Pablo Bartholomew’s The Calcutta Diaries at Sakshi Gallery takes you back in time: literally, through photographs taken in the city in the ‘70s, and artistically, from a time when photojournalism was a hallmark of magazines like LIFE and National Geographic. Its transition today into the gallery space elicits two stories, one of a lost Calcutta—its very name has changed—and one of the place for contemporary photojournalistic photography itself.
In an age of pre-digital dissemination, photojournalists, the great visual storytellers, wove narratives. Commissioned by magazines that published these photo essays and accorded author status to the photographer, their "eye" was the voice used to tell the story. Both editor and photographer took on the larger concept of informing a public meaningfully through this modern pictorial language. Today, with television and the internet bringing images to the bedroom on a daily basis, Bartholomew finds himself in the gallery, just as other photojournalists place themselves in books.
But documenting itself has changed; in a recent exhibition on photography from Iran curated by PIX’s Rahaab Allana, photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi staged past events, re-documenting the fake as real—a kind of cinematic day for night trick in the documentary genre. As Swiss curator/writer Urs Stahel observes, "the reporting image, however, is not dead at all, it’s just that a shift has occurred. The diminishing role of photography in mainstream magazines stands in a conspicuous contrast to its integration into other fields such as advertising, fashion, and art."
Stahel cautions about fashion and advertising: "It’s not about content, but the mere semblance of it, an attractive rustling of the real," he writes, quoting Rosalind Krauss who "calls it the shift from the 'view of the world' to the aesthetic concept of the 'landscape.' The landscape of reality is woven into advertising, just like you season a dish or spray a scent in the air. A mere whiff of the real."
Pablo Bartholomew, Ray on set, Calcutta, c.1982; © Pablo Bartholomew and Sakshi Gallery
In Bartholomew’s photographs we get the more than just the "whiff of the real." Burrowing into his archival diary—this show is the last in a trilogy that began with Outside In: A Tale of 3 Cities and Bombay: Chronicles of a Past Life—the exhibition feels like a browse through an avid lensman’s private album. Through four broad entries, he documents the city, community, and individual. These landscapes of reality have an intimacy, an insider’s revelation that makes the familiar arresting. The images feature filmmaker Satyajit Ray on set; the now over-recorded "decay" of the city; the Chinese community of Tangra; and his grandmother. In delving into archives, he has the remove in time to separate them thus into chapters of time spent roving the city, freezing life as it was.
A girl cycles down the lane. Light shafts downwards, arresting the ordinary. Grace and languor affect the frame. Housewives exchange banter, leather gets processed in tanneries, people gather around food. In unframed photographs installed into a seamless tapestry of pictures, Tangra, the neighbourhood of Hakka Chinese immigrants in Calcutta comes alive, almost animated. Light streams from one frame into another. Conversations seem to happen across borders and the past becomes a present.
On the opposite wall, a run of portraits of filmmaker Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj ke Khilari captures the director in many moods: off guard, at work, in moments of unguarded laughter. It’s a Ray he captures in informality—a glimpse into the man not the legend, reminiscent of Nemai Ghosh’s better-known photographs of the director. In a concurrent show at the Goethe Institute, German photojournalist Barbara Klemm’s picture of Satyajit Ray wrapped in a shawl in his study is the opposite of Bartholomew’s; a more formal distancing between subject and photographer seems to exist in her portrait.
Pablo Bartholemew, Installation view of The Calcutta Diaries; © Pablo Bartholomew and Sakshi Gallery
The city series are the ones that could have done with an edit: there are evocative photographs of roots taking over buildings, the pavement dwellers that one is now enured to (the hazards of over-bombardment of images in the contemporary), and itinerants that are interesting to see as they disappear from urban imagery. It ends the show rather messily, unlike its start, which opens with a tightly edited series of eight pictures of Bartholomew’s aged grandmother going about her daily toilette and chores, much like the lonely Jennifer Kapoor character in the film 36 Chowringhee Lane. Bartholomew achieves objectivity despite familiarity. A life from four decades ago is arrested in a documentation: a city and a show are summed up in one of its denizens. Time, decay, milieu, and affect all come together. Bartholomew serves the viewer well, he who will also stand and wait, much like these images from his archives have.
(Image on top: Pablo Bartholomew, Schoolgirl on cycle,Tangra,Calcutta, c.1978; © Pablo Bartholomew and Sakshi Gallery)