KOLKATA — a feast for the senses and the lenses

Dominik Vanyi
Nov 29, 2019 · 11 min read

The world’s most beautiful mess…

Image for post
Image for post

This is a tale of a SLOW PHOTOGRAPHER wandering the streets of the city where time seems to have stood still. And also, a tale of the character of old Soviet JUPITER lenses. And then some…

Why Kolkata?

Many of the journeys I take start with a ‘gut feeling’. Not from research, or a bucket list.

Usually, those gut feelings come rather spontaneous — out of the blue.

And often I depart shortly after, given time and finances permit.

In the case of Kolkata, I had this ‘hunch’ to go there for many years. It was not a yearning or a strong desire… Actually, more of an ‘itch…

Having visited India once 30 years ago I always felt a desire to go again.

So, one day while casually checking flight cost I was surprised to learn that flights to Kolkata were much more affordable than I anticipated.

Also, my missis has been saying for many years that she would lo love to visit India. So without much discussion and deliberations, she got us visas and tickets. And off we were…

But before I ramble on let me show you a few impressions of the city of joy — as Kolkata is also referred to.

Image for post
Image for post
This was the first impression when stepped out of our hotel on the first day… Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
I knew I had found what I was looking for when taking this photo. Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Kolkata — this is when I fell in love with you… Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Is this still planet Earth ? SIGMA 20mm lens with Tilt-Shift adapter
Image for post
Image for post
And it got better and better with every turn I took — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
a painting drawn by life… — Jupiter-3 lens

Kolkata the world’s most beautiful mess

I expected Kolkata to be ‘messy’, intense, overwhelming and a feast for the senses — and also an interesting and inspiring place to indulge in my favourite pastime: SLOW PHOTOGRAPHY.

I was very eager to try out my Soviet vintage lenses: A Jupiter-3 (50 mm / f 1.5) and a Jupiter 9 (85 mm / f2). How would they perform out here in the streets? More on this later.

Kolkata certainly did not disappoint. In fact, my expectations were far surpassed by a bonanza of impressions.

KOLKATA IS A PIECE OF ART DESIGNED BY LIFE ITSELF…

But before I ramble on let me show you some more images of the city of joy as Kolkata is often called.

Image for post
Image for post
Yes, you see correctly !! In Kolkata, they grow grass on car roofs. My suggestion: Don’t ask — just enjoy…
Image for post
Image for post
Someone’s kitchen? Or a masterpiece of object-art? Again: Don’t ask! This is KOLKATA — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Stray dogs… Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
and above all the people of Kolkata…

Destitution porn?

I always had issues with photographers exploiting precarious conditions of folks living in destitute or under adverse conditions. Even if those photographers claim that they are highlighting a social injustice or some other ‘noble cause’.

I vowed that I would never take up other people’s destitute as something I would photograph.

Also ‘sensationalism’ is not my thing either. Yet I am also drawn to the human condition in all its broad gamut.

So seeing all these folks in Kolkata living under rather adverse living conditions created a conflict within me.

And I often asked myself whether I engage in ‘destitution porn’ here when pointing my camera on the misfortunate.

But I have come to the conclusion that this is such an integral part of Kolkata that any documentation of this city would not be complete without this facet of life.

In the following allow me, with a bit of resistance, show you those photographs.

Image for post
Image for post
what will tomorrow bring — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Afternoon nap — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
On the way to work

Jupiter lens testing grounds

In terms of photographic equipment, I also had a particular mission in mind. Putting two of my Jupiter vintage lenses through the paces. I brought a Jupiter-3 (50 mm / f 1.5) and a Jupiter 9 (85 mm / f2) with me. But I ended up using the 50 for most photographs.

These 2 Jupiters are knock-offs from German-engineered Zeiss lenses. I suspect that the Zeiss equivalents will be (much) better performers. But the Zeiss are much harder to get and also significantly higher priced.

Image for post
Image for post
Jupiter — 9

My short verdict about these two Jupiter lenses is that their technical performance is rather poor. And in some situations, very poor.

Mainly because of stray light hitting the sensor when confronted with even the slightest hint of a front light situation. This stems mainly from the fact that both lenses come without a lens hood. In fact, those lenses do not even have a lens hood mount.

Image for post
Image for post
Jupiter 3

The bokeh is also nothing to write home about. But I am not a bokeh nerd anyway… and the majority of my photos are anyway taken at infinity focus where there is no bokeh involved.

I did not notice any excessive vignetting but sharpness fall-off towards the corners is something that may concern other photographers.

At f1.5 and f2.0, the largest aperture setting, both lenses are sufficiently fast and I never wished to have something faster.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Reminiscence | Jupiter — 9

As for how the Jupiter-3 and the Jupiter-9 render colour I did notice neither anything positive, nor negative. Colour rendition to my eye is rather neutral and pleasant. The colours are proly a tad on the ‘warm side’. I like that.

Both lenses lack contrast — no big deal though. Crank it up in post…

With the 50mm Jupiter, I was able to get some nice lens flare effect when the light angle was right.

Handling those lovely Jupiter lenses is a breeze — setting focus and apertures is smooth and in general, the lenses never stood in the way of my photography…

Image for post
Image for post
Jupiter — 3

Overall the JUPITERs are rather mediocre performers when it comes to their technical qualities, but they are also dirt cheap. Which is prove to the concept: you get what you pay for.

Jupiter lenses have character and it fits perfectly with Kolkata

What I can say is that the Jupiter 3, Jupiter 9 and also the Jupiter 11 have similar character — hence they are well suited as a ‘lens kit’ — not to be mistaken with a dreaded kit lens…

Both of those lenses are very vintage — hard to describe, yet nice to look at.

Lots of flaws and technical imperfections. Which on the other side form that very character of these two lenses.

I for my part see the technical flaws that these lenses exhibit as ‘character’. And I feel that this very character was a great match for what I photographed in Kolkata.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Time seems to stand still here | JUPITER — 3

I for my part see the technical flaws that these lenses exhibit as ‘character’. And I feel that this very character was a great match for what I photographed in Kolkata.

But if you are in store for vintage lenses with great technical performance run for the door… Jupiter is not your cup of coffee then.

Another thing that I like about these two Jupiter lenses is that they are very small and compact.

For reasons of completeness, I need to mention that I also always had a Panasonic Lumix pocket camera with me. And maybe as much as 20% of all the keepers from this trip were done with this little bugger.

STREET PORTRAITURE with a SAMYANG 300 mm MIRROR LENS

And I also brought my SAMYANG 300 mm mirror lens.

Because one part of every photo adventure I embark on is to do street portraiture with ultra tele lenses. In this case, a 300mm lens becomes a 500mm as the camera is set to APS-C mode.

Here are some photographs that were taken with the SAMYANG puppy.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
SAMYANG 300
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
SAMYANG 300
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
SAMYANG 300
Image for post
Image for post

Kumartuli — the place where the gods are made

For me, the district of Kumartuli was the pinnacle of what Kolkata has to offer as a photo destination.

Dear Reader needs to know that Kumartuli is one of the oldest parts of Kolkata. And the place where all the religious figurines that Hindu devotees use as part of the worship rituals are made.

But for me, it was more than that. Much more. All that makes Kolkata such a captivating place culminates here in a potpourri and a bonanza of impressions.

But rather than me singing a hymn here let the photos do the telling…

Image for post
Image for post
Not only religious figurines — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
This is how the look like when they are finished
Image for post
Image for post
spooky in a way… — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Done — finished … Waiting for the garbage collector… LUMIX 10 pocket camera
Image for post
Image for post
All this beauty is just discarded and turned back into dust - which becomes clay - which becomes figurines again and so forth…

KOLKATA as a photo destination ?

Definitely yes. A big yes indeed. But of course, it depends on what you are looking for.

Most of the folks I encountered out in the streets are rather friendly towards being photographed. In fact, I have often been approached by random people asking me to take photos of them.

On the other side, I think in terms of ‘photography not allowed’ India is proly world champion. There are so many places and locations where you are not allowed to take photos. Or worse where they charge you money for doing so.

Image for post
Image for post
But nobody seems to care…

For instance, on the Howrah bridge which is a huge bridge spanning the Hoogli river and one of Kolkata’s landmarks there are PHOTOGRAPHY PROHIBITED signs prominently displayed. But since I saw lots of locals happily clicking away there I did so too. And it never caused me any trouble.

Image for post
Image for post
On the Howrah bridge — SAMYANG 300 mm mirror lens

And it is this rather relaxed attitude towards rules and regulations that I also like about Kolkata. This was also most apparent in the legendary Indian Coffee house — a very prominent landmark of Kolkata. There are non-smoking signs all over the place, but nobody cares…

Here some images from the legendary Indian coffee house in Kolkata.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
and when it comes to the bill… where in the world is your bill still calculated by hand by a human calculator

Of course, it is also this ‘nobody cares’ attitude that has lots of negative implications and is proly also one of the causes why not all is well in Kolkata.

I guess it is like with so many other aspects of life: every coin has two sides.

Kolkata is a city in decay and a case of missed opportunities

I can’t say why — maybe it’s politics but Kolkata could be one of the most beautiful cities in Asia. It has so much heritage and history. After all, for most the of time, British occupiers had their capital in Kolkata.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Heritage from the British occupier

Kolkata has also lots and lots of super beautiful old villas which I am not even sure if they have anything to do with the ‘Brits’… but most I have seen are in a state of utter disrepair.

Here some images that illustrate how Kolkata is crumbling apart — and what it could be.

Image for post
Image for post
Imagine such buildings would be maintained and preserved…
Image for post
Image for post
How can they let this happen…
Image for post
Image for post
What once was
Image for post
Image for post
reminds me a bit of Havanna Cuba… — JUPITER 9 Lens

Kolkata is also surprisingly green with lots of tree-lined streets and avenues.

Yet it is a city in decay. Buildings are on the verge of collapsing. Maintenance seems to be a foreign concept.

From the perspective of a photographer, this is a bonus. But looking at it that way is also romanticizing…

Image for post
Image for post
KOLKATA is surprisingly green — Jupiter-3 lens
Image for post
Image for post
Nature is in many places reclaiming its stakes… Jupiter-3 lens

And why I say it is a case if missed opportunity? Because would they restore and maintain Kolkata’s rich cultural and historical heritage and invest in this it could be a magnet for tourists.

But hey, it is certainly not up to me to lecture Kolkata what to do…

In the following please find some final images of this endlessly fascinating city that is Kolkata:

Image for post
Image for post
Flowers on sale in front of Kaligat temple
Image for post
Image for post
The largest flower market in Asia…
Image for post
Image for post
Flowers, flowers and yet more flowers
Image for post
Image for post
Anyone remembers the typewriter…
Image for post
Image for post
Kitchen in the front — restaurant inside

I tremendously enjoyed my time there. And I would go there again in an instant.

If you are looking to visit a place off the beaten track you may want to consider visiting Kolkata before the whole thing collapses and is gone for good… But I admit I may be exaggerating here.

Truly’ DOMINIK

Click the following link to join: THE SLOW PHOTOGRAPHY MOVEMENT or visit my website to learn more about SLOW PHOTOGRAPHY

If you enjoyed this story, please click the 👏 button and share to help others find it! Feel free to leave a comment below.

Follow me on INSTAGRAM | Visit me on BEHANCE

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store