In Thursday’s Life section I highlight the work of Neil Chowdhury, who joined the Fresno State art department this academic year to teach photography. His new show at Corridor 2122, “Burdens and Desires,” is a vibrant and thoughtful exercise in which Chowdhury unpacks his relationship to India, land of his father’s birth. Here’s an extended interview.
You’re new this academic year at Fresno State. Introduce yourself to the Fresno arts community.
I’m new to Fresno, but not to teaching and making art, or to being new. My parents moved with me frequently when I was a child. I was born in England, but immigrated to Canada and then the US while still an infant. Since then I’ve lived all over the country. I think that having to adapt constantly to new environments and cultures really helped me to become more observant of my surroundings, and inspired my use of photography as a tool to understand the new worlds in which I found myself. I moved here this August with my wife Sacha to teach photography at Fresno State University. We are both thrilled to live in a place where we can enjoy sunshine all year round. Our timing was fortunate, as we just managed to escape the worst winter on record in Syracuse, our previous home. I’m excited to discover that in addition to warm weather, Fresno also offers a vibrant cultural and art scene that’s much more lively than I expected for a city of this size. We’ve both felt very welcomed by the creative community here so far!
How’d you wind up so soon at Corridor?
The chance to have an exhibition at Corridor came as a bit of a surprise. I visited the gallery on my first Art Hop in Fresno, and was impressed by the space as well as the art being shown. I felt immediately that it would be a great venue in which to show my own art work, but I didn’t think that it was possible to apply for an exhibition there as a non member. When one of the gallery members had to decline their schedule exhibition, I was thrilled to be invited as a replacement. I’ve always loved independent cooperative art spaces that prioritize concept, discovery, and experimentation over the commercial aspects of art. Corridor is a great example of this approach, providing a venue for artists to stretch their ideas without having to worry about targeting their efforts to appeal to a collectors’ market. This exhibition is a look at some of the ways I’ve approached my personal and creative exploration of India since my first trip there in 2001. It doesn’t represent my latest work, simply because the chance came too late for me to prepare more recent works for exhibition. On the event of a huge change in my own life, however, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the work I’ve done the last several years. Having the chance to show here so soon after arriving in town is also great chance to introduce myself to the art community here. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
You have striking examples of collage in your show in which you juxtapose your own photographs with illustrative, advertising and secular images, along with popular Indian “calendar art” imagery of Hindu deities. Tell us about this.
The collage pieces were a visceral response to my first impressions of life in India. I was fascinated by the amazing energy of the streets, the sheer mass of humanity, and the incredible diversity of human culture, expression, and tradition as it was juxtaposed with the frenetic energy of a country that seemed to be transforming itself right before my eyes. I found that as creatively inspired as I was by the visual layering of culture, commerce, history, and humanity, I wasn’t able to understand or process all I was seeing, nor could I capture my overwhelming feelings in single photographic images. These feelings were not simply a response to India’s energy, but also a reflection of my own personal and family history. My father grew up in India, but left as a young man to find a better life. He rarely spoke of his origins as I was growing up, preferring to raise his kids as Americans. It wan’t until he passed away in 1995 that I realized just how little I knew about him, or how much I’d missed by my father’s decision to cut himself off from his cultural origins. I went to India, I now realize, to discover something of the world that he had fled in his youth. But the India that I encountered had little resemblance to the post-partition India that my father knew. A storm of capitalist transformation was in the process of reorganizing India’s economy and ways of life into something that he wouldn’t have recognized. Collage seemed to be a natural response to the too muchness of being immersed in such a stimulating environment, a feeling that was amplified immeasurably by my sense of loss and wonder at discovering a world too late that had been denied me for so long.
How about your portraits?
The portrait work arises from a quieter place. During each of my visits to India, I’ve walked the streets with my camera, attempting to capture the moments I’ve witnessed as an outside observer. In 2009, I tried a different approach, using an old fashioned 4×5″ press camera to force myself to slow down and become more of an active participant in the scene. The 4×5 is an awkward beast. The act of carrying this camera slowed me down out of necessity, but it also provided an unexpected bonus. People were curious at the Western traveler walking the streets of Mumbai with such an archaic instrument, looking not so different than the itinerant street photographers that used to ply the streets generations ago. By practicing an obsolete profession, I was able to connect with my fellow street dwellers, who were themselves engaged in ways of life that put them at odds with the rush of 21st century global capitalism. I found that rather than having to convince people to pose for portraits, they were constantly asking me to take their photograph. The resulting images became more of a collaborative act between me and my subjects, rather than simply reflecting my own observations. While I didn’t seek out any particular “type’ to photograph on that visit, the people who had the motivation, curiosity, and time to sit for my camera ended up being primarily street vendors and others who scratched out a marginal existence on the streets. The legions of middle class salary workers crowding the sidewalks were simply too busy and in too much of a hurry to pay any mind to a stranger with an old camera. By connecting with people in this way, I found that I was chronicling a way of life that was in the process of change. As India’s economy modernizes, many of these traditional ways of life are becoming unsustainable. Each time I visit India, I notice fewer people living this way. In 2001, it wasn’t uncommon to find rows of typists sitting under umbrellas on the streets, pecking out letters and documents on old manual typewriters. Now most people just send texts, and the street typists are all gone.
I chose to produce these images using hand made chemical emulsions and 19th century processes to reflect the DIY roughhewn lives of the people that I photographed. As it happened, I chose two types of chemical emulsions, Cyanotype, and VanDyke Brown, that are incompatible. They actually destroy each other when mixed. After a great deal of experimentation, I found a way to layer them that allows the instability of their reaction to form interesting shapes and pattens that emerge from their encounter, even as they can potentially destroy the original image. It was only after I’d struggled with the strange characteristics of these chemicals for some time that I realized that they represented the corrosion, mutation, and transformation that can occur when traditional ways of life collide with the brutal efficiencies of the contemporary global economy.
This summer I plan to return to India, this time to visit Kolkata and Howrah, where my father grew up. Calcutta, as it was known in his day, is a place famous for harboring the lingering ghosts of the British Raj, where the winds of change seemed to stall, leaving the very dust and cobwebs of colonialism embedded in the elaborate crumbling cornices of the city’s collapsing Victorian buildings. I’m bracing myself for the sight of new shopping malls rising even here. I wonder what my father would have thought about those.
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