Prayer Flag, Bhaupara, Gujarat. India, November 30, 1995. Platinum-palladium print on 100% cellulose (Wyndstone vellum) from original 8×10 inch negative.
Tree. Bell. Adinath Trithankar Jain Mandir, Ajmer, India. November 7, 1995. Platinum-palladium print on 100% cellulose (Wyndstone vellum), from original 8×10 negative.
My great aunt moved to this temple in her late teens, and remained here as a nun for the rest of her life. Sacred ground, not for the tragedy of being human, but because of how well it was occupied, how it was a place of goodness, how it cradled light.
In a previous post I wrote about making the same kind of photograph repeatedly, of working from a motif, of walking back and forth on the same bridge. There is a twist to this. Going beyond what others say–
(e.g. ‘The camera generates events other than the photographs anticipated as coming into being through its mediation, and the latter are not necessarily subject to the full control of the agent who holds the camera. The properties and nature of the camera could now suddenly emerge into public view, and it rapidly became apparent that the camera possesses its own character and drives. The camera might, at times, appear to be obedient, but it is also capable of being cunning, seductive, conciliatory, vengeful or friendly…’- Azoulay, Ariella. “Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography.” Verso, 2015.)
–I believe that a core part of this ‘bridge’ we traverse is made of the processes (languages) themselves, ranging not just from camera to photographer to those who look at photographs but also including the lens, the negative, the sensors, the printing process, size, framing, and viewing context. In sum, the photographic print sometimes exists despite the photographer. This temple, Adinath Trithankar Mandir, exists despite my great aunt, and yet, is entirely consistent with what my great aunt means to me.
That is why I strongly believe that art education is at its best when it fosters practices that build on cross-disciplinary (I do not mean multi-media) education and experience. Language is art, is making, and so, in this case, with photography. Language brings humankind to expressions despite what we know and deposits us on the edges of what we imagine (poieses). Alexander von Humboldt, in the concluding sentences of his last major work, “Kosmos”, says this much more eloquently:
‘…laws of a more mysterious
nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world, in which
is comprised the human species in all its varied conformation,
its creative intellectual power, and the languages to which
it has given existence. A physical delineation of nature
terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins,
and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the
limit but does not pass it.’
Sunspot On Floor, Ranakpur Jain Derasar, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India, November 12, 1995. Platinum-palladium print on 100% cellulose (Wyndstone vellum), from original 8×10 negative.
There is this matter of style. We think of style as a way of expressing that is innate (nature) and born of stuff far beyond our ken. Or we think of this as something that can be shaped (nurture) and subject to reason and formulae. Or, as with the nature/nurture dichotomy, the matter is just blended in varying amounts, depending on how lazy we feel. But, there may be ways of considering style that let us access meaning and substance rather than remain entangled with just materiality. I have heard others say (was it Sudek, or Minor White?) that even though we spew out thousands of photographs, mostly we are making the same kind of image.
The photographs at the Lal Kila (Red Fort) in Delhi, and here, the Sunspot in Ranakpur suggest this sameness. Graphically, certainly, they are similar – that spiraling motif, akin to projections (in-jections?) of the external world in rectangular prisms, both facets and coheres the photographs. And what these photographs are of is related: India, marble, light, architecture for instance. Posting other such images, as I may over the next few days, provides evidence of a stylistic pathway in my work, and brushing my palms, I could lean back and say, done, validated, self-pat on back, jolly good, and carry on. But carry on where, and what have I really uncovered?
I feel that Makers (artists, scientists, craftspeople, farmers, cooks, parents, teachers…) are very much like field archaeologists. They arrive at a moment of action with care. They glean pathways and find those edges of the unknown that are most likely to yield understanding and knowledge, or at the very least some reassurance that what is discovered relates to what came before. An archaeologist detects and discerns, and carefully separates the less significant from the more significant, all the while (ideally) trying to access signals that point to authenticity. Logos. I suspect that these photographs are similar not because of my stylistic leanings, but because I keep seeing the same image, and that this persistence is significant. So, having made several, and feeling the significance of the bridging points, I make more. It points to some kind of logos, or authenticity. The sameness of an image also points to a greater theoretical cohesion or rational. And yet the modes of logos and theory seem in conflict with each other.
There are bridges, such as the one rendered by Alexander von Humboldt (bringing us to Ecology and environmental systems), that connect nature and nurture, or such as those raved about by William Blake that connect logos and rationalism, that together point to a different way of thinking about style. And, by extension, about individuality: is my true face also your true face, what is being projected to where, is it uncovering or expressing, is there an edge or is it all about interstice?
I know, I am not really getting anywhere. But I am trying to go everywhere.
Door. Dolly. Lal Kila, Delhi, India, November 2, 1995. Platinum-palladium print on 100% cellulose (Wyndstone vellum), from original 8×10 negative.
In a pocket of earth
I buried all the accents
of my mother tongue
there they lie
like needles of pine
assembled by ants
one day the stumbling cry
of another wanderer
may set them alight
then warm and comforted
he will hear all night
the truth as lullaby
John Berger, ‘And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos’, New York, 1991 (p. 91)
Tasveer is a gallery complex in India, and has recently published an online interview about my portrait work from ‘Prayer and Despair‘. This is the first of a two-part interview. … Read the Tasveer article with images…
Nathaniel Gaskell of Tasveer: To begin with, please can you tell us a little bit about the series:
PM: The portraits were all made during a trip to India in 1995. This was part of a larger project that began to push the experience of effacement up against belief (and essentially the thing that gives us our face). the entire series, as you have already noticed, is called ‘Prayer and Despair’. In this case, I equated despair to effacement and prayer to belief. So how do portraits fit into this? In a sense, these are less portraits than they are a way of grasping attention. Our coding and social conditioning requires that we pay attention to the face, to its nuances. When a face is ‘denied’ attention, it creates a fundamental discomfort in our being. At worst, this discomfort can manifest as despair. The series, and it is important that the images are seen as a series for a full consideration of the relationship between effacement and belief, relies on the placement of the ‘portraits’ in relation to the other photographs for this to make sense. I also use the play of shadow and light as form to generate this relationship within each photographic frame.
NG: Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you’re using the word ‘effacement’ to also mean absolution, as well as more literally to mean the ‘removal of face’, as in to make oneself disappear, blend in, become un-personalised. It seems to me that the first meaning is more tightly related to the overall concept of your Prayer and Despair project, and the latter, more relevant to the portraits presented here.
PM: I think there is a cluster of emotional states that are affiliated to self-ishness (the ‘selfish’ part of ‘self’, if that makes any sense): blame, guilt, and vengefulness being some, and even, with a slight stretch, despair. What exactly pushes us from selfishness to selflessnes, I think, is related to a particular type of absolution or effacement. It is not the kind of absolution that is granted from external forces – the more Catholic version in other words – but absolution that is more autogenerative, more from within oneself. That is why I prefer thinking of my work, especially the portraits, in terms of effacement. My cultural mix of both West and East, somehow associates effacement as something one does to oneself, and absolution as a bestowed act.
NG: To my mind, the way in which the concepts of belief and absolution relate to each other is quite a Christian debate (I remember learning about Paul, and therefore the discussion as to whether one is righteous/absolved through faith/prayer alone, or through one’s deeds and actions). How do these two concepts work in an Indian context? to what extent does the idea of religion as specifically practiced in India inform the concept of the portraits, and the wider series?
PM: I touch on some of this in my response to the question about absolution and effacement. I think this particular question gets to the core difference between Christian — dare I say all monotheistic — belief systems and the ‘rest’. If one takes the liberty of associating the ‘rest’ to the Indian context, then it is simple enough to say that religious practice in India is less cellular by nature that with Christianity. It is more porous, based more on ‘yes, and…’ than ‘either this or that …’. But this is too simple an analysis. Both approaches actually compartmentalize experience, comporatmentalize in a metaphysical sense. The relationship between belief and absolution may be more interestingly compared by looking at how each belief culture, if you will, actually locates these compartments within there cosmologies. With the monotheistic, generally I find that belief defines the compartment, whilst with the ‘rest’ belief tends to either emanate from an association of compartments, or remain as an equal to these compartments. Coming back to the portraits then, and the rest of this work, I would say that it is, just like the poreceeding sentence, very confusing until one stops trying to make sense of it. The associations between portrait and weathered sandstone sculpture, between light raking across a temple floor and a coconut husk address not so much belief as that which compels us and binds us to belief. I think that Eastern (Indian) metaphysics, in the way it acknowledges our cognitive limits and then tries to address the methods of going beyond this, is much more relevant to my work than Indian religion.
NG: Can you talk a bit about your nationality/cultural identity and how (if at all) this plays a part in your work. Something we’re often confronted with at Tasveer is this idea of ‘Indian Photography’. There are those photographers who live and work in India, those of Indian origin who make work about their native country, and then there are foreigners who make photographic projects in India (where a lot is written and discussed about ‘the gaze’). Where do you fit in and are these distinctions relevant? Is there a need for such a term as ‘Indian photography’?
PM: I was born in East Africa, with both parents also having grown up there as first generation migrants from Gujerat. My current nationality is British and US American, and as far as my cultural identity goes, it is an even more complex mix. I lived in Tanzania until 11 years of age, growing up in a small town that was very cosmopolitan — my parents and my friends came from a wide range of geographic and cultural zones. From 11 to 15, I studied at St. Paul’s School Darjeeling, then spent two years in Spain, and finished up with A-levels at a Quaker school in England before going to art school. From there, I attended graduate school in Scotland, where I remained for ten years before finally moving to Tennessee, USA. I go into these details because my upbringing and education define what has often been considered as an annoyingly multifarious quality in both my work and my thinking. The matter of identity is really one about relationships. Just as individuals seem more comfortable forming realtionships with some prior knowledege of who they are dealing with, so it may be with cultures. India is rewriting itself, and this process is on an accelarating trajectory. I believe, and I may be wrong, that much of what distinguishes India from the rest of the world has to do with the way it pulls the ancient into the contemporary, the way it elides these two. Photography seems, in its leanings towards addressing the human condition, aptly suited to imaging this India, Indianess and perhaps most important, to generating civic discourse. I do think that the most important constituents to address in this dynamic complex are the ones who live and work in India. There will always be the tourist artists (I can easily fall into this category) or the remote philosophers or armchair artists (again, drop me in this one too!), no matter the region being considered, but there is a lot to be said for the deep consideration over extended time about specifics, and the way these specifics relate to the global context. I think Indian photography as a term or classifier is most important when considered as a dynamic and engaged manifestation of this transformative period that the nation is in.
NG: Can you elaborate a bit more on the effect of taking the portraits out of the wider context of the series? (When seen as a series of portraits like this, perhaps a natural conclusion for the audience to reach is that this is a bit like a typology. Each person is an individual, yet also representative of a group).
PM: Even in work where the photographic frame is dominated by the face (such as in the series, ‘Looking At God’) I rely heavily on a ‘holographic’ approach — that at all aspects of a body of work or series is alluded to, albeit in coarser resolution, by any part or fragment of that work. I am not interested in typologies however — I realize this seems at odds with the previous sentence, but if one considers that typologies are ultimately about informing comparative approaches, and thus taxonomic in nature, then it makes sense that the holographic approach is about the opposite of systems that classify and categorize. It is more about that which is most fundamental and yet — and this is the most important for me — most constantly referring to the rest of itself. Jings – this is getting deep. All of these portraits are of people I have spent time with, that I know. I mention this not to provide another argument against considering the work as typological but as an indicator of how the entire content of the photogaphic frame informs the portrait. What else is in the image, both its form and its figurativeness, is informed by the person being photographed and the photographer, and this is always a singular conjunction. I hope the result then, is more an individualisation rather than a typological representation.
India, 1995. Platinum-palladium print from 8×10 negative
Prayer and Despair [view folio] : I have just updated a body of work done while traveling across Russia, Siberia, Honduras, India and Japan during 1995. A handful of images have yet to be added from Russia and Siberia. A short statement from that time, which was written towards the end of the year of traveling, reads:
India, November, 1995. It is midweek, and there are priests, pilgrims and worshippers milling around us. Religion does not abide by the seven day cycle here. My parents are unusually quiet as we stand amid the bustle, gazing out at a tiered stretch of river. Damodarkund. They explain that this is where the ashes of my ancestors have been released over the centuries, into the still waters, along with flowers, prayers, tears, memories. Like smoke. I feel a lightness, something lifting. This is where I came from, this is where I am going. My hand is in the water, a conduit and a key…
…Acceptance of anything can bring despair, and anything unbearable can inspire prayer. Kneeling down on the river bank, my hand in the clear water, I felt both.
All the images are platinum-palladium prints made from the original 8×10 negatives.
Angel. Jodphur, India. 1995.
When Taha Muhammad Ali speaks of poetry and words, to me, he also speaks of photography and vision. His work engulfs me. Buy his book, So What, and read ‘The Falcon’.
behind the night of words
behind the clouds of hearing,
across the dark of sight,
and beyond the dusk of music
that’s hidden and revealed.
But where is it concealed?
And how could I
when I am barely able,
by the light of day,
to find my pencil?
by Taha Muhammad Ali.
Deer fence. Near Irkutsk, Siberia.1995platinum-palladium print, 8 x 10 in