04 November, 2011

Morning in the Mountains

It's been just about five years now since I shot this picture in the Siruvani hills of Coimbatore.  I've put it up on my flickr stream, my website, various online photography fora and whatnots, but no one has ever noticed it.  No one has ever said, "Woah, wait a minute, I know that from somewhere."  I guess nature/landscape photographers today don't know their art history like they used to.  Or that this was a lousy execution at trying to copy a great romantic landscape painting.  Meh.  Anyway, on its fifth anniversary, here is why I personally like it.

Caspar Friedrich: Morning in the Mountains (1821-23?)

01 August, 2011

Form over Content? Blasphemy! (?)

I followed a friend's link to this page on Blake Andrews' blog and was a little miffed that the winner of the Form vs Content poll (in a photograph) was, in fact, form. Iconic images of our times immediately jumped to my mind (man blocking tank in Tiananmen, little Vietnamese girl running from her village being napalm'd, the recent picture of a couple kissing during the Vancouver riots, McCurry's Afghan girl, ...), but before I could mentally send a flurry of vile words in some of the choicest language I know to all the voters, my brain hammered sense into me. The above pictures, iconic though they may be, aren't 'great' images. When it comes to the great, the buck stops at Monsieur Cartier-Bresson. Aquila from 1952; Behind St. Lazare station, Paris; Brasserie Lipp 1969; are all 'everyday' images with only the photographer's composition elevating them to greatness. Even many of Ansel Adams' works are these 'everyday' images (Jeffrey's Pine and Church in Mexico come to mind immediately).

Continuing with this train of thought, I realised that painters can get away with getting truly captivating scenes of everyday sights whereas photographers have to work quite hard at finding that something 'extra' that really catapults the image. (Of course, painters do have the harder job in the first place by nature of their work.) I can't find a finer example of this than Johannes Vermeer's "Street in Delft". A true masterpiece which in photograph form would simply be relegated to the 'good' pile. I would put Albrecht Durer's "Large Turf", Vermeer's (again) "View of Delft" and Correggio's "Portrait of a Man" in the same pile as masterpieces with no amazing/awesome/stupendous shit happening in them. I'm sure I could come up with a tonne of other stuff that support the form argument if I cared to run more web searches, but I don't, so there.

Johannes Vermeer Van Delft - Street in Delft
Can you picture yourself caught staring at the brick-work if this were a photograph?

Damn, I wish I could paint like that.

28 May, 2011

Temple elephants

I first saw an elephant at age seven. It was a temple elephant (from the Perur temple) that was taken house to house, and it was visiting ours. The idea was to donate some money to the temple, give the elephant a banana or sugarcane, and receive the blessings of lord Ganesha. I was a little scared but was mostly astounded by the animal's size, and I still remember looking into her eyes and wondering what she was thinking. When she dropped a load of dung right outside our gates, all the village kids immediately set upon trampling it with their bare feet because it was said to increase your intelligence! My next interaction with another temple elephant happened much later in Vellore during 2008. I handed her a banana and a five-rupee coin. She ate the banana and stretched out her trunk to hand the coin over to her mahout. When the mahout reached out to take the coin from her, she swiped it back. She did this three more times before the mahout lost his patience and shouted at her, and then she obliged.

02 May, 2011

Packing for multi-day hikes

Lots of folk have shown interest in the way I pack and have switched to a similar style with personal changes. For future seekers of backpacking wisdom, I thought I'd write a few lines (very considerate of me, no?). Nothing I have to say is "mine" so to speak: it has all been amalgamated from veteran hikers, backpacking.net boards and the weirdos at Red Chilli Adventure in Rishikesh (running for cover).

Packing is always about sorting and compartmentalisation. When on a hike, you need to pack so that things that are most essential for survival are on you as much as possible so that you can survive with some level of comfort in case you lose most of your gear. (Simple, no? ;) Without further ado, here's the deal.

* My pockets have two folding pocket knives (one for rough work, one with a sharp blade, a Photon flashlight and a flattened and shortened roll of toilet paper wrapped in plastic (great to use as a bandage, tinder to start fire in the wet, napkin and you know what else).

* Hip-pouch: Bic lighter (I can't have enough of these: they light up even after being dunked underwater for a few hours!), 1xAAA-torch, map, one sachet of Electral and P&S camera go into a hip-pouch looped through my belt. That way all this stuff goes where I go. Always.

* Waist pouch: contains notepad+pencil, compass, 2xAA torch, 3xAAA headlamp, water-proof firestarting kit (basically a film cannister with camphor, matches and striker), hand sanitizer, a small tape measure, more sachets of Electral, energy bars, extra pair of shoelaces, band-aids, 2 days' worth of essential medicines and an extra pair of prescription glasses. I like these tinted so they double as sunglasses.

* Daypack: My daypack is a 14-litre backpack that has lots of water bottles (I like to re-use soda bottles: they don't weigh much and don't cost much), 1-litre aluminium mug (to boil water/make tea/coffee/instant noodles), machete, sun hat, wool cap, gloves and jacket/poncho, clean underwear and hand-towel in a tupperware box (for waterproofing), first-aid kit, (use a different kit for daily medicines if you need them) and 600g of instant noodles. Daypack goes into big backpack.

* Big backpack: A generic 70-litre internal frame backpack. Carries the daypack, 10C sleeping bag (with warm and dry clothes on I've been comfortable sleeping in -6 C with this; pretty sure it'll go colder still with a hot water bottle inside and/or a liner), sleeping pad (gets tied outside the backpack if I'm carrying a tent), 2.5L aluminium cookpot with handle, woodstove, spatula, 1L steel thermos flask, change of clothes if preferred, a small repair kit (multitool, duct-tape, hot-melt glue), more water, food, some paracord, toiletries, floaters and a bath towel. (The last three are on the outside pockets for easy reach in case, like me, you like stopping for a dip at streams/lakes en route. I have a carabiner attached to a D-ring on the main straps so I can attach my main wide-mouth "drinking water bottle" to it.

Now, when it comes to backpacking food, I love rice (150g per person per meal YMMV). One can have only so many meals of instant noodles. Rice is easy to carry, easy to cook, makes a tasty and nutritious meal, is cheap, I could go on and on. Some cooking oil, a few veggies and you're all set. Among the veggies I carry, I'm partial to carrots, potatoes and onions because they have little water content hence are light to carry and they keep for quite a few days. I have another little tupperware box that has small film cannisters with spices and other condiments. Cashew nuts and groundnuts are also good to carry - both as a snack and to add to rice or other dishes. Dehydrated dessicated coconut is another thing that I love to carry.

Snacks carried are usually groundnut chikkis (kadlai burfi: toffees made with groundnuts and jaggery). Biscuits leave me dehydrated and thirsty. Dehydrated fruit is also great.

As far as possible, I like to cook on a small open fire. Despite all the claims from manufacturers of ultralight cooking gear, wood is usually the most eco-friendly method of cooking and personal heating even. Add a couple of green twigs into the fire and the smoke will also drive insects away. Not to mention the food tastes great. Except if you're hiking above the treeline, I don't see why one should ever have to use a manufactured fuel to cook with. The inputs and energies needed for its making and transportation are way more than a few twigs and fallen branches needed to run a small woodstove or fire-in-a-pit. All rules regarding responsible use of fire apply here. If you don't know, look it up. And use common sense.

Now, all you folks from the western world will be wondering about my water purification method. It's boiling. Doesn't cost anything, doesn't weigh anything. :)

Weight of Daypack + Backpack (with food) for a 6-day hike is usually around 16 kg. I usually carry at least 6L of water for the first day so it comes to around 22 kg. All that without much being spent on "ultralight" hiking gear.