Wandering through the labyrinth of ancient lanes around Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, last week, I stumble across a dimly lit corner workshop, open to the street. A man is working inside, engraving words in metal. He looks up, sees me, and beckons me in. It feels strange, almost as if he is an old acquaintance who is expecting me. Wordlessly, as an old acquaintance might, he returns to his engraving.
I watch him for a while, admiring the quick, skilful way he goes about his work by the light of the desk lamp.
After a few minutes he invites me to sit down in one of the two chairs by his desk and drink chai with him. While we drink, he continues to work, and we begin to talk. He tells me that he has been an engraver for over thirty years in this little workshop close to Chandni Chowk. His father was an engraver before him, and his grandfather before that.
He rises, and moves to the shelf at the back of the workshop, returning to proudly show me a dish beautifully engraved by his father in Sanskrit.
I am invited to sign my name on a piece of paper. He studies it for a moment, picks up a piece of sheet brass, and rapidly makes a perfect copy of my signature in the metal indistinguishable from the paper original, the weight and fade of every stroke of my signature reflected in the depth of each engraved line. He hands it to me to keep.
I ask if I might take some photographs of him. He nods, and picks up his tools. Within moments, he is deeply engrossed in his work, once again apparently oblivious to my presence. I am similarly absorbed in the challenge of trying to make at least one good photograph to remember him by, grappling with the large dynamic range of the scene, trying to retain detail in his nimble hands bathed in the pool of light from the desk lamp without losing too much detail in the remainder of the workshop. I have a flash unit with me – a Nikon Speedlight which I can trigger wirelessly from the camera – together with a selection of strobist gels and a small portable softbox, but I cannot conceive of any way of filtering flash into the scene without destroying the atmospheric ambient light, so I let it be.
We are both working silently now, both deep in concentration. No sound except the scratching of the Engraver’s tools on metal, and the occasional click of the camera shutter as I move around the workshop, changing my angle and viewpoint, assessing the light, refining my composition, watching the expression in his face and the story unfolding in the movement of his hands.
I am thankful for the piece of white paper serendipitously lying on his desk. The warm light from the tungsten desk lamp bounces off the paper, spotlighting his face. The paper increases the effective size of the light source – the bare bulb in the lamp – softening the shadows on his face. The paper is grossly over-exposed due to its proximity to the lamp, but this I decide I can live with; the paper is irrelevant to the story, and his face is nicely lit, sculpted by the light reflected from the paper and from the surrounding table.
I can’t decide whether I am grateful for the fluorescent strip at the rear of the room or not. It brings some much-needed light to the rear of the shop, but that light is cold, ugly, operating-theatre-sterile and soulless in comparison to the yellow warmth of the tungsten desk lamp. Not much I can do about it anyway, so I need to work with it or exclude it from the frame, as I don’t feel that I can ask him to switch it off.
I am shooting in aperture-priority, matrix/evaluative exposure mode, the lightning-fast but ultimately soulless digital recording machine in my hands reacting to the gloom of the workshop, trying its utmost to turn that background darkness into mid-grey, in the process rendering his hands white-hot with over-exposure. The hands need to be correctly exposed; the dimly lit workshop should remain just that. Now I am taking control of the exposure, overriding the camera’s meter, dialling down the exposure compensation to preserve detail in those hands, key his trade, vital to the story. Two-thirds of a stop below the metered exposure. One full stop below. One and a third. One and two-thirds. Finally, two whole stops below the metered exposure. Now losing all detail in the shadows. Tweaking the exposure upwards once again, trying to walk the exposure tightrope between unrecoverable highlight detail and plugged shadows. Prioritising the highlights, as the story in this image is definitely primarily in the highlights, in his face and busy hands, at the edge of the pool of light cast by the desk lamp.
He looks up, remembering my presence.
Not wishing to overstay my welcome nor interrupt his work any further, I finish my chai, thank him for his hospitality, and leave.
I try to find his workshop again the next day but cannot. In a city with no street names, and in which to the outsider, one narrow lane looks very much like another, navigation is decidedly difficult. I am absolutely convinced I am in the same place I was the day before, but there is no Workshop; no Engraver. If it wasn’t for the photographs on my memory card, I would start to worry about my fertile imagination.
I resolve to try and find him again on a future visit. Perhaps I can show him the photographs I made last week, take some prints with me to give to him.
Until then, I will look at these photographs – and my signature etched skilfully in a sliver of brass – and remember.