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Christopher Taylor | Interview
Christopher Taylor in conversation with Naveen Kishore

NAVEEN KISHORE: Let’s talk about beginnings. How did this project start?

CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR: From my first visit to India in the 1980’s, I remember being particularly struck by the architecture of Calcutta and Bombay in the sense that there was a direct reference to the colonial period, and in view of currents events, I became interested in the repercussions of that era. One of the recurrent themes in my work is that the past can be revisited in some way by through enduring symbols. I decided to make these buildings the subject of a new photographic project and I went about it in quite a systematic manner. First of all, I singled out those that appeared interesting from the outside. Later I tried to see if it would be possible to enter them and take photographsphotograph with a large format camera that reproduces a lot of important detail, and try to do this on a systematic basis by choosing a similar viewpoint each time .

A few years ago, I showed a few of these at the British Council in Calcutta. It was an interesting exercise, meeting people and gauging their reactions. Then I was approached by Soumitra Das of The Telegraph newspaper to collaborate on a book project on the Dalhousie Square area in the heart of Calcutta. Obviously that entails not just interiors, but views of buildings from the outside as well as from inside. So, we walked around the area together and identified structures of historical and visual interest.
Here are some of the images . . .

CT: Before the book was proposed, I had been working on both Bombay and Calcutta. This is a school. It used to be the Maharaja’s town house . . . the College Street Coffee House . . . Mookerji house on Ho Chi Min Sarani . . . This is in Howrah— a lama temple. Now no longer it’s a lama temple though. It’s a temple dedicated to Shiva now.

This is the priest’s residence which used to house visiting pilgrims. The temple is next to it. Now the priest seems to live there on his own, and these are his archives.

That’s a Calcutta building. Locked up and abandoned. It’s Raja Subodh Mullick house on Wellington square I think. There’s a cinema on the right. . . we went and looked into the courtyard where there are people living in some of the out-houses. There was a man sitting in the courtyard. And he came out and started talking to us. And he showed us to a staircase . . . and if you go inside you could see down into this corridor and rooms, and I managed to take this photograph through a protective grill . . .

This is in Bombay again. The Seaman’s Club. And this is Calcutta again, Garden Reach. The South Eastern Railway HQ.

NK: The photographs are so reminiscent of some of the China photographs I’ve seen, the austere quality of what you capture. We’ll come to that later. What was the first Indian connection?

CT: I came to India for the first time in the 1980s with my wife. We stayed for six months, and travelled around quite a lot. We came to Calcutta and spent a week or so there. I remember making a couple of friends. We really enjoyed ourselves. Calcutta certainly made a very strong impression that first time, which was largely the reason I went back. It’s a place that sticks in my memory. Something to do with time. I was living in London then, and there was so much in common. It’s strangely like a version of London in the tropics.

NK: Architecturally? Or . . .

CT: Yes, mostly architecturally. It’s obvious that the British left their mark; in an organizational sense and the way people go about things, and there are some strangely retro British customs kept alive. The impression I had was that I was revisiting history . . .

NK: Like a time warp?

CT: Yes.

NK: I’ve often felt that Calcutta in a sense has been left behind. One gets the sense that other cities have kind of moved on and become like other capital cities of the world. It is this sense of being left behind that has led to Calcutta somehow remaining hugely hospitable. It has more time for other people . . . less aggressive perhaps if such a thing is possible in today’s world. ‘Kinder’, even.

CT: That was another thing I sensed in Calcutta—it was an agreeable place to be. There seems to be a kind of window to the past that is fascinating. I wanted to explore the legacy of colonialism and the ambiguities that grew out of it. It was difficult to start with—I had no clear idea of how to go about things.

Nonetheless, I returned to Calcutta in the mid-1990’s. I had been working in medium format, with a Rolleiflex that I still use. I photographed details from the streets and portraits, but I realized that it was not the right approach.

NK: You’re still doing film? It’s wonderful. I keep telling myself that the day the world stops printing on paper I won’t take another picture. I don’t think I want to go digital.

CT: I resist it, which is perhaps not very logical, but I can’t see how I would benefit from the change. I have learnt to use very simple instruments where I am in total control of the image making process. Also, second hand equipment costs nothing these days. It’s true that paper and film is becoming more difficult to find. Hopefully the market will not completely disappear.

There are all these other aspects if you want to invest in expensive equipment. But the technology is constantly evolving with digital imagery. You have to keep up with technology, whereas I can work with equipment that is 40 or 50 years old, works perfectly and is easy to repair.

NK: Does it also have something to do with the kind of pictures you want to take?

CT: Oh yeah, I think so. Definitely. I’ve never been particularly attracted to colour. I’ve always stuck to black and white. And it’s something very easy—I can do it all myself. I am used working on my own. And I don’t wish to change. It is not really a refusal of possibilities. It’s just that I’ve got to reduce things to be as simple as possible. It’s technology that I understand, that I am used to working with. I’d rather concentrate on ideas than the technical side of things.

Also, I do no commercial work so there is little pressure to change. So, in fact, before starting this project in 2003, I decided to buy an old large format view camera because the subject was architecture. I ran up five or six shots on 4 x 5-inch sheet film to see if it worked just before leaving. I learnt to use this at the same time that I researched the subject of my project. Inevitably I made mistakes—the use of large negatives is all about precision, and there are many possibilities for error that I had not anticipated.

NK: There’s also a fair amount of set-up involved.

CT: Well, you start with the naked eye rather than viewing the scene through a camera lens. Then, when you find the best position, the camera is set on a stand, everything set to zero and leveled off, and an inversed image is viewed through a screen on the back. The film and lens planes are moveable, which permits control over perspective, and the manipulation of these can be a bit of a fiddle. The film, when inserted, blocks the screen so viewing is impossible at the moment the photograph is taken. The whole process takes several minutes to perform, so you can’t be discreet about it. There’s no possibility of that. When you’re on the street, you attract a crowd. People think you’re doing a movie or something.

NK: Your photographs are the work of a very private person . . . there is a sense that you tend to ‘capture’ stillness.

CT: Yes. In fact, I have been avoiding photographing people for 10 years or more, but I was interested in portraits some years ago. I had a neighbour where I live in France who was coming around all the time. He became a bit of a nuisance. He was a bit emotional. Sometimes, he’d been drinking. But he had an interesting face, and I began to photograph him. He had radical mood changes. It seemed like portraits of all very different people. This was fascinating. But it became a bit complicated. He thought he was some kind of a movie star!

NK: Because of the process of being shot regularly—

CT: And because he was being exhibited. The exhibition heightened his ego. It was a curious situation, a conflict of egos, till the subject and the photographer weren’t quite sure who was gaining the upper hand.

NK: Really? How did that happen?

CT: He started performing really. But then it was me who chose which moments to preserve. The images became a sort of mixture of portraiture and self-portraiture. This was over 10 years ago. I carried the process over a bit to Calcutta, and there are one or two portraits in the Icelandic series which followed.

NK: Yes, like the photograph of your father-in-law. So close that it stops being a portrait in that sense. Of course they are portraits but layered, as though textured. With the literature of the subject, the kind of person you perceive your subject to be—imagined or otherwise—from the inside. Objects that sometimes symbolize the personality of the subject or stilled frames that capture the inner person by freezing physical attributes that we wouldn’t normally seee in the dailyness of our relationship with the person. At least not consciously . . . the ear, or nose, or lip or a strand of hair—

CT: Since then, in China, I decided that people always become the centre of attention, and seem to date an image, so I decided to eliminate them from the frame altogether, and concentrate on what’s left behind. I turned my attention to details, fragments that work as symbols, a little like an archeological dig. So perhaps it was natural that I turned my attention to buildings. In this case it became a little more complicated avoiding people, so I had to arrange to go on specific times or days when they were unoccupied. I needed not only permission to go in there, but also to do so when nobody’s there. Sometimes I had to be very patient.

NK: I can imagine. As you said, you have a camera and you’re setting it up and you get a crowd like you do in a movie.

CT: There is the problem of people, but also, technically, the exposures are often very long. I want everything sharp, so I use a very small aperture with exposure times of several minutes for interior shots. People are often unaware of this and sometimes wander back into the frame.

NK: Curiously enough your photographs suggest that you’re translating your assimilated literature. All of us are made up of literature, not necessarily only what we read, but our experiences as a people, including the choice to be where we are at any given moment, our daily responses. Your own desire to give up London for example, in the context of your work and choosing instead to be in a more . . . what shall we say . . . lower profile space? I’m trying to figure out that during the process of what you choose to shoot and how you shoot and the rest of it—how much of that comes into play? Is it like a kind of total blankness, with the technicalities taking over what your eye sees? How much of it is intuitive in what seems at one level to be so meticulously planned and at another in complete communion with your subject?

CT: The thing is that it wasn’t. Because the initial idea, as I said, was to get into buildings I had picked, but then I had no idea what I’d subsequently find. And I had to get permission, which was often quite complicated, before I got to see anything inside. Actually I usually work more instinctively, working from an initial idea, and then searching until images fit into place. You are right—there has to be this kind of rapport, something that you sense yourself that you have been looking for. And, certainly I was looking for something specific. I had this feeling about Calcutta that somehow the city was left in the past, and this suited my approach. I’ve always been interested in the origin of things, history. It’s certainly the approach I had in China too. There are some thoughts that you have to get to the bottom of . With my work in Calcutta, the reference is to something very specific, more of an historical document, and there are necessarily more restrictions. At the same time there has to be this… I am looking for a particular sort of atmosphere.

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