Vasant Nayak: A Photographer Comes Full Circle
Photography and art did not come to Vasant Nayak as burning passions that he knew he must pursue. They were tools and he was self-taught. And perhaps it is the smoldering embers that we fan ourselves, the fires we bank for another day, that never burn out, but stay with us forever.
While pursuing a B.A. in sociology at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, Vasant began to use photography and media for the first time when he received a UGC grant for a visual anthropology project. He photographed indigenous peoples in India's tribal areas, who were being displaced through modernization. Following his B.A., he studied communications media at Mumbai's XIC, including film, television, and radio. Vasant was offered a position at the Institute, where he used video, photography, and sound recording to create presentations. There, he scavenged spare film and frames to use in his personal exploration of the art and technique of photography. He examined British and American photographers in old magazines and books, consuming Andreas Feininger's The Complete Photographer, and its lessons in technique. In the early 1980s, there was no school of photography and no community of photographers in Mumbai with whom to share his interest, so Vasant built his community from published works he could find.
In 1983, Vasant went to the United States, where he showed his photographs to Jerry Stephany at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Clearly impressed, Stephany granted him a scholarship and admission to the undergraduate school. Vasant remained there for one year, taking in everything the UMBC professor had to offer. Jerry had studied under Minor White and Henry Holmes Smith. He had an extensive resource of photographs, film, and recorded conversations, which he generously shared with Vasant. UMBC boasts the Special Collections at the Kuhn Library, with hundreds of museum quality works he could handle and study on a daily basis.
Vasant then sent his portfolio to apply for two prestigious workshops on the west coast, explaining that he had no funds to attend. Both the Friends of Photography and Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops granted him full scholarships to make two trips for the one-week workshops. These put him in the room, working with Paul Caponigro, Linda Connor, Dave Bohn, and William Clift - four of the most significant artists to inform Vasant's own artistic development. Reflecting on the experience, Vasant says, "This is when photography was revealed to me. It had a profound impact."
After the workshops and unable to work for a living on his student visa, Vasant returned to India and began to establish a presence as a photographer in Bangalore. In the months following, he received notification that he had been accepted into a graduate program. Friends he had made at the workshops got him admission and a full scholarship to earn his Master of Visual Arts from Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.
Beginning at Purdue in 1985, Vasant was there for two years with a teaching assistantship. He worked with faculty who had studied under Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, who were part of Chicago's New Bauhaus. Here, Vasant gained excellent teaching experience, as well as having two years of total immersion in photography, art history, and criticism. From Lafayette, he was able to make frequent trips to museums in Chicago and to nearby universities and their photo departments.
Upon completion of his master's degree, Vasant moved to New York, where he worked as a photo researcher at SYGMA, a news stock photo agency. This provided wonderful experience, locating and sending images at the request and based on the criteria of Time, Newsweek, and other such publications. But, it soon became repetitive and uninteresting. Vasant then took up a position with FPG, another stock photo agency, where the requests were more conceptual in nature. But he was asked to returned to Purdue to teach as a sabbatical replacement.
Upon completion of his temporary position at Purdue, Vasant moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and began to teach photography through the extension program at the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA). Once he joined the faculty in the photography department, his distinguished and promising career as a professor and artist really began. He had gallery representation and showed exhibiting in group and solo shows within the United States and abroad. A committed teacher and professor, respected by both his students and his colleagues, Vasant attended many conferences nationally and globally, addressing educators on culture and its relationship to photography, among other topics.
As photography moved away from the darkroom and into the computer lab, Vasant took a great interest, and was at the cutting edge of the movement, creating large format color prints that were digital montages of his photographs and other objects. His own portfolio expanded to include digitally manipulated prints, large format color photographs, websites and interactive animation, as well as black-and-white photography. At MICA, in the late 90s, he created and directed a master’s degree program in digital arts, the first of its kind in the U.S. at the time. The program worked with students pursuing video, 3-D design and animation, interactive programming, and digitally constructed imaging.
When the internet was new and people were still not quite sure what to do with it, Vasant used his sabbatical to launch an online venture. It was taking off, and the potential could not be ignored. Vasant returned to MICA, but the elitism of the fine arts scene also became too incongruous with Vasant’s ideals and his relationship to all he believed to be simple, pure, and honest. After nearly a decade, he left MICA and took a hiatus from the art world.
The success he found in business made it possible for the establishment of the MurthyNAYAK Foundation. Through it, Vasant returned to working in communications media, making short films, websites, publications, and more for NGOs in India and nonprofit organizations in the United States, working for social change. These projects are offered through grants from the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, to organizations whose goals are in line with its mission.
It was through this return to his old tools that Vasant found himself again drawn to photography as an art form, and he discovered that the fire had not burned out. He is making photographs again, but now with the insight, perspective, and wisdom that comes from maturity and having spent time away. The old need for a community of photographers, from his years working alone in Mumbai, also reawakened in Vasant. In searching the photographs of others drawn to India, he has begun to build a resource on Indian Photography. Today, a community can be brought together virtually, regardless of the miles or oceans between them.
Since coming to the United States as a young man, each trip to India has been a mission to make pictures, collect objects, and be imprinted by India deeply enough to sustain his soul and his art making until his next sojourn. Vasant says, although his body resides in the United States, his soul dwells in India, and his mind traverses between the two.