The contrasts we capture are not just about light

26 Nov 2016

The room was dark and filled with ancient and unfamiliar objects. An old heavy cast iron stove. Hand-made urns and vases. Battered hurricane lamps, the dull gleam of old pewter jugs and copper cooking vessels. Dusty chests and chipped wooden boxes. Old manuscripts in a forgotten language. Furniture from another era, some painted, some varnished, all of it proudly scarred.

We were in a rarely-seen room in an adobe farmhouse built from the ground upwards by the great-grandfather of the farmer who was now showing us around. We’d tried his hospitably offered butter tea, politely sipping the salty-fatty brew and trying politely to conceal our city-slicker grimaces.

The room we now found ourselves in posed formidable technical challenges for the group of Travelshooters photographer clients. Its darkness was punctuated by strong shafts of light, which threw intense beams of the strong outside sunlight into the room from above and from the single window. You could hold your palm in those beams and project the light like a mirror into just about any corner. Our Shoot Director brought out a folding reflector and it lit up the room like a searchlight.

We asked the patient farmer to sit by the window. With the sunlight outside so bright, we knew we’d have a high-contrast photograph on our hands. The reflector filled in the shadows and reduced the contrast, but our Shoot Director felt it killed some of the mood and he quietly folded it away. No problem: chiaroscuro can be fun.

As our clients experimented with exposures — in such situations it’s important to manage the specular highlights even if you need to push a lot of delicious detail into deep shadow — one of them decided to share her capture with our subject. As she sat down alongside him and leaned over to show her work on the back of her camera, I clicked the photo you see at the top of this page.

It was only weeks later when, back in England, I got round to looking in earnest at the contents of my SD card. 20/20 hindsight cut in and I realised that, quite unthinkingly, I’d captured a whole load of contrasts — not just the lights-and-darks one, but meta-contrasts too. Age vs youth. Male vs female. Lined ruggedness vs feminine charm. Hatted vs bare-headed. Traditional vs modern clothing. In their hands, old prayer wheel vs modern digital camera. The footwear: traditional house slippers vs sporty outdoor trainers. The farmer sits on his patched old woollen rug, the edge of which neatly bisects the photograph and emphasises the bare floorboards on which our client sits. The contrasts go on… with a bit of Rembrandt lighting thrown in for extra cheek.

Ladakh is contrast country. Outside, high altitudes and pure mountain air allow sunlight to cut through and light scenes with a kind of scalpel-like crispness. Shadows can be soft, but more often than not they’re sharp, creating a kind of Photoshopped feel to the most innocent lakeside landscape photograph.

As for the broader social contexts, the contrasts continue. In the case of the goat-herding Chang Pa, the baby-soft pashmina wool funds, increasingly, a shift from their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle to one involving brick houses and shiny SUVs. Like pretty much everywhere else we go, old lifestyles and life choices are fading and it’s become rarer to see parents consciously choose to bring up their youngsters in a pastoral style when Leh’s bustling tourism industry is a few hours up the road. And when the teeming megalopolis of Delhi is just 90 Air India minutes and a few thousand rupees away from these tawny, precious landscapes.

Contrast is good. Come shoot Ladakh with us.

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