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?
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’,
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
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
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
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.