“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” ― Charles E. Schaefer
The concept of play is one that is fairly hard to pin down — enveloping as it does, such a wide variety of meanings and imaginaries, many of them even contradictory. It indicates free and spontaneous behaviour, but can also be regulated or ritualistic; it’s pleasurable and enjoyable, but also about need-satisfaction; its participants may be of any age, gender, class or race; it is instinctive, but may also come with instruction; it is an avenue by which we relax, but may also be a competitive endeavour — in other words, it refutes any singular definition. The impulse to play, however, is widely human.
This impulse also often leads to playful manipulation of the environment, and several scholars have noted that such inventive modifications precede the realisation of utility. Logically continuing, play has then been postulated as an impulse that motivates significant achievements, not only in sporting activities, but also in the realms of culture, the arts, sciences and fashion, through its influence on curiosity and mental stimulation. Play is then both behaviour, and a characteristic associated with behaviour — verb and adjective. Elements of play in photography may be dual in the same sense: reflected as either subject, or form, or even both.
Setting a wide net therefore, we issued a call for entries and were overwhelmed with the responses and encouragement we received. We’d like to thank all those who wrote to us with words of support and sent in submissions. We thought it was only fitting that we conclude this issue by featuring some of the several entries we received, and look at the postulations they may be seen to present on the nature of play, and its relationship with photographic representation.
The most immediate denominator that occurred to us while collating the entries we received, were the repeated thematic choices that underscored ideas of play in photography — most commonly, for instance children, laughter, performance, and the monsoons. Also, of course, forms of sport and festivals; the space of the akhada, and holi for instance, in particular. Some of the other submissions, ventured slightly further into broader notions of play whether in exploring a relationship between still photography and movement, looking to question and subvert normative socio-cultural assumptions of gender, or even unexpectedly, framing an exhibition — There Will Never Be Silence — organised by the MoMA that took as its fulcrum, the score for John Cage’s radical composition: 4’33”.
When 4’33” premiered at a concert hall in Woodstock, New York, in August 1952, John Cage was 39 and had already proven himself an indefatigable avant-gardist, but this was adventurous even for him. Written for “any instrument or combination of instruments,” it famously asks for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. This radical gesture upended the conventional structure of music, shifting attention from the performer to the audience, and allowing for endless possibilities of ambient sounds to fill the space. Today, 4’33” is recognized as a groundbreaking work that synthesizes Cage’s interests in chance operations, experimental music, and visual arts. When discussing the work over his lifetime, Cage emphasised that, rather than intending to simply shock his audience, he hoped to attune listeners to silence as a structure within musical notation. The playful impulse at the very heart of this piece, is reflected in the work of several artists, such as Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte in the visual arts or Jeff Wall and Richard Prince in photography — who attempt through play and wit to re-write, re-draw and re-perform our understanding of art. If Playtime were to border on any conclusion then, it would be (in paraphrasing Fred Rogers) this: Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but in photography, as largely in art, play can often be serious learning.
The Tasveer Journal presents here a selection of photographs from photographic series previously featured in the magazine, alongside a few submissions from our open call — highlighting the varied ways in which play may be seen, perceived or instrumental in photography: