Pradip K. Mazumder is an American photographer of Indian origin, based in Northern Virginia, USA. He grew up in Kolkata, India, and came to the USA on a job visa, back in 1998. He has been taking pictures since the 1980s. His initial inspiration came from the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. From his films, Pradip learned the fundamentals of photography, cinematography, composition, lighting, and many other essential techniques. Pradip recently shared a story about life along the river Ganges with us, which you can read here in the Magazine. We took the opportunity to ask him about his photography.
Where are you based now, and did you grow up there?
My family and I are based in Northern Virginia, close to Washington, DC, USA. I grew up in Kolkata, India, and came to the USA on a job visa, back in 1998. By profession, I work in the IT industry.
When and how did you start getting interested in photography?
It was around the mid-80s when my cousin introduced me to photography. An Agfa Isolette III folding camera from my uncle and the intricacies of aperture, shutter speed, film speed, focus, depth of field… was overly complicated in the beginning! I gradually ventured into the 35mm SLR world with a Pentax K1000 camera, which I still miss from time to time. It was a fully manual mode camera (both exposure and focus) with a 50mm normal lens, and that is how my photography has been shaped. Even today, I shoot mostly in manual exposure mode. Those days, I used to buy B&W 'cut film', which is the leftover film from the BnW movies spooled into 35mm film cassettes, and which local photography stores used to sell at a much cheaper price, compared to the branded ones. I used to get an 8”x10” sheet print done, from the 36 exposure B&W negatives, and choose from there, the ones I would like to get a print done. The luxury of taking multiple shots at a given scene was limited at that time, so I used to choose my composition very carefully. Gradually, I moved to color negatives, and color transparencies, which was my favorite medium, before moving to the digital format, at a much later time.
Do you have a favorite quote?
"Actions speak louder than words!"
Where do you find your inspiration?
I am a big fan of the legendary Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. Watching his films is like learning the fundamentals of photography, cinematography, composition, lighting, and many other essential techniques of moviemaking. He used to do the storyboarding himself using hand sketches, as well as marking the optimal camera position based on the arrangement of the elements and subjects within the frame. He was a master storyteller, as his films are often referred to as “poetry in celluloid” and is typically about humans, humanity, human relationships, and interactions (both external and internal). Ray’s films have always been a big source of inspiration for me, which I think has influenced my photographic style, particularly the visual storytelling aspect, and in terms of the composition, lighting, and the ‘human element’ factor.
Who are your favorite artists/photographers?
Apart from Satyajit Ray and Raghubir Singh, I got highly influenced by Raghu Rai, the legendary Indian photographer, and photojournalist. He was a protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who introduced Rai to the Magnum Photos. I remember meeting him once in Kolkata, where he came for the inauguration of a photographic exhibition, where one of my images got selected. That is a prized moment for me.
In Kolkata, I used to go to the Photography Clubs, and that is how I got introduced to Henri Cartier-Bresson and his style of “decisive moment” photography. That was such an overwhelming experience for me, as it was a photographic genre that I was not aware of. For me, to describe it correctly, I would have to use the words of Cartier-Bresson himself, “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” Thus started my love for street photography, which to date continues. Another aspect of Cartier-Bresson that amazes me is his work on portraits. I found this book “Henri Cartier-Bresson Portraits” in a used bookstore in Kolkata, and it is still one of my prized possessions. How an environment or the surroundings can play a role in portraying the personality of an individual… This book is a classic example of that. Out of the several iconic images in that book, one picture stands out to me that of Jean-Paul Sartre, smoking a pipe. The image reveals so much about the personality of Sartre himself.
I very much love and admire the work of Steve McCurry, who to me, is an institution by himself, and the real living legend in the world of photography today. Looking at his works reminds me of the films of Ray that share the same philosophy of narrating fascinating visual stories, always with the intriguing ‘human touch’ in them. I own many of Steve McCurry’s books and to go over his images, their appeal, and attractiveness, I feel calls for a much bigger discussion. My favorite image by him is the one titled “Boy in mid-flight”, which was shot in Jodhpur, India. It is such a dynamic, well-composed, and gripping image you can feel all the tension going on in that particular scene. To this day, I find it nothing but breathtaking.
Who do you think has most influenced your style?
All of the great visual storytellers, as mentioned above e.g. Satyajit Ray, Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry… all of them have big influences on my style of photography and my thought process, the way I look at the world through my lens.
Instagram has put me back in photography, particularly street photography. After moving to the US, I got busy with my career in IT, settling down, raising our kids, going over the immigration/citizenship process that otherwise put photography in the backstage. I was doing casual photography, mostly of family and friends. However, sometime in early 2018 was when my wife presented me with a Nikon DSLR, which revived my interest in photography. Somebody then pointed me to Instagram which opened up a whole new world around me. I discovered a platform where you can share your work and interact with fellow photographers and audiences globally and realized the enthusiasm and interest in street photography, along with the prospect of interacting with some of your favorite photographers, which would have otherwise not been possible. I started seeing more and more works of Steve McCurry, and my admiration grew for him and his work. I felt so excited when he liked my work or commented on the pictures!
In the same way, I came across the work of Bryan Peterson, the bestselling author of so many photography books, and whom I consider my mentor and a real Guru (i.e. a Teacher). There is a saying in Sanskrit, “Knowledge is such a precious wealth, that no one can take it away from you, and it grows, the more you spread it!”. Bryan’s knowledge in photography, to me, fits in perfectly with that quote. If you follow his Instagram feed, you will see that he is always teaching and always sharing his wealth of knowledge so that others can benefit from it. To me, this comes from his genuine love for the art of photography. In my social media experience, I have seen/followed the work of many renowned photographers around the globe and have found Bryan to be unique in this respect! He has always been kind enough to point out some of the key elements in my photography that have helped me to critically analyze my images. I own several of Brian's books, and among them ‘Understanding Exposure’ and ‘Learning to See Creatively’, are my favorite ones.
Do you have a favorite genre of photography?
My favorite genre is “street photography” with the human element, and with a strong emphasis on the visual storytelling aspect. To me, it is not just shooting scenes like silhouettes against brightly lit colorful backgrounds, which seems to be quite popular in Instagram. My interest lies more towards the ‘real-world street scenarios’, the present-day society we live in, and how we interact with others in a public place.
The other thing that I have noticed in Instagram, in the street photography circles, people categorize themselves as color or B&W photographers. I love to categorize myself, as just a photographer, rather a visual storyteller. It is the subject which is paramount to me which dictates whether it would fit in better in color or B&W. So, I have no bias towards any of them, rather I try to go by the contents in a given scene. In my experience though, I have found color street photography to be more challenging than B&W. Within the color frames, there needs to be a harmony among the colors, and sometimes the presence of a dominant color can drag the eye away from the main subject.
Has your style of shooting changed since you first started?
Not really. I have always been interested in capturing the candid shot of people in an outdoor location, which I still do. Previously, I used to shoot trees, in various shapes and forms, and mostly in B&W, which I do not do too often these days.
In the street genre itself, when I am not shooting people, the next most interesting subject for me is birds, or more precisely, city birds and how they fit in an urban landscape. Dogs come next, as I naturally have an affinity for both of these wonderful creatures.
What has changed for me over the years is the realization of the importance of light in a photographic image, more so in candid street photography. True, there can be no image without light, the word ‘Photography’ from its Greek origin meant “drawing with light” … it is not just light, but the quality of natural light hitting a subject can make all the difference. Sometimes I have felt that “light” itself is the subject of my image, and if I take away that particular light, the image loses its appeal. I always find myself chasing the light, trying to capture some fleeting moments around me before they are lost in the ripple of time.
Do you have a favorite place to shoot?
I would say, New York and Kolkata. To me, both these cities have amazing people and an amazing sense of energy.
How did you have the idea of documenting life along the river in Kolkata?
“The Ganges” by Raghubir Singh, is one of my favorite books on Photography. The book tracks the entire path of the Ganges, from its origin in the Himalayas to its final destination in the Bay of Bengal (a journey of 2600 km). This book is backed by the exquisite photography of people along the banks, whose lifestyle, culture, religion, and habits have been shaped by the river for generations.
When I was in Kolkata last January, I did not plan to do a series on life along the river Ganges. I did quite a bit of photography in Kolkata, and the life around the Ganges was a part of it. When I was looking at the images, later on, the idea came to put it in a series and write a story about it. I specifically wanted to highlight the richness in diversity and character of the people in Kolkata, whose lifestyle is very much intertwined with that of the river. Since I am unable to do a whole series like Raghubir Singh, I had to settle for just a part!
Often you focus really closely on people in your street photography. How do you go about it?
In a busy street intersection what I love doing is mixing with the crowd, up to an extent that nobody is paying attention to me. I love the feeling that I am part of the crowd itself. From there, if I come across the right scene that provides a backdrop for a story, I typically take quick shots.
Whether or not I am carrying a camera, I am always capturing images in my mind. I am always looking for an angle, and in the absence of a viewfinder, I use my fingers to do a look through. Street photography has to be done quickly, and it does not always give a second chance. As Cartier-Bresson mentioned, the eye must be trained to identify a composition, or a fleeting moment, and then the intuition to click the shutter at the right instant. The look-through process helps me towards framing my images quickly.
Do you have a preferred camera/lens/focal length?
A fast lens helps in street photography, and I typically use a Nikon D5600 with a 35mm f/1.8 lens. Sometimes I use my wife’s mirrorless camera i.e. a Fujifilm X-T3 with a 23mm f/2 lens. I prefer to shoot in raw mode and use LightRoom for image processing. Since I do street photography, I am a firm believer in the term, “if it has to be a street, it has to be candid!”
What characteristics do you think you need to become a good photographer? Any tips or advice for someone just starting out?
Observation, sensitivity, and visual representation of a storyline... I believe these are some of the key attributes of a good street/documentary photographer. A successful visual storyteller needs to be aware of what is happening in the society around her/him and has the compassion to record it truthfully and artistically.
For someone just starting, I would say, see if you are passionate about photography since, in the long term, we would only continue something that we are passionate about. Identify the genre that excites you. In the beginning, you can try out with over one genre and see which are the ones you love the best. Once you are ready to share your work publicly, create an account on Instagram, and study some successful accounts and how they organize their feeds. Try to keep your feed focused on one genre only in an account, otherwise, people might get confused. If you cover multiple genres, you could think about separate accounts. Furthermore, use relevant hashtags, as they can help reach out to your photography outside your circle. In the beginning, you may not get enough Likes or Followers, but please do not get disheartened with that and leave your hobby. Keep on doing your good work, without even looking at the numbers, and you will get noticed over time.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
I have an interest in different art forms such as cinematography, editing, stage direction, but they are mostly at an interest level.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on?
I did some work on the theme, “Chasing the light” in New York, and Washington, DC. I plan to do some more work on that and make some online presentations.
“When I am not out photographing, I…”
Most of my free time goes to my two dogs. We have two of them, Frosty ( a Bichon Frise ), and Hershey
( a poodle ) ... the cutest, most lovable companion that one can ever wish for. They are just like our family members, so much so that it is hard to stay without them for a single day!
Thank you, Pradip! It was very interesting to find out about your photographic passion. To see more of Pradip's photography, read our story "THE HOLY RIVER" in the Magazine, and catch up with his latest projects on his Instagram gallery. See his portfolio here.
© All photographs are the property of Pradip Mazumder.