by Shraddha NairApr 05, 2021
On March 19, 2020, as France observed the second day of what would be a two-month long lockdown, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan announced on his Instagram page that he had found a stash of Fujifilm FP-100 polaroid negatives with which he proposed to “shoot one picture a day until the quarantine is over”. The accompanying image shows four apples and a bulb of garlic placed together on the top of a table covered with a white sheet behind an equally white wall. The gaze falls almost immediately on the contents of the table, drawn by the colours of the fruit that stand out amongst the otherwise pallid palette of the frame. The gentle arch of the table leads the eyes back to the objects on top, aided by a shallow field of view to emphasise their presence. The series, which features a total of 27 photographs, acts as an alternative journal that details the photographer’s time through the first month of self-isolation, as a result of the current global pandemic.
Made in collaboration with Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, with whom Yogananthan co-founded Chose Commune – an independent publishing house based in Paris – the photographs find inspiration in different inanimate objects which seem to be sourced from within their home. These objects, which range from lemons to miniature sculptures, are carefully placed in relation to each other to form multiple narratives within a single image. As objects appear and reappear, in what are sometimes complex constructions, the role of the white that envelops and highlights, becomes all the more apparent, when in the last image from the series the table lies empty. As varying shades of white distinguish the table from the wall behind it, the edge of the table appears almost as if it were a horizon within which lie a multitude of photographic possibilities.
This preoccupation with the inanimate subject matter is one that can be traced across different civilisations, spanning eras, with terms such as ‘still life’ and ‘nature morte,’ calling upon the rich artistic tradition of depicting the material everyday. As the vivid impressionisms of painters such as Monet and Cézzane come to mind almost immediately, it is the words of the prolific French novelist Marcel Proust that contextualise the position of the object itself. In his seminal book Swann’s Way, the first of a seven-volume novel titled In Search of Lost Time, the following words illustrate the narrator’s thoughts as he shifts in and out of slumber. “Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them.” Thus, when re-contextualised, these objects hold the ability to communicate much more than what they are imagined to, may it then be through prose, poetry, painting or photography.
Still life has been an integral facet of photography since its early years and continues to be pursued contemporarily in both artistic as well as commercial circuits. From the detailed examinations of the natural world by German photographer Karl Blossfeldt to the democratic photography of William Eggleston, the subject of the object is one that has been meditated upon by many photographers. Yet, it is the still life works of the Japanese master, Shoji Ueda, that one is reminded of when viewing Yogananthan’s photographs. The candid treatment of the subject(s) and its playful presentation hold an uncanny resemblance to Ueda’s Portrait of Cherries (1980) amongst other works. While there are the compositional similarities, it is also the treatment of space, especially negative spaces within the frame, that establish a similitude.
In an image from the series that features cut lemons placed amongst walnuts, coral formations, and a burning candle; smaller narratives emerge as the objects relate to each other and the space they inhabit. In another image, a tiny sculpture of a tiger finds itself precariously placed atop a vegetable stalk that balances on the head of a cauliflower, adding a sense of lightness and humour to the series. When asked for comments, Yogananthan refrained from saying anything, letting the work (understandably) be as is. While his images do not fixate on the theme of isolation, they are a definitely a product of such solitude. In the wake of COVID-19, as we are often confronted by the unknown and the unexpected, Yogananthan’s images emerge as a promise that this time presents to us.