MYOB: Navroze Contractor

For the occasion of World Photography Day, in this edition of Mind Your Own Business we interview Navroze Contractor, a veteran jazz photographer.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your background, where you are from, and where you are currently based.

I was brought up in Ahmedabad and did my entire schooling under the Montessori system. From there, I went to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, and did a Bachelor of Arts in painting and photography. I became interested in cinema and did a stint at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, taking the film direction course. After working as a photographer and cinematographer for nine years, I went to USA to study under master cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Rocky etc). Video was just coming into India and I went to Sony Corporation, Tokyo, Japan to study video. Since then I have shifted to Bangalore and live/work from here.

What led you to pursue photography?

In 1957, I saw the international photo exhibition, The Family of Man, and then and there decided I wanted to be a photographer. In the same year, I heard my first modern jazz record and was hooked to that music. I was thirteen years old, and since then, jazz has been my music of interest.

Mixing the two, after I studied photography, was a natural organic progression.

Do you exclusively photograph jazz musicians in your work? Please tell us what exactly you photograph — the performers, the performances, behind-the-scenes…

I wish I could, but it is not so. I am a documentary photographer, and I work on many subjects. My personal lifelong project is jazz, which I photograph as and when I hear the music of my liking. The opportunities for photographing jazz are very few, and almost nil in India. I have photographed quite few Indian musicians whom I respect;  then there are traveling groups… otherwise all the images are taken all over the world, where my own travels have taken me.

To get an ‘in’ into the jazz world is not always easy either. You have to know a musician, and only then are you allowed into their lives, into sound checks, into the green room where they relax between sets or into recording studios, which are guarded zealously. The latest trend in many clubs is to disallow all photography, which is the biggest drag; but again, if you know the musicians, it may work out. Unlike in the west, where a magazine specially sends you to do a story and they take all the required permissions, it is not so here. Yes, I do performances, behind-the-scenes, practice sessions, personal lives… basically all that revolves around jazz.

Is there a style unique to your photography?

My style, I can call it ‘living camera’. It is not a vérité style, nor a fly-on-the-wall style. I make my presence felt. The musicians are completely aware I am working around them, but I never interfere with either the performance or the audience. The audience is very important; I never block their view, never make them hear my shutter and I never use a flash. This is a principle every performance photographer must follow. It is the ethics of any stage photography. Very often I see younger photographers being extremely insensitive about this.  

Michael Clifton, Berlin,2015
Michael Clifton, Berlin, 2015

Have you ever been assigned a particular photography project in advance? Or is this entirely self-motivated venture?

Jazz photography is an entirely self-motivated, self-funded, lifelong project.

Do you display your work often?

I have had five exhibitions of my jazz images, two here in Bangalore, one in Bombay at the USIS (United States Information Services), and two in USA. It was by sheer chance that my work was seen, recognized and eventually collected by the Smithsonian Museums, Washington D.C., USA, many collectors in the west, and some here in India.

Do you enter into a contract with galleries you display your photographs at?

All galleries that display your work, whether here or abroad, have a contract. They take a percentage from the sale, often as high as 50%. Some contribute to framing, invitation cards, posters etc. They promote you, and with that of course, their gallery.

Do you market and sell your work? Can you give us some details about this process?

All sales are different. From a collector to a museum, a magazine story to an advertiser, everything is different. I am most suspicious of advertisers and least of collectors.

The ‘collectors’ have studied a photographer’s work and they know the music. They may see a favorite musician in my work, put up the image in their favorite place, and look after it. So to me, a collector of my work comes first and foremost. Very often, they cannot afford it. Often, I either reduce the price or give a photograph away for free.

Magazine stories take my photographs for one-time use. For promotion, they might publish them one or two more times. Museums are totally different — the price, prestige… everything is different. When my jazz images were collected by the Smithsonian, there were six people on the selection board. Two from jazz history, two from the department of photography and two from the archives. All had to agree. Even if one had disagreed, my portfolio would have been rejected. Besides all this, it all works by recommendation.

With advertising, I have never sent in a jazz image. I would rather take a fresh one for the subject they want. In this business, all kinds of copyrights, formal consent forms and legal stuff is involved, which they do before you actually shoot. So it is not just the photographer, but the copywriter, art director and client… so many are involved. It’s a very different ball game.

Broadly speaking, would you say this work is commercially viable?

Speaking broadly or any other way, this work is not commercially viable and one has to do other stuff to get by.

I have done commercial photography in the beginning of my career — fashion, food, travel… all kinds of work — and faced the same problems today’s younger generation is facing. Bargaining, huge delays in payments, and often no last instalments at all. I might not the best person to answer this as I’m not really a ‘commercial photographer’ anymore, but in all media-related industries I hear the same — it takes time to grow and get into the group of the best ten on top. Then, clients and payments come in more smoothly. For an artist, this is the reality, and it is extremely humiliating. I know it, I have gone through it, and so I can say it.

But all those who complain, when they achieve a certain recognition, do the same thing. Today’s advertising and entertainment industries are full of people who have all gone through this humiliation… why haven’t they changed the system when they are in positions of power now? They do exactly what others did to them!

Being mainly a documentary photographer over the past several years, I have not dealt much with these commercial forces lately.

Have you taken any legal measures to protect your work? Have your photographs ever been misused?

I am lucky I have never had to take legal action to protect my work. Yes, my works have been used without proper remuneration, but I have let it go. It is too much trouble for me. The hassle is not worth the time you have to waste, which eventually eats into your creative process.

Are jazz photographers found around the world? In your experience, is this an uncommon calling?

Yes, there are people who photograph jazz around the world, but none can be called a ‘jazz photographer’ as such. For 90% of those connected to jazz, it is not a profitable business. It is a business of passion. Even the most renowned musicians work weekly in clubs to make ends meet. I can say with confidence that not even a hundred musicians make over a hundred thousand dollars a year, from their performances, their club gigs or their recordings. So many are sessions musicians, who have to play anything and everything to make a living. It is really a niche music. And so is jazz photography. It is an ‘uncommon calling’ as you have correctly put it.

Your thoughts on photography and its growth in India — in general, and specifically with respect to music-related photography.

Photography in India today? Everyone’s a photographer; they are millions in number. Almost every device we have has a camera. Hundreds of workshops are taking place around the country. What we took five–six years to study, everyone wants in a weekend workshop. It cannot happen. Equipment does not a make a good photograph. I always say, “I will give you the best computer, can you write me a good story?” It’s just that. There is NO art without serious practice. Sadhana is missing. We are witness to millions of meaningless ‘junk photos’ since the advent of the digital era.

With this kind of insane competition, to find a few good photographers is rare, but they are there. The higher the load of images, the tougher it is for the younger generation to break in.

Apart from photography, what keeps you busy?

Apart from photography, I am a working cinematographer, I make films, I teach a lot these days, and I write professionally about motorcycles. I love to travel and do so for work and pleasure.

Is there an online platform where our readers can find out more about you and your photography?

My jazz images can be seen on the Tasveer website.

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