DPP Home Profiles Sanjay Kothari: Shanghai Transformations

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sanjay Kothari: Shanghai Transformations

Sanjay Kothari traded the frustration of NYC’s photography market for China’s cosmopolitan, vibrant commercial center. The move has given him a level of creative freedom that wasn’t possible in the U.S.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Melding reality with fantasy is a delicate proposition. For an image to be believable, it needs to have just the right amount of the tangible to anchor it and make the fanciful elements fit in seamlessly. In this image created for Kohler, Kothari blended the look of well-known cormorant fishermen with a woman luxuriating in a bathtub. The image, executed with perfection, is at once completely made up and yet totally believable. Crafting a balance like this is a hallmark of Kothari's work and a testament to both his technical prowess and creativity.
Today, there are countless examples of 3D images created by technicians adept at Studio Max, Maya and other softwares. But it required tremendous visual sophistication to remove all traces of the virtual from the physical and vice versa to create images that stump us and challenge our perception of reality. That sophistication is evident across all of Kothari's work, best exemplified in an image he created for Newsweek. Kothari photographed his subjects, rendered the set and composited his subjects standing around an operating table—a vision of future trends being the subject of the editorial. From the composition to the photography to the half-mechanical, half-human subject on the table, the image he created seems to have been photographed in an actual operating room rather than in a completely virtual one. Describing another image where a robotic arm extends toward a puppy, Kothari remarks, "It looks like a photograph, but making CG images is very different. In CG, I have to imagine the arm and all its details and then be able to create it. Everything has to be designed and created from scratch. It requires very different skills from taking a picture. The image was used as a self-promotion. How did I come up with the idea? I like the idea of a robot that can feel."

Yet another exquisite example of Kothari's originality is his still-life campaign created for art director Prashant Godbole in Mumbai for a jewelry company. Going against conventional fashion imagery of jewelry shown on women's bodies, Kothari chose to reverse the relationship by making the jewelry the key protagonist of the campaign. He placed the female models as extensions of the curves within the motif of the jewelry pieces, rendering each necklace into an icon of femininity and beauty. The bold graphic nature of the images, combined with the poetic rendition of female figures in geometrical forms, created one of the most original jewelry campaigns ever—so original and striking that, unfortunately it was copied without any credit to Kothari by Harper's Bazaar China within a year. In 2010, to his great dismay, Kothari discovered an editorial spread in the magazine that copied almost exactly to the composition, colors and models as his originals. When held side by side, the images seem like a ditto copy of each other. Furious at this blatant breach of his creative intellectual property, Kothari wrote to the magazine, but he never heard back. Kothari has, sadly, become used to being plagiarized, but in the Harper's Bazaar China case, one of his proudest achievements of original conceptual and 3D work, he's still enraged at not having received at least an acknowledgement from the magazine. "When you're copied by someone famous, people think that's the original," he says. "When someone sees it in your portfolio, their only reference is having seen it in a magazine, so they think you're the one who has copied them!"

This intellectual property infringement and some recent experiences have left a slightly bitter taste in Kothari's mouth about professional standards in China. Clients expect a never-ending postproduction process to follow a shoot without any regard for overtime. "The clients seem to have no recognition of the limitations of digital hourly work so the retouching will go on forever," he adds.
Photography is a transformation of three-dimensional reality into two dimensions, says Kothari. That transformation is objective, it's not arbitrary, and there's a relationship between the picture and its corresponding reality.
After spending close to two years in China, Kothari feels that the country may not be a place to start your career as a commercial photographer, but is a great place for a fine artist, a field that he's increasingly drawn toward. There are a lot of galleries, and the Chinese art market is very active. Kothari moved from Beijing to Shanghai to live in a more human-scale city with more character. While Beijing is still considered the commercial hub for creatives, Shanghai is a place where he finds his inspiration. Having his entire interaction with a country solely through commercial work has its drawbacks. When there's no work, he's completely cut off from the culture. To counter this gap, Kothari has created an exciting platform for the creative community in Shanghai—a gathering called Madness. Creatives from all fields are given seven minutes to show a peer group what they're crazy about. What started out as a small gathering in a pub has grown rapidly and become a vibrant exchange of ideas.

With photographers like Kothari redefining photography and its possibilities, CGI may just completely destabilize the old photography orthodoxy just as digital photography once did to conventional film. With his life and a career built on fearless exploration and adventure, there's much to look forward to from the exciting imagination of Sanjay Kothari.

You can see more of Sanjay Kothari's work at sanjaykothari.com.


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