Photography is working its mojo on Mumbai. Proving this is Focus, the city’s first photography festival, which ran for two weeks last March. Tapping into citizen pride, the event peppered the conceit of «the city» across a multi-site program that encouraged people to engage with photography’s pivotal role in modern life and contemporary art discourse. Ranging from nineteenth-century vignettes of Mumbai to images of the city’s distinctive Zoroastrian community to slices of urban architecture from the world over, Focus optimistically claimed a place for photography as one of the most stimulating cultural expressions of this maximum city.
From the country’s independence in 1947, documentary necessity drove Indian photography. Rural life, statesmen, social campaigns and protests, dams, the architectural icons of an emerging, modern nation— these were the principal photographic subjects of mid-twentieth-century India. Strongly graphic and formally sophisticated, this photography’s forte was not conceptual but narrative. Almost exclusively shown in print media, not art galleries, its inventory engaged viewers otherwise separated by ethnicity, language, and class.
The mid-1990s, in contrast, witnessed the arrival of photo-based art. Earlier practitioners such as Raqs Media Collective, Pushpamala N, and Dayanita Singh are now joined by a powerful younger set, Shilpa Gupta and Tejal Shah among them. Playing discursively with photographic realism and truth, these artists tackle subject matter drawn from philosophy, or from consumer and media culture—but rarely from current affairs. Implicitly built with a scaffolding of Western art theory, their work offers pointed arguments that are tailored to rarefied international gallery culture, but exhibits indifference to the larger Indian social milieu.
Some photographers wish things were different. Mumbai-based Chirodeep Chaudhuri notes: «My interest in photography is usually not the variety done by ‘artists’ who also shoot pictures, but pictures produced by ‘photographers.’ Today, few photographers whose primary practice is photography seem to be finding favor in galleries. This has varied implications in how photography gets disseminated, seen, and perceived here in the long run.»
Art photography has been building a considerable head of steam. Older institutions include Piramal Gallery, the city’s only photo-specific noncommercial space for photojournalism, and the nonprofit Goethe-Institute Mumbai, an established venue for photographic collaborations between German artists and young Indian aspirants. Newer is Tasveer, a multi-gallery network founded in 2006 by three art collectors to promote contemporary photography. It presents traveling exhibitions and catalogs produced in conjunction with Seagull Books, a leading Indian publisher of avant-garde art and literature. Tasveer’s strength is showcasing Indian and international photographers to cultivate understandings of photography as an art of rigorous formal standards and critical acumen. With an impressive list of over one hundred shows to date, its program’s aim is to rethink familiar genres—portraiture, still-life, street photography—and to reactivate photography’s storytelling potential.
Also key has been Matthieu Foss. In 2010 he opened an eponymous gallery, the city’s only commercial venue dedicated solely to photography. An early group show, Light Drifts, organized by French curator Eve Lemesle, demonstrated photography’s impact on artists who work in drawing, graphic design, and sound. A 2011 exhibition presented photographs by Montreal-based artist Alain Paiement, who shoots hundreds of like items, such as various stuffed animal heads or different pieces of furniture, from overhead vantage points, then stitches them together into seamless panoramas. The result is hyper realistic, like fastidiously painted still life’s by seventeenth-century masters. Unfortunately, Foss was forced to close the space in 2012, but remains active as a curator in the city, including serving as one of the organizers of Focus. «Not having a gallery space,» he says, «has given me the opportunity to work on projects like Focus Festival Mumbai, which is more about creating awareness than concentrating on building a market.»
Otherwise, photo-based art enjoys limited exposure vis-a-vis painting, installation, video, or collage. While some city galleries are increasing their photography programming, it is presented in tandem with video and installations and framed in the terms of contemporary art theory. Take multimedia artist Hetain Patel’s photographic series Eva (2012), shown at Chatterjee & Lai in the neighborhood of Colaba, where Mumbai’s galleries are concentrated. The works feature his wife’s naked back marked with henna tattoos of non traditional patterns, such as Spider-Man imagery or a botched love letter, paired with his video First Dance (2012). Installation artist Shilpa Gupta’s exhibition Someone Else (2012), at Gallery Chemould Prescott Road, presented a super size set of blurred photographs of a moving figure alongside installations that included an enormous sculpture of microphones emitting sound. Dayanita Singh’s
Blue Book, a suite of pictures of industrial spaces displayed in 2009 at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, was promoted as a meditation on still-life and Color Field painting.
In addition to distancing itself from photojournalism and straight photography, the art photography paradigm also provides an easy way to avoid dealing with the language of mainstream photography. It is said that there are almost as many cellphones in India as people. Social media are also widely used, and strongly shape public conceptions of photography, especially among the young. The democratizing effects of this ubiquity can be seen driving social opinion and major news stories. One spectacular instance took place in August 2012. Incensed by YouTube videos and images on Facebook of Muslims killed by Bodo tribes people in India’s northeastern state of Assam, a Muslim group in Mumbai organized a protest rally that soon turned violent. Cellphone pictures and footage of the Mumbai protesters setting fire to television news vehicles and police cars reached online platforms in real time, before the channels themselves were able to cover the story. No gallery exhibitions in Mumbai reflect this important stream of photography.
The separation is arguably tactical. Art photography thrives on ostensibly high craft and intellectual gestation. What makes it desirable is precisely that it does not record, like democratized photography, but obliquely proposes ideas that are meant to be politically, socially, or philosophically galvanizing. Undoubtedly, these are good times for art photography in the city. But in order to connect with the cultures of photography outside the art world, only a willingness to kick away the crutch of contemporary art, and greater mettle in exhibiting what many galleries currently prefer not to show, will help the photographic community, as Chaudhuri says, «figure out what finds an audience here in Mumbai.»