(Disclaimer: Ordinarily, it would be deemed a ‘conflict of interest’ to review work by an artist that the reviewer personally knows. But this being a blog, and there being no provocative reviews thus far, of his work currently on display, this begged to be written)
You shouldn’t believe everything Pablo Bartholomew says about his work. Which is not to say there’s no merit in his personal opinion. He’s always blatantly honest, and sometimes even understates his achievements in the field of photography. He’s extremely articulate when he speaks, and it’s usually a pleasure listening to him. But I find that he shuts down, however subconsciously, when he’s asked intimate questions about his work. At almost every talk by him that I’ve attended, he does a grand presentation that’s always peppered with his particular, in-your-face kind of humour which is always enjoyable and entertaining, but he seems to end just in time for there to be no time for questions. And one doesn’t get to engage with him as much as one would like to.
Over an interview, I find he repeats, often, the same spiel he’s struggled to write as his artist statement, and perhaps most reviewers, like me, are often dissuaded from approaching more compelling, pertinent questions that go beyond his usual narrative: self-taught—high-school drop-out—-took to photography—won World Press award at 19—moved to Bombay because it seemed to provide an opportunity to become someone independent of where you came from (and possibly also because his then girlfriend Pooh lived there)—worked as a stills photographer on film sets and did work for advertising—moved back to Delhi and entered the world of photojournalism—won another World Press award—and so on and so forth.
Martin Amis said something wonderful at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year. I can’t remember it verbatim. But it was something about how, as a writer, you work on your writing since your twenties, and you start to capture, in your books, the world around you, so that by the time you’re in your fifties, you suddenly are in possession of an archive, because the way of the world in your twenties isn’t the same as it is in your fifties. Everything prior is now ‘historical’ in a sense, even the stuff of myth.
I thought of Pablo Bartholomew when Amis was speaking. I tried to contextualise him, tried to look within the gaps in his bio. I tried to imagine him as a young boy growing up in Delhi, in a not so well-to-do home, but in an environment where the pursuit of art was possibly more important than the desire to be upwardly mobile or affluent. His father was one of the most significant art critics in the country, and their house was a refuge for artists like MF Husain and GR Santosh and countless others who’d park themselves there regularly as Richard Bartholomew cooked and fed them, and debated with them and expressed solidarity with their cause. His mother, Rati Bartholomew, is still referred to as one of the most prominent theatre activisits and feminists. She taught at IP College in Delhi and is still remembered fondly by her students, some of whom even mention her in their dedications in books they’ve authored. So I think of him as a wayward teen kicked out of school for allegedly having dope on him. I marvel at his decision to quit school completely, without even finishing tenth grade.
If there was one question I’d like to ask him, it would be this: “When did you first look through a lens? Was it that time when you posed for your father with a camera in hand?” And when was the first time you learned to ‘see’?
I think of the 104 photographs that run across the gallery walls at Photoink. I wonder if they provide an answer.
I realise now how difficult it is to write about Pablo’s work. Because it is somehow impossible to separate his work from his personality. For those of us who know him well I suppose the thrill of seeing his work often lies in this strange, overwhelming paradox; the inherent empathy in his gaze, something akin to kindness and tenderness, the humanist perspective in his work which seems to contrast so obviously with his somewhat abrasive, hard-edged personality, his tendency to ‘shoot from the hip’, his penchant for speaking the truth, even if it hurts, which it often does.
The other difficulty lies in the fact that Pablo has never excelled at being just one kind of photographer. He is not only a photojournalist, although he’s received international acclaim for many of his news stories, like his iconic image of a half-buried child victim of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, or his photographs of the cyclones in Bangladesh (he was even nicknamed “Cyclone King”). In fact, what his recent exhibitions have tried to assert is that he started out as a photographer working within the documentary tradition. Outside In, and Chronicles of a Past Life are blazing examples of the originality of his vision and his flair for chronicling his immediate world of family and friends, and the world of the margins to which he found himself increasingly attracted: the world of fellow wanderers who live on the fringe of the mainstream. He also earned a living as a stills photographer on film sets, in fact, he’s currently editing images taken by him on the sets of Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi which he hopes to show soon. Besides stills, he also photographed for advertising companies.
Still, his versatility is not just a consequence of having straddled different genres of photography, at 56, he is in possession of a vast and diverse archive because he has often been ahead of his time. I often hear photographers of my generation rant about the lack of opportunities, and I feel humbled when I think about the absolute absence of possibilities that was a feature of Pablo’s generation. I look at his work on the Chinese community in Tangra, his exquisite and elaborate documentary work on the Naga community done over ten years, his undergoing project on the India diaspora that he embarked on in the late 80s, right up to his most recent work on the Indian community in Leicester, in the United Kingdom.
I’ve often heard Pablo address himself as a ‘has-been’. He seems to think he reached his peak at 35, and sees everything that followed as an attempt to return to the naivete of his perspective when he was in his twenties. Somewhere I wonder if his move to revisit his archive is motivated by this reading he has of his artistic career. “I’m a victim of the News years,” he said the other day at a talk at the gallery. “You became a part manufacturer. You’re trying to make iconic pictures, create a certain kind of stereotype. When you do that for years, it affects you.”
To return to “Chronicles of a Past Life” currently showing at Photoink, it is a miniature version of the same exhibition he had at Sakshi Gallery in Bombay. The dimensions have been scaled down to accommodate the space constraints at Photoink, but the work is mostly the same. I’ve revisited the gallery several times since the show opened, and each time I’m confronted by the diversity of the images and by how intensely beautiful they are. With each subsequent viewing, each image unravels itself more profoundly than before. Broadly speaking, the 104 images constitute scenes from street life, opium dens, Bollywood sets, and cityscapes.
What holds them together is the sheer wonder and delight in each frame that must have motivated Pablo to go ‘click’. Many reviewers have referred to the show as nostalgic. I don’t subscribe to that. Each frame captures a moment, for sure, but what makes them special is the feeling you get that the chronicler did not merely document from the sidelines, instead, he was an intrinsic part of the frame. There’s a certain familiarity that characterises each image, the hint of knowing, of understanding, and relating to the various figures and scenes that the photographs capture. It is this familiarity, coupled with an almost innate knowledge of technique (Pablo is self-taught), and the atmosphere of the various worlds that have been committed to film that makes for poetry. Each photograph in the show is an act of poetry.
What Pablo doesn’t let out often, to interviewers and reviewers, is his love of Brassai, and increasingly, I can see the influence. Another aspect of himself he hesitates to reveal is how so much of his early work is driven by his felt desire to prove to himself that he could excel at something. “I always wanted to be a bio-chemist,” he said once to me. “But maths screwed me over”. Given the humiliating circumstances that dictated the end of his academic career even before it could begin, I’m certain that somewhere Pablo needed to prove that “that wayward Bartholomew kid” could scratch his initials unapologetically on the bark of history. I find Chronicles important within this context, because the act of revisiting the archive is also an act of nakedness. A writer often discards and is even dismissive of earlier work. I still cringe when I re-read work I’d written in my late teens and early twenties, and I’m only 26. With photography I find that older work acquires dimensions that didn’t exist before when viewed through the prism of time.
Pablo’s early work isn’t nostalgic so much as ethnographic, in a sense. While he never pursued biochemistry and perhaps never will, what reviewers often miss is his inclination towards ethnography and how so much of his work is an attempt to investigate issues of identity and belonging, a personal quest that stems from his own complicated identity; his father was Burmese, his mother, half Punjabi, half Bengali. He says, rather emphatically, in a video he made during his residency in Paris, “I am all of these and none.” His attraction for the fringes, for the marginal, stems from his own complicated narrative of identity and pariah-hood. This, in my opinion, explains why it’s impossible to separate Pablo’s work from his personality, especially in the documentary work.
Besides the ethnographic intent, what moves me most about Pablo’s photographs is their individual intensity, and, more significantly, their sheer beauty. I’ve never been able to articulate what it is that makes them beautiful, because to do so, one would have to arrive at a stated manifesto of what constitutes beauty, and while beauty is subjective, it is also relative. I tend to describe it as his way of seeing, but I find it a limiting term. All I can say for certain is that his work is beautiful in the way Brassai’s work is beautiful. It is a beauty that is magical. Like Bresson, much of it is wedded to the immediacy of the moment, which is, by nature, ephemeral and fleeting. But is a beauty that is transcendental because it elevates the ‘moment’, liberates it from its ordinary, everyday context, and makes it almost historical, and sometimes even mythical.
Watchmaker on Princess Street, Bombay, circa 1979, is the perfect example. I’ve probably spent more time with this photograph than any other. If I had the money, I would love to own the last edition of this photograph. Each time I revisit it I discover a fresh detail that is utterly beguiling. Ostensibly, its a simple photograph; a man fixing a watch. But the lens has zoomed in at just the right point so that everything external to this little shop front on Princess Street has been eliminated, the only logistical context we have is the caption. The photograph suddenly becomes fiction in that the imagination takes over despite itself and builds its own context, because every element in the frame begs to be acknowledged and reimagined. The photograph is no longer about a man who fixes watches for a living. The man is no longer a watchmaker. He is Chronos himself.