Henri Cartier-Bresson, dubbed the father of photojournalism, wrote in the preface to a 1957 collection of his photographs, ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.’ It’s hard not to think of this quote as we look into the eyes of Jawaharlal Nehru, newly elected president of newly independent India, on the day after Gandhi’s death. He’s just been snapped by Bresson, and it’s January 31, 1948 – a bitter morning, partition is mere months old and the refugees are scattering themselves across squalid camps. If there ever was a decisive moment in the formation of future India, this is it.
Three images by Bresson form part of The Empty Quarter’s vast new collection of photos of India. The exhibition covers everything from 19th century relics (including one of a particularly haughty-looking Brit complete with drooping pipe and pith helmet, who appears to be overseeing the weighing of vast quantities of opium) through to Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey’s shots taken in the late ’70s, reflecting India in all its gaudy pastel glory.
‘The beautiful thing about this show, and what makes me very happy, is that I could have easily called Magnum and got a modern print,’ says Elie Domit, director of The Empty Quarter. ‘These days everything is scanned and you can easily get hold of material. But if you can get originals – vintage prints – like these by Bresson from Kashmir in 1948, there’s a beauty that I wanted to share with everybody.’ Domit explains that the show came together on the aesthetic power of seeing original prints, often developed mere days after the shot was taken. ‘Look at the paper – see how it’s printed. These elements are important, photographically speaking: whether you’re a photographer or not, that appreciation can be grasped. I’m not doing a specifically historical or chronological show – this is more about getting a group show together of which I can gather as much as possible that is vintage.’
Titled Sacred Sight, there is an undeniable air of mysticism that each photographer has sought in India. Another of Bresson’s pieces (above) shows four Muslim women on a rocky outcrop at the foothills of the Himalayas. Their backs are turned but one woman, veiled like the rest, raises her hands in a striking moment of supplication to the sun rising beyond the mountains. Then there are anonymous and mysterious hand-coloured photographs of maharajahs and prominent local rulers (left), some dating from the ’20s.
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, meanwhile, focuses on the prostitutes of Mumbai’s Falkland Road. Though strikingly shot, Mark’s works have something implicitly cold about them, capturing the secrecy and subterraneous atmosphere of the women’s lives.
Domit reveals he’s never been to India, and we ask if the title – the idea of sacredness – refers to the aged vintage style of these photographs. ‘Yes, there is that element, but it’s sacred also because of the fascination of all these photographers with one place – India. Photography is painting with light, and India happens to have the most amazing light for photography. That’s not just me saying it, that’s Mario Testino, fashion photographers, cinematographers – they like that quality of light. It’s like Van Gogh going to the south of France. For photographers, there’s always been this fascination. There is the mysticism of India and all of that in there, but it’s also the colours. Even though this is a predominantly black and white show, you can still sense the tonality, the richness. You want to get closer to the print.’
Though Barbey’s huge collection of vintage prints dominates the show, with some high and low points, there’s no doubting the warmth that exudes out of each and every one of these photographs. The grime of Newmarket in Calcutta, with its crumbling colonial façades, has a timeless hue of mossy blacks and greens, while a riverside scene in Pushkar of people taking an early-morning dip has grandeur without becoming too epic. These aren’t disconnected photographers – there’s a sense of wonderment in each image that’s infectious. ‘They all put their soul into observing, and these are not patronising photographs. They’re more engaged,’ says Domit.
But he returns to the importance of recognising the vintage quality of these old prints. ‘Today, everybody has the ability to just press the button. But the guy who was there had to load this film, put it in the back, wait for his journey to finish and then come back and see what he did. As a photography gallery, it’s our responsibility to bring back those little stories.’
Sacred Sight: Photographs In India continues until February 5 at The Empty Quarter.