Fantasy, Photography, and the Fusion of Imagination and Reality

This week’s blog is from first-year PhD candidate Siddharth Pandey. He is researching the interrelated ideas of making and crafted materiality in the fantasy genre.

Even as I often miss my homeland – the Indian Himalayas – mostly due to the flatness of an otherwise gorgeous Cambridge, photography helps me constantly discover some kind of magic that is common to both landscapes. Indeed, my decision to research fantasy was first influenced by the mountainous terrain itself, for what could be more magical than the verdant meadows and the winding paths and the innumerable vantage points to behold the world in a glimpse that highlands offered in plenty? But in a turn that may be deemed paradoxical by some, living in nature was also my first introduction to the artificial, the architectural, which, if made well, seemed so much to be a natural extension of the natural, as it were. In spite of the sad state of contemporary urban development in India, I was lucky to have grown in an environment where many instances of the built – mostly from the colonial and pre-colonial eras – harmonised with those of nature. The magic of the mountains thus seamlessly extended to the magic of the buildings, with my camera helping me discover their shared fantastic appeal.

A misty, winding pathway amidst the cedars in Shimla, my Himalayan hometown, India.
Annandale, a picturesque meadow in my hometown.

A sunset in the Himalayas.

Christ Church against the Himalayas, Shimla.
The former seat of the British viceroy, the Viceregal Lodge, in Shimla. I call it the Indian Hogwarts.
Shimla, my hometown, famous for its ‘fairy-tale’ look in the evening.
I always dreamt of studying fantasy in a place that was fantastic (pun very much intended). It was therefore my good fortune that I landed in one of the world’s greatest institutions that not only offered the perfect intellectual and physical resources to begin my research, but also the most intoxicating built environment that constantly exuded magic. From its magnificent Gothic halls to its glorious turrets and towers, its minute carvings and detailed embossments to quaint passages and expansive grounds, Cambridge was the realisation of the fantastic. One can of course endlessly debate the degree to which a place influences your work, but on a personal level, I will always maintain that it does. The distances between what you read, what you imagine, what you witness and what you perceive are constantly bridged if you research the magical in a magical environment, but that bridging is not a freezing of perception: far from it. It is an evolution, a movement, quite like the one you observe in the curling metallic twirls of architectural details throughout Cambridge. More than anything else, it is my photography that helps me freshen up and rediscover this movement, this change in what otherwise appears to be an apparently static building, by zooming in and out of a particular detail through a particular angle, that changes with the slightest of steps one takes while wandering around this 800 year old town.
Metallic twirl and a spire, somewhere in Cambridge.

 

Another metallic twirl, on a wooden door, Catholic Church, Cambridge

 

A detail of two angels, Cambridge

 

The magnificent King’s Chapel, Cambridge. And people.

 

Interiors, Kings’ Chapel. The carvings are magical!

 

Splendid roofs! Cambridge.

 

Pitts’ Building, Cambridge.

 

Pitt’s Building, Cambridge- another angle, and suddenly the verticals form a composition of their own!
Romancing the Moon. Peterhouse, Cambridge
A lamp in King’s. Cambridge. It is said that a lamp-post inspired Lewis for the Chronicles of Narnia.
Homerton College. Or Hogwarts, simply put.
 
The German philosopher Friedrich Schelling once observed that ‘architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music’. But music never freezes- music is music because it is constantly evolving. I think such thoughts must have been there at the back of my mind when I first read and viewed Harry Potter, and got utterly thrilled by Rowling’s observation that Hogwarts was always evolving. It was exciting to note that the sophisticated film versions had taken note of this fact, for in the successive instalments Hogwarts’ architecture literally grew and became more expansive. There was an indescribable fascination I felt at the movement of stairs, at the will of the Room of Requirement to appear and disappear, and at the transformations that were a hallmark of the Weasely home The Burrow, quite opposite to the grim formality of Privet Drive.

It is this fascination that continues to feed into my photographic perception of Cambridge.  I can only smile whenever I think of the trajectory that photography has taken since its evolution a century and a half back: from once being the ‘truest’ approximation of reality to now benefitting me in making sense of the unreal, the fantastical.
 
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