Rule of thirds

Pranaya Rana | April 2, 2016

Three is an oblique, incomplete number. It lacks the round wholeness of one and the deft evenness of two. It reaches for but does not quite reach the celestial pairing that is four, two plus two, even all around. Three is a number of charm. Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times a pattern.

For Rajan Shrestha, photographer, musician, visual artist, the number three is almost magical. In the introduction to his photobook, 3, he outlines his fascination with the number: “I like the way it prints. 3. I like the way it sounds. 3. I like how it suspends between 2 and 4; tangled in its incompetence to become 4 and its ego that’ll not let it be any less.” Clearly, it is an attraction that goes beyond the mundane.

The photobook, 3, contains 30 sets of three photographs each. And as images, they are in a wide variety of styles, sporadic and all-over-the-place, bound together by nothing more than their quality of being in threes.

The first set, titled “Plants and Animals”, consists of photographs with an out-of-focus plant in the foreground and a sharp human body in the back. The bodies, with only the lower half of their faces visible, are seemingly dehumanised, brought down to the level of the inert plant they are clutching in their hands. This is not a debasement, but a kind of “animalisation” where the body becomes beast.

Another set, “So open, So close”, has hazy, black-and-white photographs that are a study in contrasts. The grain makes the photos feel tactile while the ghostly exposure makes them feel unreal, as if caught between this world and the next.

The “Fashion” set is slightly more of an archetype, mimicking high-fashion photography. The subjects are bedecked and consciously posing, in photographs that take on the appearance of pencil sketches. There is nothing particularly bad about these images, only that they seem at quite a distance from the rest of Shrestha’s work. I get the same feeling from the set of magazine covers here, which seem to lack the evocative quality of Shrestha’s other images, as if they have been produced to fit a certain mould.

There are a few other sets that seem bland and insipid, like the ones from “Jugis” and those from “Lightbox”. These are ordinary and banal next to the dream-like images that make up the set “Autofiction” or the stark, sullen confrontation of “Couples” which, cheekily, contains a single self-portrait of Shrestha, perhaps alluding to the doubling inherent in the act of photographing oneself. Then, there are bright explosions of colour, as in the set “Red, revolution, right”, juxtaposed against the muted tones of images of death in “Afterlife”.

The final set in the series is simply titled “Three”. These blurry, unfocused photographs evoke an almost palpable sense of separation and isolation. Even the final frame, where a ghostly woman’s incorporeal form flirts with the foreground, is masked with a kind of remote isolation, the woman’s face a haze of light and dark and her body neither here nor there, neither real nor unreal.

Shrestha’s photobook is not particular. It is not bound by theme, content or style and accordingly, goes everywhere and anywhere. Shrestha himself makes no claims to the contrary, asserting that these photographs are simply that which has accumulated over a lifetime of looking for a voice that is his own. It is clear that Shrestha is a technically gifted photographer but, more than that, he is someone willing to experiment with the way he sees the world, wilfully inducing paradigm shifts. His, however, is not a raising up but a lowering down. Instead of making images that strive for a hyperreality (as is common with so many terrible photographers), Shrestha seems to have hunkered down and opted for a more pared-down aesthetic, one that is aimed squarely at evoking feeling in the viewer. In most of Shrestha’s photos, what is being photographed is of little consequence; the process of viewing must contend with a more intangible layer, one that does not hinge on precoded information in the form of objects and images that we recognise.

The photographs in 3 are not symmetrical, are not airbrushed perfection, are not aesthetically appealing. They are not meant to be images that arrest the eye and quickly release it once their beauty has been recognised. Instead, these are images that invite contemplation and a gaze that lingers. That is not to say that they are not beautiful. There are outlines and shapes, colours and contrasts, images that should but do not conform. It is like being underwater with your eyes open.

3 can be viewed at:

One response to “Rule of thirds”

  1. Dina says:

    Great write up! I think photography in Nepal is coming of age and I look forward to new expressions.

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