The collection of images at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum echo, note to note, the rush beyond the building walls. There are resonances of honking traffic, the creaks of local trains, and the breathlessness of rushing pedestrians.
The images are from Dutch photographer Martin Roemers’s series Metropolis, a documentation of modern life in mega-cities. Most of them show blurred movement and swirls of masses against sharp buildings or a solitary still individual.
Roemers says the idea of Metropolis got seeded nine years ago, in 2007, when he was in Mumbai, trying to fit its character and energy within a single frame. “I was struck by just how crowded it [Mumbai] is,” said the 54-year-old. “I spent the whole day in a building in a particularly hectic part of Mumbai, near Mohammed Ali Road and took the same analogue shot over and over again.
“I spent the day carefully looking at who or what was either entering or leaving the image. Were there vehicles? A rickshaw? Or was someone interesting standing completely still at just the right moment? All these elements had to be in the right place.”
That picture of bustle became realer, as the United Nations Population Fund released a report in 2009 on a decisive turning point. From that year on, the report said, the majority of the world’s population would be living in cities.
“The UN defined ‘mega-cities’ as cities with populations of 10 million and more,” Roemers said in an interview. “That was exactly the angle I needed to make this project bigger – because I already knew that I wanted to do more with this idea.”
Intrigued by the urbanisation, Roemers spent the following years travelling through 22 of the 28 ‘mega-cities’ across five continents, photographing the life there. His travels took him from London and Istanbul to Dhaka, Delhi and Kolkata, among other places. At the Bhau Daji Lad exhibition, though, the focus is Asia.
Roemers’s images don’t fixate on architecture or tourist spots. Instead they take in the human energy-filled arterial roads and busy markets that characterise cities. You may not see the Gateway of India in his pictures, but you will certainly get a glimpse of a bus making its way in the traffic of Mohammad Ali Road, as kali-peeli taxis rush past.
“A lot can happen in one location in just a few seconds,” said Roemers. “People walk, vehicles drive. It is about finding the balance between moving and static elements and at the same time focusing on individuals who populate the streets. These individuals make the small stories in a photograph. The beauty of looking at a print is that the longer you look, the more you see!”
While there are common threads in the images, there are also distinctive marks.
“Before going to a mega-city I do research,” said Roemers. “For example, Kolkata is the only city left in the world where rickshaws are pulled by men. I wanted to include this in a photograph so I looked for a position where there is a lot of rickshaw traffic. Then it is a waiting game to catch the right moment in which this element is clearly visible.”
Roemers’s technique is to find a high vantage point, above a busy square or a frenzied street, to capture the endless flow of life happening under him, waiting patiently till all the elements fall into place. “Each shot involved a long exposure time (on film) so that the city’s vitality is shown through the blurred movement of people and traffic while also literally focusing on lone individuals on the street.”
In an essay on Roemers, Els Barents, founding director of Amsterdam's photography museum Huis Marseille, wrote: "In Metropolis, he [Roemers] shows you what really lurks behind those neutral, metropolitan statistics... The abstraction concealed in every good photo becomes palpable in the improbable balance between static and dynamic forces. And no matter how extreme, in Roemers’ photos that balance remains intact."
Metropolis will be on display at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, till May 24. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.