Having celebrated Diwali with his family, Hemant Mehta died peacefully in his sleep of old age on Monday, 16 November 2020, aged 89.
I have counted Hemant as a dear friend since 1991 and was honoured when his family asked me to write his obituary. As, I began to write, I realised that I did not know enough about his photographic journey. Thankfully, shortly before he died, Hemant wrote a book about his life called Metamorphosis that he gave to family and close friends. In it he wrote very little about his photography but he included many images. I have drawn on my memories of his early photography, the text in his book and my interpretation of the images he used to illustrate it to interpret his passion for photography.
Born in India, Hemant’s parents emigrated to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) when he was six months old and he went to school there before winning a scholarship to study medicine in India. Having qualified, he returned to Tanganyika and worked as a GP before returning to India to gain practical experience of eye surgery. In 1960, he moved to the UK and trained with all the most respected eye surgeons. In January 1969, he was appointed consultant Eye Surgeon to the Eye and Cottage Hospital, Bangor in N Wales. To say that the hospital was inadequately equipped for eye surgery is a gross understatement but over the years Hemant transformed it into an international centre of excellence for ocular microsurgical techniques. Hemant also developed innovative techniques for dealing with eyelid lesions including cancer. These made eye surgery safer and simpler.
Hemant published numerous scientific papers. All of this might seem irrelevant to members of the RPS. The key point is that the techniques he described in scientific papers were illustrated with his own before and after photographs. It was these crucial photographs that eventually convinced eye and plastic surgeons around the world to adopt his techniques and brought him international recognition.
Aged 13 and living in Tanzania, Hemant bought a second-hand Box Brownie camera and his love of photography began, something he came to share with his future wife Min. Later in life, this was coupled with a love of travel. He and Min visited almost every country in the world, except Australia, some more than once. Hemant initially photographed landscapes and natural history subjects. Whatever his subject, Hemant was an imaginative Fine Art photographer who instinctively used light to enhance his subjects. Although he captured animals and birds in the traditional way, he also used slow shutter speeds and other techniques to create beautiful impressionistic images. His close-up images of plants and ferns are more than record shots. They capture the beauty of his chosen subjects.
Hemant was a confident self-taught photographer and saw no need to have his talent validated. However, his wife had other ideas. Given how much he had spent on his photographic kit, she insisted that he apply for an RPS distinction. As he tells the story, he selected thirty of his best nature images and put together a panel of twenty which he submitted to the Nature Fellowship Assessment panel. He said that if he was successful that was fine but if he was not he would not submit again! In 1992, he was awarded his FRPS at the first attempt and the RPS wanted to keep his images to show at Advisory Days as an example of a successful Nature Fellowship panel. Hemant declined their request because he needed them for presentations throughout the UK and also in India and Europe which is an indication of how popular his talks were and how much his images were appreciated.
Looking at Hemant’s images in his book, it is clear that he had a long-standing fascination and understanding of the night sky. In 1987, while staying on the equator he captured an amazing image of star trails passing straight over the equator but bent to the north and the opposite to the south. He travelled far and wide to capture the northern lights, the solar eclipse in Cornwall in 1999 and even the Orion nebula. At home in Anglesey, he captured Venus crossing the sun. When he moved to his last home in Penarth, he built his own observatory where amongst other things he photographed flares on the sun’s surface.
Hemant was a photographer who followed his passion. He definitely had a ‘seeing eye’ which he used creatively. He loved photography for the joy that the images he captured gave him.
He will be sadly missed by all his photographic friends and we offer her our deepest condolences to his wife, three daughters and five grandchildren.
Anne J Sutcliffe FRPS
An abridged version of this obituary appears in the RPS Journal (March-April 2021).