Sanjay Kothari: Shanghai Transformations

The scene is set against the spectacular backdrop of Guilin’s karst mountains along the Li River in China. A traditional bamboo raft floats above water in the foreground with a rowing fisherman on one edge and a cormorant bird on another. Perched on the raft as if in their most natural setting are a Kohler vanity and bathtub in which a model is shown relaxing. Chinese lanterns illuminate her with a warm glow in sharp contrast with the cool blue tones of the sky and the water. There’s something so believable about the image that we find ourselves marveling at the photography team’s logistical coup of transporting a tub and the vanity to this remote site, then resting the model and the tub perfectly on the raft, while the bird, the fisherman and the river stand motionless for this serene moment captured in perfect light. It’s only when we find out that the tub, the vanity and the model were photographed in New York City, the raft on a still pond, the fishermen on the Li River, and the sky and the mountains in sequences of dawn and dusk light that we’re awestruck. For Sanjay Kothari, the photographer and CG artist who created this image for Kohler’s As I See It campaign, the image reflects how he operates in the photography world—by pushing pure photography beyond its limitations through photo collage and manipulation to create what his mind sees. Selected as one of six photographers, including David LaChapelle and Hugh Kretschmer, to create "inspired imagery" for Kohler, Kothari traveled to China, Mexico and Tennessee to create his series of four images.

"A photograph is just the starting point for fearless exploration," says Kothari. "My process is explore, save, explore, save, get some sleep, start again."

This fearless exploration and "transformation" are two fundamental values that led Kothari from Mumbai to New York and now to Shanghai while nourishing his transition from conventional photography to photo collage to CGI and 3D. One look at his versatile portfolio featuring conceptual editorials, fashion campaigns, sports illustration, still life, 3D- generated figures and fine art makes one think of him as an image wizard. Kothari is an illusionist, an artist who takes liberties with our preconditioned ideas of reality and magically transports us into a world that seems instantly familiar, yet otherworldly. Seductive robots, still life enwrapping its human subjects, models leaping through shattered glass, sculptural women as Greek goddesses are the kind of images that reveal Kothari’s rich labyrinthine imagination.

In 1985, while in photography school in New England, which he entered after completing his engineering degree in India, Kothari experienced his breakthrough artistic moment—he discovered photo collage. Not wanting to throw away some off-color prints he was experimenting with, Kothari cut a hole in a faded print and held it atop a brighter one, discovering to his surprise a triangle floating in the image. This interplay of dimensions opened up his imagination, revealing to him the limitations of straight photography and the recognition that it’s not the imagination, but the medium that can be inherently limiting for an artist.

A photograph is just the starting point for fearless exploration, says Kothari. My process is explore, save, explore, save, get some sleep, start again.

Says Kothari, "I like photographing chairs. But to photograph a chair, you need a chair. I could have photographed the chair I’m sitting on, but then the picture might look like a Staples catalog photo. Instead, I photograph my wood floor, cut and paste the pictures and create my own one-of-a-kind chair. Then I began doing that in Photoshop and using 3D. Now I can photograph a chair without needing a chair. So am I still a photographer? Yes, but the kind that makes my own chairs, using cut and paste or Photoshop or CGI as and when needed."

Kothari never quite accepted a prejudice against the manipulated image. Pictorialists like Edward Steichen opened up the possibility of beautifully manipulated photography, inventing many processes that explored photography’s textural capabilities like photogravure and gum-bichromate. But Alfred Stieglitz, sold on the idea that modernist photography should be completely independent of painting and therefore free of any manipulation, pushed photography in a different direction. Photo-montage and manipulation were used by constructivists and Bauhaus artists who didn’t necessarily take their own pictures, so thinking outside Stieglitz’s strict view of photography became taboo. Kothari has fiercely challenged this strict, no-manipulation notion of photography throughout his career.

"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. When you interrupt the correspondence, that’s where you manipulate the picture. You change the picture independently of nature. When you start manipulating the image, you’re able to create an image that didn’t exist. The relationship with reality is still there."

In 1993, when Photoshop was first introduced, Kothari joined Color Center, which was run by Scitex, and learned every detail about the software from printers who were technical perfectionists and not interested in art, but in how to execute a picture perfectly. He was given a Scitex scanner and allowed to experiment on his own. After a few months, Kothari created some images and entered his work in a competition, winning three awards in three separate categories. His love for collage and photography finally came together, and he was immediately selected for representation by R/GA, which at that time was a special-effects studio representing artists working in digital media. Kothari became a trusted advisor to Adobe, his suggestions leading to several new tools like the healing brush, the multi-point gradient tool and an all-in-one transformation tool.

In 2009, after working from his New York studio for over 15 years, with clients including Samsung, Kohler, Ford, Tourneau, Dell and Gillette, Kothari decided on another transformation—a radical move to another side of the globe. While still in New York, Kothari was contacted by an agent in Beijing who was eager to bring him new clients in Asia. The effects of the recession were beginning to affect Kothari’s studio revenues, so he packed up his bags, landed in Beijing and started working with Ogilvy on a campaign for Motorola. The only brief the creative director gave Kothari was that he wanted images inspired by the British painter Turner. This is the kind of creative freedom Kothari had yearned for while working with agencies in New York.

Kothari conceptualized an image of a man leaping across a shattered glass wall, creating a spatial three dimension in the image. Photographing the model separately, Kothari and his 3D team photographed pieces of shattered glass. Then they used RayFire to break and fragment pieces randomly, then brought them into a "thinking particle system" to push these particles to have an exploding motion. The image was rendered in V-Ray and then brought into Photoshop again for compositing the model into the image. The result is so perfect that it’s impossible to tell that the model wasn’t actually leaping through a set wall. This effortless blending of reality with manufactured textures and patterns and a passion for using the most contemporary to
ols to push the limits of imagination are what make Kothari a master image-maker.

A spectacular series of CG images Kothari created while in China is his "glass women" series—hyperreal models with glass skin as if descended from another planet. To create the series, Kothari first generated 3D models of figures and then camera matched them to a photographic image, rendering them and lighting them, then compositing that render into an original photograph. His magical infusion of humanness into his 3D subjects and ability to render an inter-planetary otherworldliness into his human subjects come from his extreme dexterity with the mechanics of photography and 3D production. From what angle should a subject be lit, in what perspective should a wire frame be constructed, at what resolution should the final render be, how should the lighting in the physical and virtual dimensions be matched—all are challenges requiring skills that only an experienced photographer can bring into the virtual. Working in 3D requires an instinctive understanding of spatial relationships and lighting. It demands of the creator architectural, sculptural, artistic, design and photography skills.

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

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