Eye on the snow

Kamal Chilaka’s photo exhibition, -29 ° C in Lapland, is a portraiture of a place frozen in time

The trees are snow laden, their black skeletal twigs poking at a slate grey sky. In another frame, the moon is a ghostly galleon in an inky sea, snow crystals sparkle like grains of salt, a forest path leads to a land of white, and a red-brick post office festooned with frozen ice buntings awaits letters to Santa from children across the world.

Eye on the snow

This is Lapland, home to Father Christmas and the Sami people, spruce and pine trees, wooden chalets so tiny you can barely swing an Artic hare inside and a taiga so vast even bread crumbs and fairytales would never get you home if you were lost.

This is where Chennai photographer and director of Singapore-based Eyemage Gallery hefted his camera and made a trip to in February 2018 to capture the lands around the North Pole in the harshest month of winter. It’s an experience that is now framed for posterity in 28 pictures at Focus art Gallery. “The exhibition is titled -29 ° C, the lowest temperature I shot at,” says Kamal Chilaka, overseeing the display ahead of its opening.

Eye on the snow

Chilaka, an engineering and management graduate, stumbled upon photography when he was gifted Lee Frost’s seminal work The A-Z of Creative Photography. “My first camera was an Agfa Click IV when I was 10. And, over the years I documented holidays and family. But for 18 years now, I’ve managed to strike a balance between the family business and my passion; I do two trips a year and they take six months to plan,” says Chilaka.

The photographer travels to places that have fallen off the map and a few that are on the tourist radar. The aesthetics of the landscape is a constant in his pictures. “The outdoors is where my soul rests,” he says, defending why he prefers places where humans don’t crowd his frames. “One of my favourite haunts is Yellowstone National Park; and capturing the colours of Fall in New England. My first assignment in India was for the Uttaranchal Tourism Board. If there is one place here that is a dream to shoot in, it is the lesser-known side of Ladakh. Both the light and the landscape have an ethereal quality.”

But, it was not the fabled Northern Lights that Chilaka chased when he landed in Lapland. “I touched down at Rovaniemi, 800 kilometres to the North of Helsinki and the gateway to Lapland. I shot both the town, its frozen river Kemijoki and the taiga that extends to nothingness. It was quite a task to whittle down the photographs for the exhibition,” says Chilaka who used a Canon EoS 5D Mark IV, Leica and Hasselblad for the trip.

Eye on the snow

“I used to shoot on film till 2001. I use medium format digital now; it slows you down, gives perspective.”

Chilaka, who works two weeks a month from his Singapore gallery, says that some photographs have been printed in Germany both on high-grade paper as well as aluminium, bringing to the fore the colours of the country. Wrapped in a snow suit and boots, inhaling the fine ice that lingers in the air and moving, sometimes, at a glacial pace, he says shooting in Lapland was therapeutic.

It’s a claim that’s evident in the pictures that line the walls — the sun lounges at the horizon setting rooftops afire, Scot’s pines resemble a Japanese rice paper painting, dandelions hold their own in the snow, twigs by a frozen pond that resemble lashes bordering an eye, a snow-dusted bridge leads to nothingness, and Santa’s post office minus the fluffy beard and reindeer tail.

Chilaka’s pictures are an astounding record of a phenomenal land and a reminder that the North is dark and true and tender.

(-29 ° C in Lapland is on at Focus Art Gallery, Rukmani Lakshmipathi Road, Egmore, till July 11. The exhibition is accompanied by a coffee table book.)

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