To all the ways in which a human may cease to be, we have added a new category, that of the “selfie death” – in which the pursuit of a great self-portrait, framed just right, leads to the accidental death of the photographer.

What a cultural setting then, in 2017, to consider a photography festival and reprise the role of being simply a viewer, experiencing a series of images in whose creation and selection, one has played no role, and which needs be encountered on its own terms – as an art object inviting thought and interpretation, swipe-able neither left nor right. The third edition of the Focus Photography Festival, which opened this past weekend in Mumbai, across several venues, features photographers both known and unknown, concentrated around the theme of memory. A subject particularly suited to photography that has been interpreted by the organisers and artists, in interesting and surprising ways.

One such is the exhibit In the City, a Library by photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri, created in collaboration with writer Jerry Pinto. The work is a result of a 15-month-long exploration of a public institution at the heart of old Bombay – The People’s Free Reading Room and Library, one of the few public libraries in Mumbai.

In the City, a Library is unusual for a photography exhibit. The visual subject here are books, more specifically, pages from open books containing illustrations or whole bodies of text. Amidst the less trodden aisles, on dusty shelves, undisturbed by a human hand in decades (which describes the greater percentage of shelves in the library), Chaudhuri and Pinto found books long forgotten, by authors long dead.

The exhibit is a small selection from the several hundred photographs. It speaks an elegiac poem to an ageing library that scarcely sees readers curious to know its heart. As one moves through the gallery, taking in the photographs, this indulgent charm with these books that no one reads anymore is layered by something more profound – that knowledge accrues, moves on and leaves behind. That a book that once informed a reader about the world, in the fullness of time, turns inward to inform about itself and the time it comes from.

In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017
In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017

The People’s Free Reading Room and Library dates back to 1845. The old forgotten books seen in the exhibit are largely European texts from the colonial era. These books were forgotten not just because of our society’s tenuous connection with curiosity and reading, but also because the world has moved past the theories, opinions, analysis and descriptions of the world that are contained in them. So when you look upon the technical drawing for an industrial process, as featured in one of the photographs, or the illustrated comparisons of the ear muscles of man and ape, as featured in another, you are struck by how irrelevant that technical knowledge is to the engineers and biologists today.

A similar thing happens when you read the anthropological texts on display – like the orientalist description of a street in Peking, by an enthusiastic European, writing far before anthropology evolved to its present level of sophistication and subtlety. When you read the doggerel verse titled Tennis Chokras and Bengali Babus under a caricature of Indians, it does not sting, because these are books that have lost their seriousness. Their ability to inform about their subject matter stands discounted by time and progress.

In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017.
In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017.

Through the composition of images, and the fauna which makes up the ecosystem of the library, the artwork evokes a specific site: there is the reader who leaves her mark, sometimes in a flower used as a bookmark in an old copy of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Or a scathing review scribbled under the title page of a thriller warning future readers of the abysmal writing to follow. Like the silver fish that’s left its mark on a page titled Pages of War, it is no accident that this photography show required a collaboration with a writer. How wonderful would it be if these photographs, eventually found a permanent home in The People’s Free Reading Room and Library.

Part of FOCUS this year are two exhibits within walking distance of each other, which should ideally be seen one after the other – My Analogue World at Max Mueller Bhavan and Gedney in India at the Nicholson Jehangir Gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Both exhibits feature black and white portraitures of people and place, pictures of India in the 1970s and 1980s, and instances where the photographers were working far from home.

Tokyo Subway. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala
Tokyo Subway. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala

With so much in common, the contrasts in these works reveal how differently two photographers encounter the world they archive as seen in the stories that they capture. My Analogue World, a series of prints from Sooni Taraporevala’s early career, were taken in the 1970s and 1980s, at home and abroad. The conceit of the exhibit is to simulate the pre-digital, silver-gelatin print days of photography, which comes together best in the slide show at the back of the gallery. In a sectioned-off corner, an old-school projector creates nostalgia, to the mechanical sound of changing slides, as it beams pictures from the Parsi neighbourhood of a bygone Bombay. Taraporevala’s photographic gaze is playful, particularly when she turns her eye to her own community. There is a humour and familiarity to her photographs of the Parsis.

However, the photographs to seek out in My Analogue are a set of photographs she took abroad – three large format prints from France and a set of smaller prints from Tokyo. In each of the large prints, human subjects are foregrounded against a backdrop that locates them in their world. Two shepherds caught mid-banter, as their sheep graze in the middle distance, framed against an immense valley. Taraporevala is particularly alive to capturing children: a masked child laughs into the camera, as adults dance in the town square beyond. A delectable picture of childhood in rural France – two boys with their play hats on, holding a conference mid adventure, holding their rakes like antennas. A little schoolboy captured in all his impishness, as he paces the subway steps in his schoolbag.

Roshan Seth. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala.
Roshan Seth. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala.

William Gedney worked from the mid-1950s till the mid-1980s. He won the Guggenheim and the Fulbright fellowships, was held in wide acclaim by noted photographers of his day but was a recluse who gained little recognition outside photography circles while he was alive. Today he is seen as a key figure in American black and white street and documentary photography. He visited India twice. Once in 1969-’71, when he stayed with a local family in Benares, and then again a decade later, when he visited Calcutta. Gedney in India is a show featuring exclusively the work he did in these two cities.

Gedney is noted for the intimacy in his photographs of people and communities. His photographs put people centre stage and imbue individuals with tremendous character, whether it is someone looking straight into the camera, or caught in a private moment on a public street. In the show, for instance, is a powerful photograph of a hand-rickshaw puller on a Calcutta street in the 1980s – topless, his intricate muscles glistening in the rain, caught by Gedney in a moment of private reflection in a momentary pause on a busy street. Or those of the two bespectacled sari-clad college girls, sipping a cola, unable to take their eyes off something in the distance. Or that of a man, leaning in slightly to listen to what the shopkeeper is telling him. These photographs feel intimate to the viewer because Gedney makes you feel like you know the kind of moment the subject is having in the photograph. His photographs feel sombre because of the psychic depth in them.

Benares, India, 1969-1971. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Benares, India, 1969-1971. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.

Gedney is also known for his architectural studies of neighbourhoods in the quiet and dark of a night. There is a superlative example of this in the show of a photograph of a ghat in Benares. It’s quiet, all the shops are shuttered, the steps are empty and there are a few lonely figures (an old man and a widow) turned away from the camera and each other in quiet contemplation on a bamboo float. Gedney takes this photograph from the water, frames it such that you can’t see the sky and turns this scene into something surreal, intricate and otherworldly. In Gedney in India, you see a photographer who came to India, found magic in the everyday, instead of the exotic. When Gedney died in 1989 of AIDS, he left his prized possessions – 924 books on analogue photography and his camera – to a little institution in Kolkata.

FOCUS also features some photo-journalistic work. Of particular note is Before now, then by Yuki Iwanami and Kota Kishi, showing at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. It is a powerful photo-narrative work telling little stories of people whose lives got caught up in the 2011 tsunami which devastated Japan and led to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. There is text to introduce the individual subjects to go along with sets of photographs. The show captures the mood of loss, the loss of anchor following a bereavement and the story of individuals needing to move on but unable to let go following a disaster.

Benares, India, 1979, Bathers by the Ganges. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Benares, India, 1979, Bathers by the Ganges. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.

The Focus Photography Festival is on till March 23.