A little girl sits with her back to the frame, her arms hanging over the railings of a bus stop. The burst of pink, thanks to her dress, infuses colour into the otherwise grey and steely setting. This photograph, by Pierre Poulain, taken in Mumbai, was part of his popular Paradox series, that travelled widely, including the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, last year. “The colour of her dress caught my eye. We relate pink with beauty, and this girl is in an environment which is not very clean. And that’s the paradox,” says Poulain. The Israel-based photographer and philosopher was speaking at the launch of his third book, Metaphysical Aesthetics of Photography, at the Express Tower in Mumbai last week.
The Paris-born Poulain forayed into photography at the age of 20 in 1976, with a Pentax MX reflex camera. He would practise photography on the streets during the day and drive a taxi at night to earn a living. His tiny room in Paris doubled as a darkroom for black-and-white photographs. “Those experiences taught me the need for adventure and to fight for photography. I learned never to give up,” he says. Poulain’s expansive body of work today, primarily in black and white, consists of pictures that captures people in various parts of the world in the daily bustle of their lives.
There are also quieter, contemplative moments, like a picture of a couple sitting on a park bench in the Czech Republic and one of a woman reading a book sitting on a sidewalk in London. “When I first started out, I was afraid of facing people and would take pictures of buildings, empty streets and the geometry of places. Unlike countries like India, photographing in France can be a nightmare,” he says. He cites an incident five years ago when a Frenchman lashed out at him because he took pictures of his house. Subsequently, street photography became a way to capture the frontlines of reality. “You cannot stop life or movement. I never engage with my subjects before I capture them in my camera. If I do, then my subjectivity comes in,” he says. For instance, a picture of street workers in Mumbai caught in a playful mood, seated on a hand-cart, brought out the simple essence of happiness. Another, of a man seated by a lake in Switzerland, surrounded by a sculpture, bicycle and street lamp, reminded him of the need for liberation.
Poulain relocated to Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1986 in search for a deeper meaning to life. A short while later, he founded the New Acropolis School of Philosophy, an institution that aims to spread harmony through comparative studies in science, religion, art and philosophy. Photography had taken a backseat. “It was when I was in India in 2006, to launch its Mumbai branch (founded by Yaron Barzilay), that I decided to combine photography and philosophy. The way Indian culture manifests truth and wisdom touched me. I believe in swadharma (following your heart),” he says. Today, he is called a ‘phipho’, a blend of philosopher and photographer.
Metaphysical Aesthetics of Photography delves into the evolution of aesthetics in photography and also gives an insight into how Poulain practises his art. His approach to photography is straightforward — he does not use heavy studio equipment, artificial effects or additional light sources. “I only use a transparent UV filter to protect the lenses. If I hide behind complex equipment, I cannot live the process. The Bhagvada Gita says the process is more important than the result,” he says. Poulain also believes in the concept of ‘luck’ in photography, and mentions his mentor, the late Henri-Carter Bresson. “One of his most famous pictures, of a man leaping over a puddle, was taken from a small gap in the wall, and he did not even see the subject before clicking,” he adds.
Living in Israel, in the midst of constant political turmoil, Poulain says that philosophy has given meaning to his art and he does not feel the need to give lengthy descriptions for his pictures. He says, “The metaphysical meaning is beyond words. If I give you the meaning, how will you discover it yourself?”