Deepak Puri typifies laconicism. Getting him to talk about himself or his work is not easy. So to know him, the best place to look is in the effusive words of his colleagues and acquaintances. In 2001, Karl Taro Greenfeld, the then deputy editor of Time Asia, wrote that Puri was the magazine’s “secret weapon” who “oiled” its coverage of countless chaotic stories.
“Technically he’s our South Asia general manager and photo editor, and his job description sounds basic: he paves the way so that correspondents and photographers can do their work. But it’s anything but,” Greenfeld wrote in a letter to the readers. He illustrated with anecdotes, Puri’s legendary status built up over his 31 years at Time, from 1978:
“When Time sponsored a meeting of American CEOs in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, the street leading to the conference was under construction. Deepak drafted scores of workers (plus a couple of elephants for show) and rebuilt the 1-km road. And in a legendary exploit in 1990, a Time editor and the New Delhi bureau chief were stranded in Srinagar covering the Kashmiri insurgency. To get them out, Deepak cajoled a domestic airline to divert a plane to get them.”
Puri’s reputation is that of a man who can make the impossible, possible. For decades, he was the go-to guy for photojournalists across countries and publications. And Puri came through every time.
From the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq and Afghan wars, to the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Babri Masjid demolition – these are just some of the challenging stories Puri coordinated on the ground.
Over the years, Puri worked with several legendary photojournalists, such as James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry and Raghu Rai, and many of them showed their gratitude by gifting him signed prints of their works. From this grew a seminal archive of 20th century journalism.
In 2015, Puri, now 63, donated his collection of over 150 iconic images to Bengaluru’s Museum of Art and Photography, a repository of art, photography, textile and design, mostly from the Indian subcontinent. Fifty prints from this collection are on display at Mumbai’s Tarq gallery.
For the show titled Legacy of Photojournalism: The Deepak Puri Collection, MAP has worked in collaboration with Tasveer, an organisation dedicated to photography and art photography.
One image from 1997 by Pamela Singh shows a woman selling statuettes staring through a car window at the well-dressed lady sitting inside. The sharp, slightly haughty features of the Victorian-style statuette tucked under the seller’s arm mirror those of the woman seated in the car.
In another, a woman walks amongst the ruins of Kabul, tinged with sadness.
Together the images evoke a time when photojournalism was the primary way to visually experience the larger world. Colour or monochrome, they capture moments of self-reflection, serenity, despair and joy.
“Photojournalism has gone through phenomenal changes in the last two decades,” said Puri. “In India, however, it is, alas, as good as dead because most important newspapers and magazines (with some exceptions) have no space for even good photographs.”
He contrasts this with publications in Europe and the US that continue to create a front-page statement with a strong image to record the visual history of our time.
“I donated my entire collection,” said Puri. “I want these to be shared with the world. Particularly with students and lovers of photography.”
For decades, Puri’s office in the Press Trust of India building in central Delhi served as an archive for these images, but now, he says, they have found a “safe home” with MAP.
In an essay on Puri, author and travel writer Pico Iyer had said, “The walls in his office became a celebrated wonder of the modern world, a home-made museum, because they showed the work of artists chronicling the most transformative moments of our time, in a grand tradition that Life had done much to create. These were the last cameramen in the golden age of photo-journalism, doing what no one can or will do again. And Deepak was the one who brought every photographer to the action, and then every photograph to the world.”
Legacy of Photojournalism: The Deepak Puri Collection is on at Tarq gallery, Mumbai, till May 26.