the first time in 2004, then in 2009 and 2011. For all these years I documented the retreat of the glaciers and it is a very saddening and humbling experience. Nature is everything and as its creation we have no right to destroy it the way we have. 

PM: Personally, I feel your snow photograph series reveals an important aspect of the climate change narrative that we often miss—the fact that the planet has been through a number of climate change episodes and five mass extinctions have already happened. So, it’s really not about saving the planet, as much as it is about saving ourselves. And this realisation probably occurs because of the meditative quality of your photographs. So, how do you decide when to click?

GB: For me photography is about waiting for a connection. Let’s say there is a beautiful sunrise or a sunset. For an average tourist with a camera, it is about capturing the scene. But, from my point of view, there must be something in that moment that tells a story or conveys a message. That is what I think when I think of photography as art. For both the onlookers, the tourist and the photographer, this scene is important because it is momentary, it will change or disappear in seconds. For the photographer, it is also about what can be read in that moment which decides the frame. Something beyond the merely beautiful. What I want to capture is already there. What I need to create is a composition that conveys something to me. Interpretations, of course, can differ. It is here that I want to talk about abstraction. I love abstraction. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, what cannot be understood is termed abstraction. And that is far from the truth. Abstraction is a massive idea, which does not mean that it is complex. Take for example, painter Sunil Das’ series of horses. They are not merely abstract, disjointed sketches. What is interesting is that if you place them in order, you will be able to get the form of a real horse. So abstraction should be as much about reconstruction as it is about deconstruction or breaking down of order. 

PM: That is quite interesting and profound. I think what people miss about abstraction is the craft behind it or the whole method in madness idea. This brings me to a certain curiosity I had when I saw some of your photographs. Has it ever happened that a part of the frame was so interesting that you ended up creating a blow-up version of it?

GB: No no, choosing a part of the frame and then blowing it up is against the ethics of photography. But I am glad you asked the question because it is quite a misconception and something that should not be endorsed. Cropping is acceptable to a certain extent, but selecting and enlarging a part of the frame does not qualify as a photograph. 

ONLOOKER © Goutam Bose

PM: Right! I was almost not going to ask the question for how silly it must have seemed. But, thanks for clarifying! Anyway, I have to tell you I am quite fascinated with the ONLOOKER (above). I really must ask how you visualise certain frames. Do images occur to you before you click them? Or is it more about seeing and conceptualizing?

GB: I have never been able to pre-conceive my pictures. Yes, when I am documenting something, for example the Gangotri project, I know the parts I will have to focus on and a sense of what the series would look like, because in projects like these I have to follow a text. But otherwise when I am taking pictures, I rely on my instincts. I don’t go after the subject, I wait for it to come to me. There is an anecdote that I wish to share regarding this. It must have been 2004 or 2005 when I was part of a group of photographers on a trip to a village by the Rupnarayan river. Most of the photographers were capturing the very basic elements of village life. These were the photographs of rural India that we all have been very accustomed to. I, on the other hand, was very frustrated because I simply couldn’t find my subject, so I just Iaid down by the river, with a gamcha (towel) under my head. Suddenly, I saw a group of men painting a boat. And close by I saw a boy carrying his little brother on his lap. I knew this was my moment. I got them together in a frame and took a photograph which received a lot of appreciation. So, this is how I arrive at my photographs in general. I wait for a connection. 

FROZEN FLOW © Goutam Bose

PM: So, when you connect to an image, how do elements like texture and colour factor in?

GB: Yes, textures are an important part of my photographs, especially where I focus on certain details. They definitely make you pause for a moment. When it comes to colour, all I can say is that a photograph demands its own colour. It is something that you can only know by instinct, so it really cannot be taught. Technique is something that you develop only after years of practice. I am a self taught artist. I haven’t had any formal training. But I followed a routine. I am a late sleeper. So say around one in the morning I would decide to go somewhere and capture dawn. I would go to Howrah station and get a return ticket for twenty rupees, because I had no destination in mind. I would hop on the train and get down at any station that caught my attention. Along with my camera, I also carried a notepad. These were the days of the analogue camera so you didn’t have the display and details feature that is so common today. So, after every photograph I took, I would note down details like exposure, aperture, shutter speed etc. I did this for seven years, about three days a week. This is how I trained myself. An immersive experience always comes out of a certain discipline. 

PM: That is quite remarkable! So, as a self-taught photographer you must have had certain influences or inspirations?

GB: As a self-taught artist, I have always gone back to the works of other photographers to learn new techniques and perspectives. One name that stands out for me is Soumitra Dutta, one of the most renowned landscape photographers in India. I have been in awe of his work and my philosophy and thoughts regarding photography owe a lot to him. For me landscape photography should capture something beyond the look or surface of a place. It should capture the essence, the very core of a particular landscape. 

GOLDEN CURVE © Goutam Bose

PM: So, when we talk about capturing a certain essence and soul of a subject, how far does technological evolution interfere (if, at all) in the process? Do you think technological upgrades, after a point, interfere with philosophy?

GB: Technological changes and upgrades are inevitable, so we need to adapt constantly. However, the technicality and the philosophy can remain the same. There are, of course, factors that affect your photographs, for example lens or gear come in different ranges. A lens worth 70,000 will definitely not give me the same result compared to a 2.7 lakh one. Analogue didn’t have this problem because the camera did not really matter. But despite all the upgrades, I don’t think technology interferes with philosophy. Because, ultimately, it is a question of the options we have and what we choose to do with them. 

PM: On that note, do you have a checklist of sorts for young practitioners?

GB: Well, there is no alternative to practice and this is true for almost every discipline. One pursuing photography, whether as a hobby or as a profession, should be able to think about photography, not simply about the subject or technicalities, but the very idea of images, what they convey and demand. Now with digital cameras, we can afford to click a lot of pictures, so allow yourself to arrive at your own frame. 

PM: Finally your thoughts on nature photography and the question of responsibility.

GB: You know when I think about nature and the whole climate change issue, I find it really funny how we shun responsibility for a mess of our own making. The politics-business nexus follows a self-defeating logic, wherein profits override the question of survival. When it comes to art, it really cannot be at the expense of nature. I was once taking a picture where a twig from a branch was disturbing the frame. I am assuming some photographers would not think twice before snapping it. I would rather not take the shot. If we can’t do anything for nature, let us not destroy it. Let the twig grow. 

WAY TO INFINITY © Goutam Bose

Goutam Bose is a self-taught photographer based in Kolkata, West Bengal. A nemophilist, he loves to capture nature, especially mountains and forests. He has been documenting landscapes for over two decades. He also enjoys classical dance and music.

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