09 January 2013

‘With the Dawn’: A love-note penned in the Sri Lankan wilds

‘With the Dawn’, by Nihal Fernando and Herbert Keuneman, published by Studio Times Ltd., reviewed by Malinda Seneviratne.

There are countless melodies that can be composed with the 12 pitches of the Chromatic scale.  There are more than 12 words in the English dictionary and this alone gives sense of dimension pertaining to possible word configuration.  One might say that we have enough and more tools to describe the world to ourselves and one another.  There are times however when we all feel poor, not for lack of word but perhaps for its suffusion.  We cannot pick the correct words to describe to perfection, dimension and detail all.   Then we go silent. 
It is the same with painters. Color and line make for innumerable configuration but rendering is always incomplete.  Artists give us new eyes and perhaps inevitably new lies as ways, new ways of self-deception.  One would think, then, that the photographer is a more humble archivist, except that this is also an exercise that involves choices such as time of day, light-shade mix, the ‘settings’ pertaining to camera and of course post-shot play on a computer where a wide range of tools are available to re-render that which was captured. 

When a photographer has travelled a territory more extensively than an archaeologist or surveyor it is clear that he or she can make countless albums for there are innumerable ways to organize material.  It is hard to think of anyone who has traveled the length and breadth of this island as much as Nihal Fernando has done.  Neville Weeraratne in an essay titled ‘Nihal Fernando and Herbert Keuneman: a tale of two kindred souls’ says that the former ‘has seen, heard, experienced and above all understood the land, its people and their life’.  It holds for the latter too, going by that same essay and by the authoritative travel guide ‘The Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller’ which carries the signature of his life, vision, knowledge and the love he shared with Fernando for this country.   Weeraratne describes him this way: ‘His lifelong residence led to a passionate love for the island.  There is (nor was) anyone with his encyclopedic knowledge of the country in whatever the detail and in whichever the discipline.’
Weeraratne’s piece is found towards the end of an album of photographs which is also an essay and a journey, ‘With the dawn’ published by Studio Times.  From dawn to dusk is a long time.  For people like Fernando and Keuneman it’s a set of hours that can theoretically make for countless albums on countless subjects.  This collection is based on the Studio Times exhibition called ‘Wild Life ’73’’ held almost forty years ago at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery, Colombo.  The photographs displayed were picked by Keuneman just two weeks prior to exhibition date.  That process has been described beautifully thus:

‘Fernando and Keuneman flung open the doors of the studio (Studio Times, that is, located then in the Times Building, Colombo Fort), letting the unsullied air of a quiet morning find its way into the dark corners, as they laid out the photographs on the floor.  Beggars who lived in the foyer of the building, occasionally peered in to look at the whirling images of deer and elephants, monkeys and crocodiles, jungle trees and jungle pools, birds and more birds in flight.  Herbert Keuneman walked among these black-and-white prints, picking up one, peering at the next, tossing photographs here, there, everywhere.  He cast a few aside, sorte4d others, grouped some and started writing the story of a day in the jungle…with the dawn…the birds…awake…and take off…and so it went on until the last bird flew home.’
This was long before digital cameras and ‘photoshop’ those advances that turned point-click amateurs into art photographers if they knew how to photo-edit or could obtain the services of a photo-editor.  We can flip through the pages and be mesmerized by the images.  It would take a traveler however to look at each photograph and imagine the work involved.  Nihal Fernando is well known for his patience.  He did not (and admittedly could not) depend on the insurance of post-click technology to work out the glitches that human frailty (of mind, eye and finger) spawns.

It is a black and white collection.  For this reason the photographer obviously had to work within narrower margins of error.  Color blinds at times and even makes for a lot of fudging.  Perhaps this is why even in today’s digitized world of fascination with color palettes the black and white photographer is still held in awe. 
We cannot tell if the collection was gathered, photographically, over a single day.  But this was a different age of photography and a different society working towards different objectives at a different pace and in less glittered economy.   Nihal Fernando was inspired by love.  So too, Herbert Keuneman.  Such people don’t rush.  They take their time.  It is evident in the collection, both in image and in descriptive line.

They take us from moment to moment, hour to hour, dawn to dusk as though leading us by hand, drawing attention to all that the untrained and less-used-to-loving eye would miss.  Keuneman’s economy of words is ideal complement to Fernando’s photographic poetry.  He says only what is necessary and thereby teaching that silence is an excellent travel companion and even travel guide.  There is silence, silently captured and described in whisper.  There is music here too, for Fernando makes us hear the ripple of water, the movement of wind, the call of bird, flapping of wings and thereby teaches us the language of the civilized, our ancestors who had eyes and did not babble incessantly just because they had mouths and tongues. 
‘With the Dawn’ ends ‘when the last bird flies home’.  It is a limited edition of just 1000 copies.  A different generation of photographers might think that armed with technology they could as much or better with a fraction of the effort.  They would be wrong.  Technology does not have a ‘love-function’.  It is not obtained by point-and-click on a computer screen or inserted as device in a sophisticated camera.  It comes with walking.  It comes with deep reflection.  It comes in conversations with hundreds and hundreds of ordinary people.  It comes with the dawn and takes flight in the wings of the last bird flying home.