During the spring of 2019, Madhavan Palanisamy spent his evenings walking around his old neighborhood in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, making pictures. He’d returned here following news that his father experienced a partial stroke, and for two months, Palanisamy spent his days caring for him. “In the evening, I felt like I needed to get out. I put on my music and I’d take a couple of hours to just take off,” he recounts. He would pass mules and horses, which used to cart children off to school, now abandoned by their owners to graze lazily in the neighbourhood blocks.
Palanisamy’s photographs from this period turned into the deeply personal series appa and other animals. Mirroring Palanisamy’s daily rhythm during this period, wide-angle photographs of the community’s strays are interspersed with intensely close-up portraits of his father.
“I didn’t want this to be easy to look at,” he explains. The series’ snapshot aesthetic was partially achieved through his choice of camera—a Contax G2 rangefinder with a flash attached. “That liberates you from not knowing exactly what you’re shooting,” says Palanisamy, “It’s not like an SLR, where you are admiring the framing; it’s a more spontaneous way of shooting.”
It made sense for the series to be shot in grayscale. Palanisamy used expired T-Max film, pushing the film to intensify its grain. “I wanted a metaphoric density and I thought that would come in black and white,” he explains. This aesthetic is partly influenced by Palanisamy’s childhood memories of his father’s study, lovingly filled with old books and magazines with black and white imagery, and from the classic movies he and his father would watch together.
Eschewing the photographic perception of documentary realism synonymous with the black and white tradition, the photographer adds layers of what he calls “magical” elements—sketches, drawings, texts and personal journals. In one plate, Palanisamy’s harsh flash unnaturally lights up his father’s profile, emphasizing the texture of his aging skin. Palanisamy has sketched a pair of cartoon-like eyes onto the portrait, transforming his father into a surreal, dreamlike character. In another plate, a personal text of a childhood memory is layered underneath an image of Palanisamy’s father’s foot, which seems to inexplicably hover in time and space.
In these hybrid assemblages, Palanisamy expertly weaves together the profound and the absurd. The result is a series of images, at once otherworldly and deeply rooted in the vulnerability of the human experience.
Editor’s note: Madhavan Palanisamy won the first prize for this series in the LensCulture Black & White Awards 2019. Check out all of the winners and finalists to discover many other inspiring photographers from around the world who are making remarkable monochrome work.