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The Subtle Yet Magical Eye of Shibu Arakkal

Design Log 17 Oct

Bangalore-based photo-artist Shibu Arakkal’s life and career has been nothing short of serendipitous. Be it his choice to specialise in photography over accessory design, or being born into the creative world of his late father and painter Yusuf Arakkal, or finding beauty in the stillness of moments, he has made a name for himself independent of his lineage and is growing still.

  • Bangalore 2016 A

An iPhonographic mirrored triptych of a Bangalore lake (2017)

Over his 22-year-long career thus far, Shibu has carved his own niche in the ever-expanding realm of photographers, coined his own photography technique of iPhone photography called ‘iPhonography’ and is striving to be the best platinum-palladium printer in the country.

Recently, Bangalore experienced his first solo show in five years titled ‘Four’ - dedicated to his late father, who had been the constant guiding force during the four decades of his journey as an artist and search for higher truth.

There is a strong sense of spirituality in your work. Have you inculcated this from a person standpoint?

I’m essentially a philosophical being, which is automatically transmitted into my work. When I look back at my work, I realize that I’ve embraced a lot of design sensibilities from the Zen principles without knowing what they were until recently. In fact, I’ve always been intrigued by Japanese art and culture, historically and artistically as opposed to European art.

I’m also fixed about the idea of honour, which is again a Japanese notion. For me, it’s about having honesty and diligence in my work. I don’t believe in diluting what I’m putting out or doing anything below my moral code. I try and imbibe the same qualities in my 8-year-old daughter.

  • Bangalore 2017 C

A playful unpublished shot of one of Shibu’s most recent pieces in Bangalore (2017)

Growing up, was there a pressure to be creative since you were ‘Yusuf Arakkal’s son’?

Not really. Before I picked up photography, Dad used to crib about me not drawing and painting because he believed I had a natural gift, which I haven’t fully explored to this day. I do sketch for myself, but my passion isn’t there. His only wish was that I pick one thing and stuck to it. It’s easy to quit and drift and say “I’ll do something else”. But you have to stick it out.

So after 22 years of sticking it out, what’s your process?

When I’m taking the picture, I’m not thinking. It’s a conscious practice I’ve built up over the years to shut off the mind. You focus to such an intense point that you instinctively know the right decision every step of the way. But for that level of intuition, you need to put in the hours.

It’s also an emotional process. I look at my finger, which is to press the camera trigger, as an emotional trigger. It’s a Samurai sort of precision like in Kurosawa movies where the Samurai isn’t even looking at the target but knows exactly when to strike. It’s mighty hard to achieve that. And it’s up to the photographer to recognise when that is.

  • California 2016 A

A triptych shot in California (USA) while motorcycling on the Pacific Coast highway from Shibu’s latest series ‘Four’ (2016)

  • California 2016 B

Shibu’s ‘Four’ series comprises of landscapes with unusual, rich colour palettes as can be seen above (2016)

Do you see your photographs as paintings, having grown up around them?

My Dad never formally taught me about art. But he’d ask me for my opinions on his paintings and have simple conversations about them. For example, if I told him I found the shade of turquoise too strong, I’d see later that he muted the tone. When I’d ask him why he took my point seriously, he’d say that it was because there wasn’t a synergy but an overpowering of one colour over another. So with observations like that in mind, I used a rich tonality of colours and merged it with a hyper realistic style for the first time in the ‘Four’ series.

In my Dad’s work, there was always one line, which people assumed was just his signature style. But when I asked him why it was there, he explained that it was to create a foreground and background - to create a depth that previously didn’t exist in the painting! From that point on, I’ve done a series where I’ve studied a line versus the curve. That sort of knowledge really holds you in good stead.

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A black and white photograph shot in Kerala from the ‘Four’ series, which reflects four decades of Shibu Arakkal's life.

Right. Take me through 2014, when you switched to the iPhone and coined the term iPhonography. What were the changes you underwent then?

When I started using the iPhone in 2014 and discovered the camera on it, I realised that I had a very decent photographic device at hand with no bells and whistles. What excited me was that it tested my artistry and creativity as a photographer. I was so hooked to it that I wanted to find a term. After playing around with the words ‘iPhone’ and ‘photography’, I hit on ‘iPhonography’. I Googled it and saw that a ‘iPhonograph’ was a gramophone-like device to play an Ipod. I said to myself: “What a waste of a term!’ So I started using it and coined it eventually!

  • Singapore 2007
  • Abstract Notions Bangalore 2006
  • London 2003 04 2
  • Singapore 2007 B

(Clockwise from top) Experimenting With the Curve, Singapore (2007), From the Series 'Abstract Notions' (2006), Experimenting With the Line, Singapore (2007) and Digital Art Work, London (2004)

Stemming from that, tell me about your shift from analog to digital.

I’ve never let that flame of experimentation/learning be extinguished. I was brought up in the analog school of photography and properly trained by Sudhir Ramchandran and Rafique Sayed.

But I’m thankful that my grounding was in analog photography as digital is much easier to pick up. Analog is much harder, and less forgiving.

Long before the iPhonography days, in the late 90s, I had studied digital media and was experimenting with digital art as it’s known today. I was messing around with the very first version of Photoshop on machines where every click would take ages minutes for every gradient change or applying filters. I cultivated the patience to sit and do that. Nowadays, everything’s flipped the other way round and there’s no restraint or judicious use of Photoshop!

  • Hampi 2002 03

A digital rendition from Shibu’s early days of experimentation with Photoshop

And still, you’re all about the physical form of consuming a photograph, not virtual. Take me through your experiments with printing.

For me, an image that’s created digitally is only real when it’s printed. Until then, it only exists virtually and doesn’t take on the tone, texture, finish, stiffness of the paper, canvas, wood, metal, glass, or whatever medium it’s printed on. I was one of the first people in Bangalore to have my own setup for archival pigment printing, which I’ve done for many years.

But when I started using my iPhone 5C, which was 8 Megapixel, I realized I could print 2 feet x 2 feet of the highest resolution with the minimum viewing distance being 5 inches and zero pixelation! I was blown away. That’s when I got hooked onto platinum-palladium, which is the purest photographic print you can make as the print lasts as long as the paper lasts. I love the idea of taking a photograph on the iPhone and printing it with platinum-palladium. It’s two entirely different worlds clashing and forming a new entity altogether. I haven’t mastered the technique yet, but my plan is to fine-tune my technique over the next year and become the best platinum-palladium printer in India.

  • Constructing Life Polaroid Bangalore 2010 2

‘Constructing Life’, a polaroid shot in Bangalore (2010) from Shibu’s ongoing Polaroid (unfinished) series

Is there an ongoing series/concept you’re working on?

I’m intrigued by the concept of human ego, so let’s see how that shapes up over time. I’ve been meaning to take a break for many, many years. I realise that I’m not in a race with anyone nor is there an expiry date for my photographs. So I’ve consciously decided to do a solo show maybe once in 3 years henceforth.

Follow Shibu’s work on Facebook, Instagram or his website.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.