An Eye forNature
When I approached the iconic photo artist Dr Noazesh Ahmed for an interview for The Daily
Dr Noazesh Ahmed
Star Online, he said he was very busy writing an essay on the indigenous plants of Dhaka commissioned by the Asiatic Society, Bangladesh. After repeated requests, however, he relented and said he would give me an hour on November 19, although he was supposed to submit his essay on the very day and in the evening he had another schedule to launch a new camera brand. Little did either of us know that it would be his last interview. Just four days later, internationally renowned genetic scientist, photo artist and author of a number of books on photography Dr Noazesh Ahmed passed away on November 24. He had a massive cardiac arrest just when he was about to leave the "Celebrating Life" programme organised by The Daily Star and Standard Chartered Bank, at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre. He was immediately rushed to National Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases where attending doctors pronounced him dead.
Dr Noazesh Ahmed was born in Paril-Nawadha village in Manikganaj on February 1, 1935. His fascination for photography began since his childhood. He learnt the basics of photography from his elder brother Naibuddin Ahmed, a popular photographer in those days. A schoolboy, Noazesh used to take photographs of the landscapes with an ordinary 'baby brownie' camera in his leisure time. While a student of class ten he took a wonderful photograph titled "Struggle" featuring two men towing a boat. This photograph was later exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute Exhibition in London in 1949. "This incident gave my photographic ambitions a huge boost," said Noazesh Ahmed, "However, I did not take photography as a profession, it remained a passion. I had the intention to become a scientist."
His skill in photography helped him to become a scientist. While a student of the then East Pakistan Agricultural Institute (Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University), Ahmed held a group photo exhibition at the Farmers' Fair. His photographs impressed the then American Education and Cultural Affairs Officer Mr Cleveland. “Cleveland was so impressed that he offered me a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin,” he said.
Use of 'multiple exposure' and 'sandwiching ' are two innovative techniques used by the iconic photo artist.
In the US, Noazesh Ahmed did his PhD in Plant Genetics under a Nobel Prize winning genetic engineer. After completing his Post Doctorate Fellow, from American Foundation for Biography Research, Dr Noazesh Ahmed returned home and joined as a Research Adviser at Duncan Brothers Tea Estate. "I did exclusive research on the quality of tea," said Ahmed, "Developing various clones of tea is my major contribution in agriculture. I also did the classification of the local tea species based on the anatomic, morphological and chemical aspects which nobody did before. So, the research helped developing the tea industry in the country. As recognition to my contribution, Pakistan government appointed me as the Member Secretary of the Pakistan Tea Board."Meanwhile, Dr Noazesh Ahmed continued his photography. His stay in the tea estates gave him an opportunity to take photographs of flora and fauna, which was a great opportunity to develop his skills as a nature photographer for which he became later famous In fact, it was Dr Noazesh Ahmed who introduced colour photography and nature photography in Bangladesh. "I used to send photographs from the tea garden to be published in several newspapers and magazines. Sunday Magazine of the then Pakistan Observer mostly used my pictures for its cover. I successfully introduced a photo-feature section with aesthetically rich colour photographs in the magazine." said Dr Ahmed.
As a scientist Dr Noazesh Ahmed did consultancy work for several international agencies such as Asian Development Bank, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in the Southeast Asian counties. The camera was his constant companion to his leisure time. While living in the Southeast Asian countries, he became fascinated with the Buddhist monks. He used to spend time with the monks in temples to photograph their lifestyle along with the spectacular landscapes of the region. In his last days he was planning to exhibit the photographs of the monks in Bangladesh, which were exhibited earlier in Thailand and Japan. "Whenever I went to do my professional duty, my camera was my best friend. I experiment on natural photography giving it as much importance as my professional duty as a scientist. And both of these two qualities are inseparable in my life," he said.
Art critic Professor Manzoorul Islam has aptly evaluated this dualism in Noaezesh Ahmed, "Noazesh Ahmed looks at the world around him with the eyes of a scientist, but his camera captures the images that his eyes register as pure art. The twin concerns of a naturalist and an artist have shaped his responses to nature, life and experience, combining the dispassionate objectivity of the former with the relentless search for form and expression of the latter." (Quoted from the preface of Noazesh Ahmed's book on photography titled Quest for Reality, published by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.)
Dr Ahmed developed his photographic skills, while studying Plant Genetics in the US. In the US he was first introduced to coloured photographs and modern cameras such as Crome X and Crome 125. His participation at the Portrait of America Exhibition 1957-58, organised jointly by the US State Department and Lifetime Magazine brought him early into the limelight. He was one of the two foreign participants along with the leading American photographers. In 1959, while studying for his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Noazesh Ahmed participated in the Camera Concept Exhibition at the university.
"After participating at those exhibitions in the US, I had the chance to work with renowned American photographers such as Gordon Parks, Ernest Hass and David Hamilton," Dr. Ahmed said, “I consider Ernest Hass as my mentor. His amazing sense of aesthetic sense inspired me a lot to develop my skills. I also drew my inspiration from the Chief Photographer of Life magazine Gordon Parks. As he was a poet cum photographer, he would to add verses written by himself on the photographs. Moreover, he used to illustrate poems. Which is why I use lines from Holy Books and well known poems by Tagore, Jibananda, Nazrul and Shamsur Rahman on my photographs. I've illustrated Tagore's Chhinno Patra and Jibananda Das' Dhanshiri Naditir Pashey on my photography"
Balanced and colourful composition is a unique feature in Dr Noazesh Ahmed's work.
Many local and foreign art critics have evaluated Dr Ahmed's photographs as a unique art form in terms of composition, balance and dramatic presentation of light and shadow. His photographs reveal aspects of reality that elude even a discerning onlooker, because he is not interested in mere facts, but in the workings of an inner aesthetic that expresses itself in rare moments and in rare combinations of natural objects, of man and his surroundings. As a creative photo artist Dr Noazesh Ahmed explores nature in colourful forms and poignant expressions -- more like a painter than a photographer. As is usual with Dr. Ahmed's photography, the images evoke a number of emotions.
"Paintings of the master painters such as Piccasso have a remarkable influence on me. I was also influenced by impressionism. As done by the painters, I've always tried to use the idea of abstract, semi-abstract and symbolism in my composition of portraying man and his surroundings. As a creative photographer my intention was to reach the perfection and enriching my intellectual depth. And I've always tried to do experiments as a creative photographer to create new dimension."
The photo artist has presented many photo-albums including Bangladesh (1975), Portrait of Bangladesh (1982), Quest for Reality (1997), Wild Flowers of Bangladesh (1998) Chinnapatra (2002) and Dhanshiri Naditir Pashey (2004). However, the book that gave him the greatest satisfaction was the photo album Bangladesh, at a time when printing colour photographs was a difficult process. The book was a tri-lingual venture (English, French and German) with striking images of Bangladeshi life and landscape, and was published solely through the private initiative of an intrepid publisher. Dr Noazesh Ahmed won the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award in 1978. His works were published in many globally reputed newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Focus, Hemisphere, Illustrated weekly of India and Far Eastern Economic Review.
Portraits of National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, artists Zainul Abedin and Quamrul Hasan by Dr Noazesh Ahmed.
Dr Ahmed had also used photographs for creating awareness on the Liberation War amongst the foreigners. Soon after the beginning of the Liberation War in 1971, Dr Ahmed gave up his post as the Pakistan Tea Board and escaped to London. In London, he actively participated in the movements of the Bangali expatriates for the Independence movement. He also took photographs of those movements, however, lost them in the airport. Subsequently he migrated to the US and took part in the awareness generating programmes through exhibitions. “I used to display slide shows on the Liberation War. In '72, I participated in a solo exhibition featuring the portraits of Bangladesh. The exhibition was organised by the Bangladesh Centre in Washington DC and New York City. It was a rewarding experience for me, as it allowed me to introduce my country to the world,” he said.
His devotion for the motherland and nation compelled him to leave the US and return home in 1973
A few of the cover jackets of the photo albums by Dr Noazesh Ahemd.
leaving a lucrative job in the World Bank. "While serving for the World Bank, my colleagues used to raise questions: what's the uniqueness of Bangladesh? Why have you liberated from Pakistan? Such questions burned my mind and I decided to publish a photo-album on Bangladesh featuring its unique natural aspects, culture, heritage, history and others to introduce the newborn country to the foreigners who don't have any idea of this beautiful country and its distinctive culture. The photo album titled Bangladesh was published in 1975 in three languages-- English German and French. British Geographical Society announced Bangladesh as the best book of the year. 6,000 copies of the book were sold in a year. My next project Portrait of Bangladesh also received a great response,” he informed.
Subsequently he published other photo-albums on natural flora and fauna of the country such as Portrait of Bangladesh (1982) and Wild Flowers of Bangladesh (1998). He was an ardent Bengali and delighted in upholding Bengali traditions. "He strongly heralded the spirit of Bangaliana," says eminent cultural personality Dr Sanjida Khatun, "Voluntarily he used to organise programmes to celebrate Bashonto and Pitha Utshob and used to invite people to participate in it. In his last days he used to take urbanites to celebrate pithautshob in midst of nature in his parental residence."
One of Noazesh Ahmed's close friendships was with Patua Quamrul Hasan. Both introduced Bratochari Andolan in the 1960s and continued it till the 1970s. Bratochari Andolon was originally introduced by Guru Sadaychari Dutta and was nurtured in Kolkata. The movement reflects the legacy of Bangaliyana through dance and music. The dance stances are a kind of physical exercise and the music glorifies the Bangaliana. Quamrul Hasan popularised it in Bangladesh in the 1960s. And Noazesh Ahmed was closely associated with the movement. They even introduced it in the then East Pakistan Rifles and displayed the art in front of Ayub Khan, who was also amazed by the display. We revived the art form again in 2003. This time also Noazesh Ahmed became the member of the committee. He also gave us the location of the batomul at Ramna, where Chhayanat celebrates Pahele Baishakh," she adds.
"Struggle", the first photograph taken by Noazesh Ahmed, a schoolboy at that time, was exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute Exhibition in London in 1949.
Effusive and charming Noazesh Ahmed's friendships transcended age barriers. "He was a great friend across all age groups and intellectual capabilities, and tried to appreciate all points of views. If he differed, he did it decently. I have seldom heard him using harsh words. He had enormous endearing capabilities. We all know that he was an outstanding photographer. But his approach to photography was driven more by his heart than his mind. He did not have any agenda for taking pictures, nor was he ever influenced by any particular style. He photographed like writing poems. And photographed whatever his heart dictated," says cultural personality Aly Zaker, who was his young friend since 1969 with same cultural and political ideology.
On his being single throughout his life Zaker informs, "That should best be kept to himself, specially, now that he is no more. But one of the reasons was perhaps because he could not marry the woman he really loved. Someone who lived in a distant land. Even at seventy five he once ruminatively said that he should undertake another search to locate her.”
A few of his favourite photographs.
According to Zaker, Noazesh Ahmed's contribution to our culture is just as much as any thinking artist or poet. " But, of course, he was a very modern, progressive and objective man and above all a great Bangali." The nature lover has been buried in the midst of nature at his parental home in Manikganj for his final rest.
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