Art

Artists Reinterpret an Anonymous Soldier’s 1940s Reconaissance Photos of India

Alan Teller, front and side views of “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” (2015), photograph and negative on polycarbonate substrates, cloth, wood, light bulbs and sockets, LED light strips, 30 x 42 in (all images via Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral)
Alan Teller, front and side views of “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” (2015), photograph and negative on polycarbonate substrates, cloth, wood, light bulbs and sockets, LED light strips, 30 x 42 in (all images via Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral)

NEW DELHI, India — Found objects have always been secret allies for visual artists. They are stumbled upon and acquired, magpie-like, because of a private vision of “intrinsic interest,” to be teased out and made concrete later. Found photographs, too, have long since found their place inside artists’ private wunderkammern. Following the Box, an exhibition of a particularly curious origin now on view at the Indian Museum, Kolkata, brings the aesthetic power of found photographs front and center.

When a box of 127 photographs, dated mostly around 1945, found Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral at a yard sale, the Chicago residents and lifelong photography practitioners saw the course of their lives thoroughly rerouted. Years later, via experts, friends, strangers, cities, villages, travels, and archives — when they discovered that the photographs had been taken by an anonymous soldier based in a rural Bengal (now West Bengal) US army air base in between taking reconnaissance photographs, just on the eve of the horrific “resolution” of WWII — their story had just begun. 

What kept Teller and Zbiral searching for almost 25 years for the man who took the photos (his definitive identity is yet to be found), in addition to the Fulbright funding they eventually received, was not their own wanderlust or even the consummate compositions the photographer created, but the visible evidence of the man’s empathy for his subjects. Shooting and capturing images by definition has a predatory element, which found its most invasive expressions in empire-building. Our mystery military photographer, despite practicing the art’s most cold-blooded form (reconnaissance photography) succeeded in retaining an empathy for his subjects, which is no mean feat.

The box that inspired this exhibition held 127 envelops, each with a developed photograph and its negative
The box held 127 envelopes, each containing a developed photograph and its negative

This empathy is what guides the commissioned works of the twelve artists in the latest incarnation of this traveling exhibition. Excluding the conveners Teller and Zbiral, all the artists are rooted in or branching out from Bengal, and the six degrees of separation between Teller and the artists was bridged by common friends, acquaintances, shared interests, and general serendipity, rather than the usual curatorial reconnaissance. Each artist has created work in his or her chosen media, using plenty of visual quotations to interpret their favored images from the box.

Like any found object, the box comes with an overwhelming narrative pull, conjuring a vast jigsaw puzzle, coercing the artists to complete it. The challenge for each artist was to choose the mode — conceptual, formal, or medial — by which to contain and channel this surging fount of narrative.

Jerri Zbiral, detail of the “What” component from “What, Where, When, How, Who and Why?” (2015), six shadow boxes, archival inkjet prints, mixed media, and artifacts, 60 x 84 x 3 in
Jerri Zbiral, detail of the “What” component from “What, Where, When, How, Who and Why?” (2015), six shadow boxes, archival inkjet prints, mixed media, and artifacts, 60 x 84 x 3 in

Jerri Zbiral decided to take a bird’s-eye view, creating an actual jigsaw puzzle, with the most crucial piece rendered as a dark, unknowable mass. Alakananda Nag’s approach is the most conceptually innovative. Using the date that recurs most often in the box (May 3, 1945), she solicited applications from people born in Bengal on that day via anonymous classified advertisements. What emerges is the installation of a dark room-like space, which is also the life-shrine of a certain Mr. Subrata Banerjee, “bank employee, umpire, and an avid archivist of his own life” — as concrete as our soldier is ethereal.

Alan Teller, “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” side view (click to enlarge)
Alan Teller, “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” side view (click to enlarge)

The human being who forms the core of Alan Teller’s work is long dead. Made from photographs of an immigrant priest brought in from South India to helm a massive temple built by South Indian railway employees (not a common occurrence in this remote Eastern India location), this layered photo-installation first activates, then unpacks multiple modes of history — of migration, colonialization, and rituals — embedded in a single visual.

The works of Aditya Basak, Chhatrapati Dutta, Sunandini Banerjee, and Prabir C. Purkayastha, though all formally accomplished, either over- or under-engage with the photographs’ narrative pull, resulting in pieces that are, variously, too cloying or too cold. The narrative impulse overwhelms Sarbajit Sen’s “graphic novel”-esque work as well. But Amritah Sen, by choosing to pair personal images with found images in her accordion-book display, strikes a pleasing balance.

Sanjeet Chowdhury’s photo and video installation — a miniature scale model of a Boeing B-29 bomber “flying” over a field of photographs — comes across as the perfect visual expression of the paradox of reconstructing the past in the present. Even though artists, unlike historians, don’t think their reconstructions are factual scale models of the past, here they like to think of them as emotional ones nonetheless.

Sanjeet Chowdhury, one of six photographic prints accompanying the video “Letters to Rachel” (2015)
Sanjeet Chowdhury, one of six photographic prints accompanying the video “Letters to Rachel” (2015)

Swarna Chitrakar, the only vernacular artist among the Anglophones, hails from an area not far from the air base. When presented with the enigmatic box, she did what she had always done: choosing a few of the photographs that most resonated with her lived experience, she painted and sang about them within the idiom of the form she practices, and in doing so, brought about one of the many deeply human happenings of this journey of “following the box.”

Swarna Chitrakar, “finding pictures in a box is a surprising story!” (2014), hand-painted scrolls with video recording of her sung performance of accompanying narrative
Swarna Chitrakar, “finding pictures in a box is a surprising story!” (2014), hand-painted scrolls with video recording of her sung performance of accompanying narrative
Swarna Chitrakar, with one of her hand-painted scrolls
Swarna Chitrakar, with one of her hand-painted scrolls

In a conversation with this reviewer, Alan Teller recalls seeing a particularly diffident member of the cleaning staff in a previous venue become thoroughly astonished when he came across Swarna’s work. It turned out that he hailed from the same region as her, and he’d never imagined that the humble folk art form from that region would make it to that rarefied exhibition space.

Member of cleaning staff in Birla Academy of Art and Culture captivated by Swarna Chitrakar’s recorded performance
Member of cleaning staff in Birla Academy of Art and Culture captivated by Swarna Chitrakar’s recorded performance

We can only hope that the villagers in the photographs, 70 years ago, felt as validated by our unknown photographer’s empathy. 

Following the Box continues in an abridged version at the Indian Museum, Kolkata (27, Jawaharlal Nehru Rd) until March 13.

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