Karen Knorr

Anna Fox and Karen Knorr in Conversation, 2010

Anna Fox: Today I am about to embark on an airplane back to London. I am in Delhi, it is the monsoon and it’s raining. When did you first travel to India? Has travel to India affected your practice as a photographer? Maybe this is a way of beginning a conversation about photography, our own practices as women photographers. I hope you will have time to have an email conversation with me about your experiences in India and its culture.
Karen Knorr: I have just returned to London after my fourth trip to India. I seem to only scratch the surface of what is such an ancient and diverse culture incorporating all the world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Parsee, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Migrations from as far as Greece, Asia Minor and China have influenced the religious cultural practices, infusing India’s architecture and visual culture as well as its stories from the Vedas to Bollywood. It is this fluidity and hybridity that made me feel comfortable. I am fascinated and curious about all the contradictions that cultural fusions entail. Remember, I grew up in Puerto Rico, in the 1960’s, an island which was also culturally mixed: Taino Indians, Spanish, Africans and Americans. A tropical climate, warm and humid cooled by the trade winds blowing off the central mountain range covered with the tropical rainforest. I always miss the West Indies and the Caribbean.
AF: Hi Karen, I first travelled to India when I was a student in 1985. I was studying with Martin Parr and Paul Graham as tutors and I went to India for two reasons, firstly to visit the home of one of my peers, my good friend Jaswinder Singh, and secondly to take photographs along the way. We also had a friend from Manchester with us, a regular hippy Freddy, was keen like me to make the pilgrimage to the grandest hippy destination of all times. We arrived in Bombay (as it was then) in mid July, mid monsoon. We had been warned by traveler friends that this was the worst possible time to go but nothing could have prepared us for the smells and sights of a mid 1980’s Bombay night. The first thing I remember as we emerged from the airport was seeing half a dozen westerners lying on the floor in the entranceway to the airport, all incredibly emaciated, guys with long beards begging for money.

“Brown sugar” someone murmured, “they probably want to get home” someone else volunteered, I couldn’t keep my eyes off them, the idea of not being able to get home was shocking, I had never been so close to seeing something like this. I was wearing a cotton dress and sandals, the road was thick with mud and I saw rats, a man grabbed our luggage and locked it in the back of his black and yellow cab, it was all a bit too fast for us and we panicked, thinking he was stealing our luggage – typical western anxiety! He hurried us on, it was 4 am and the wind was warm enough to feel like it was coming out of a hairdryer on low speed. The country amazed me – it was magical, chaotic and life changing.

When did you first go to India? What were your first impressions?
KK: I travelled to India very recently, only two years ago and it was thanks to your enthusiasm for India that I considered working for the first time in a country I was unfamiliar with. I may have broken my own rules and risk plunging into a “new orientalism”, in my new work, a risk I am now willing to take! You suggested I contact Abhishek Poddar of Tasveer .
During my second trip in April 2009, I met Abhishek and was invited to stay at his family home in Bangalore. Thanks to encouragement from both of you that I embarked upon a life changing experience using photography as a means of understanding the complexities of India and its cultural heritage. The Poddars have been the most generous friends, introducing me to people such as Shivika Singh as well some of India’s royalty who helped me gain access to palaces sites and photograph them.
What interested me most from a post-colonial perspective was the pre-British architectural heritage permeated by India’s Mughal past in Northern India. I wanted to consider women’s spaces called zenana (the area where women conducted their lives away from the gaze of men ) in palaces and havelis. The organization of the space around the mardana (men’s areas) intrigued me.
Through screens, women could look down at the meetings and discussions being held in the durbar halls. The possibility that women commented and discussed men’s actions from behind these screens, and that they could also resist or comment on power is interesting. I also wondered about the animal life in the palaces: elephants, cows, bulls, langur monkeys, tigers and cheetahs which lived close and sometimes even within these spaces.
Animal life is disappearing at a rapid rate as forests found at the base of mountains continue to be cut down or sites developed for the raw materials that are feeding India’s development. There are fewer cows and bulls in the cities as rapid urbanization and road building takes hold. Also the forests once full of wildlife in the Aravali Hills are now threatened by development as are the Western Ghats.
I had read William Darymple’s books and found his excavation of Indian history very exciting, particularly the book The Last Mughal which was incredibly timely in its depth of research. I have read Stanley Wolpert’s India and Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. A book that captured my imagination was Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus which talks about her travels following the river Indus upstream in Pakistan and back in time. To think that now that same river is overflowing and millions of people are homeless just shows how fragile countries in developing world are, even with nuclear power.
These books captured my imagination and made me want to explore India and visit Delhi. I researched different architectural and archeological sites and found photographs which were extremely useful. I wanted to know more about the Mughal Empire which ruled large parts of India from the 16th to the 19th century. Islamic influence was already present in Delhi and Agra in the 11th century with the Delhi Sultanate. Incredibly erudite scientific research that took place in India under Emperors such as Ashoka and Akbar, with an incredibly inclusive world view which supported different religions and philosophies! Not at all the orientalist European fantasy of the despot!
I know what you mean about travelers and people sleeping outdoors on sidewalks and on train platforms. Arriving at Delhi train station we saw hundreds of people lying on the floor waiting for their trains. My first impressions were of a woman asleep on the cool marble floors of the women’s toilets in Delhi airport with rings on her bare feet … and the enveloping heat.
During our first journey, Juliette Wilson (my travelling companion and dear friend) and I had a very tight schedule. From New Delhi we hired a driver through an Indian travel company who was to drive us 3,000 miles back and forth across Rajasthan. We identified many of the architectural sites including palaces, temples and mausoleums dating from the 14th century onwards that dotted this region of India that later became the heritage sites that I used in India Song. We decided to visit 16 different sites in 21 days which included two bird sanctuaries …
The idea was to reconnaissance architectural sites that I could photograph in the near future with a large format Sinar 5 x 4 in. I was impressed by the animal life and the close proximity of animals to humans in cities such as Delhi, Jodphur, Jaipur and Udaipur. It was wonderful traveling with Juliette who took notes while I photographed potential sites, sharing an overwhelming cornucopia of the senses that traveling through remote country villages to Samode Palace near Jaipur and then to Shekawati, at the edges of the Thar desert to Bikaner, down southwest Rajasthan to Udaipur … to Lake Pichola , staying on an island palace yet moving on constantly…exhausting …arriving at Agra to view the national symbol of India: the Taj Mahal. I guess we fulfilled the stereotype of rich woman travelers! Travel was work and our intellectual parameters were stretched by the visual and aural spectacle of North West India. The more I saw the more curious I became.
Geoff Blight, my partner and I traveled twice to India in 2009 taking the large format Sinar camera with us and photographed palacesin Samode, Jaipur , Dungarpur and Udaipur. Contemporary India in rapid development exists in the past, present and future all at once: a camel, an ox, three people on a motor scooter, a pile of dried cow dung used for fuel next to vast telecommunication mobile towers which connect you to the internet and the mobile phone network even in the Thar desert.
AF: But do tell me more about your photographs in India…
KK:My first photographs in India were about observing the way extraordinary things crashed together in front of my eyes: influences from east and west; living conditions - rich and poor. I was astounded by the level of innovation and creativity people were using to get by – strange machines made out of odds and ends, ways of getting from one place to the next, recycling everywhere. And the animals living in a way I had not seen before: cows and dogs wandering around, more content than not, some ill but many more in good health. I really felt there was something to be said with photography, something enormously rich, something soulful that counteracted the greed of the consumer driven west.
I was shocked when I returned home, I couldn’t get used to the way things were at home, it was as if my mind had turned a corner and I didn’t fit back into the space I had left behind. I had lived all my life in a small village then a small town. I stayed one more year then moved to London. The work I shot in 1985, I exhibited in 1986 at the West End Centre in Aldershot and simply titled it From Agra to Srinagar; it was a road trip and the photographs reflected that. The journey we made was done as cheaply as possible on rickety buses on hair-raising roads, in boats and by foot. I never forgot it and constantly dreamt of returning.
AF:You took road trip photographs? How did you perceive this predominantly white male tradition of photography? Travel photography always seems more about the observer than the observed.
KK:I like exploding the male photographic myths – woman on the road – I am not sure why it didn’t really take off. I mean there were women travelers in the past (you have mentioned one of them who I must read). You don’t have to be alone to make pictures on a road trip. I have a whole series of work around Road Trips named deliberatel that way. In fact I am going to do that one day: with all my travel photographs create a diary of a woman on the road as a book. Regarding the observed being the only subject of travel photography I agree that seems to be the case, various documentarists such as Susan Mieselas, Bill Burke and Sharon Lockhart have tried different approaches each one taking care to broaden the perspective of the traditional documentarist. But travel photography is in a category of its own, usually incredibly clichéd – well there is a challenge!
AF:Karen, your work has predominantly been about exploring myth and fable, blurring fact and fiction with fantastical spaces– What sort of storyteller are you? How does what you have done in India relate to the history of the work you have done to date in the UK and Europe?
KK:A strange sort of storyteller. My images although narrative are not exactly stories but rather allegories alluding to the foundation myths that have created the fine art heritage of Europe which include photography in museums and academies. Connoisseurs, a series of framed photographs, used heightened cibachrome colour, with text on brass plaques to challenge taste and the search for authenticity in British high culture, tracing the genealogy of the museum from the private country house mansion (Chiswick House to the public 19th century museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum). In that work I brought in objects and people staging scenarios which commented on the underlying assumptions of taste. In fact I installed temporary objects to photograph in these museum spaces such as a taxidermy monkey, a collection of telescopes or books. So the photographs photographed installed objects or asked friends to perform actions. I was interested in culture and how it contributed to national identity. I was trying to understand the British culture. I felt like an outsider observing a strange tribe.
My early 1980’s black and white work began to distance itself from social documentary in the classical sense. I wanted to use what I had learned from conceptual art (the use of text with image) and create a new critical documentary style that used the aesthetics of fine art print photography marrying it with a deconstructive, often humorous textual strategy. It attempted to use humour and irony through staged portraiture and reconstructed situations that I observed, using social actors to perform for the camera. My work looked at class distinction in Britain and role of women in that class but also how power was always legitimized and underscored by the material culture and architectural space in museums, clubs or fine art academies in Europe. As a student of photography and film at the Polytechnic of Central London in the mid 1970’s (now University of Westminster) I saw my work idealistically as a political intervention critiquing a naïve social realism or humanist photography based on the decisive moment. I was using photography as a research tool enabling me to understand British history and its social structures. Under Thatcher’s conservative policies and cuts many people were marginalized and disenfranchised. Class distinctions were very visible as they are becoming once more. Inequality in Britain has always been an issue.
Before the institutionalization of a research culture in higher education and its instrumentalisation through a PhDs in practice based research, I was engaging with methodologies that came from conceptual art and cultural studies which were considering the Western gaze (White Eurocentric) highly problematic. I am now using photography in a similar way in India. I have begun with what is considered part “official” national culture and its heritage like I did in 1980’s England and later in 1990’s France photographing the Louvre and The D’Orsay Museum. In India I am a participant observer, collaborator of what is an upper caste culture that is opening up and liberalizing in terms of women’s position yet there is still more change coming! India’s emerging middle class is vast and it is producing highly literate and educated young women who are forming their own businesses.
My photography in India so far pays homage to the extraordinary beauty and power of Rajput and Mughal architecture and the hybrid cultures represented in stories that are written and represented in miniature paintings, sculptures found in temples, palaces, havelis and mausoleums, and also folk and tribal art. My thoughts were: How are women and animals represented? Whose portraits are privileged in paintings? Whilst women are represented as goddesses yet still subordinated and abused for their insufficient dowries. (I am not deluded about inequalities that exist in the West either!) How does early photography in India represent women under the British Raj? How to represent and portray high caste culture in a period of huge change in India …These are some of my ongoing concerns…Yet how to engage in a critically informed fashion.
Anna, do tell me more about your photographic work and your thoughts on India. We are both professors of photography now and we both teach photography. Teaching has always been inextricably linked to my practice as a photographer, students are our teachers: we learn from them as much as they learn from us.
AF:My work comes out of the documentary tradition, I love the classic tales related by roaming photographers. I am fascinated that they are told by predominantly men, the few women who have made this kind of work are role models for me and I am also intrigued by the early women travelers - always wealthy and sometimes with camera. I am intending to research further some of these women and have been highly influenced by engaging with the history of Indian photography introduced to me via numerous photographers and friends in India.
My project in India has been to try to discover the essence of contemporary life as experienced by Indian women. It is an incredibly broad area to study and I will clearly have to make some generalizations though I will do this with great care. My work is intended for audiences both in the West and in India it will read differently in different places but this is not important; what matters is that I want to tell a story about the everyday lives of different women in different parts of India, it might be that I concentrate wholly on the middle classes but I will decide that at a later stage.
Middle class women are the women I relate to and I have found it fascinating how different my life might have been had I grown up an Indian in India. Today higher education is free for women in India and many of the graduates I have met are battling between their parents desire to see them married and their own desire to progress their careers. Middle class women in India have, in some ways, more freedom than middle class Western women: in the sense that we work all day at work then come home and work in the house and for the kids yet our equivalent in India would employ a number of people to do some of the jobs I do at home and in the office. However an Indian woman, once married, may have to move in with her in-laws (something that has really surprised me for a nation that seems in tune with its inner emotions) or move to fit in with her husband (though this obviously happens in the West too). So there are interesting dilemmas, advantages and disadvantages and somehow I want to capture an idea of all this in my pictures.
There is also the academic side, as a photography professor from the University for the Creative Arts working to develop the new Post Graduate Photography Diploma at the National Institute of Design with Dr Deepak John Mathews has also been inspiring; the students, so enthusiastic, have taken on a range of subjects and translated them into images and stories that no foreign traveler would be able to see or find – their works and their knowledge has informed my direction.
KK:Can you tell me something about how the past and present come together in your work?
AF:All my work since the Gentlemen series (1981- 1983) has used heritage and historical interiors which have collaboratively staged portraits and scenarios to reflect on contemporary discourses of power and their legitimization through stories and “master narratives”. In Gentlemen it was patriarchy, in Capital early globalisation and capitalism, in Academies art history, fine art education and museum studies. The past always pervades the present in my photography. Of course it is a revised past, not an authentic past …that is now lost and now the struggle is around whose history. What does our version of history choose to privilege?
KK:My recent series, named in homage to Marguerite Duras’ seminal 1975 film India Song, (a seminal French film about unrequited love in Kolkata and dying colonialism) celebrates the animals and characters out of stories in the Ramayana, Panchatantra and Mahabharata … The animals occupy women’s rooms and men’s spaces in palaces and havelis standing in for avatars, and atmans. They are the symbolic animals of India: Hanuman the langur monkey God, Ganesh the elephant, peacock s and Tigers consorts of Goddesses Shiva and Lakshmi. These rooms have become museums open to visitors and heritage hotels run by today’s maharaja’s family. With the captions I have also tried to allude to women that have affected Indian history .
The palaces rooms in Samode, Jaipur and Dungarpur are material remnants of a way of life that is now past and the memories they hold are harder to access. Miniatures, wall paintings and early photographs are now being archived and studied. Glimpses of these archives can be seen publicly when photographs of the past are hung up as in the Maharaja of Mysore’s Palace in Bangalore or encrusted into palace walls of the Juna Mahal in Dungarpur. There is also an extensive palace archive of the Arvind Singh Mewar in Udaipur which has just opened a new museum of photography in Udaipur palace.
AF:Are you creating new myths? And if yes what do you want them to say? Will they speak differently to different audiences?
KK:I hope that by referencing Indian myths and not illustrating them in their excessive visuality and colour, it remind us through the animal’s gaze that the “incredible India” promoted by tourism is also fragile. With global warming and climate change created by mass industrialization both animal and heritage are under threat. The work not only celebrates and shows the beauty there is, but also brings out the transience and decay of life. How many Bengal tigers roam freely? How many lion tailed macaques? How many black buck? Where have the cheetahs gone? Are they all destined to be trophies in the grand palaces and homes of contemporary Maharajas?
Some of us may achieve spiritual / financial freedom but at what cost to those millions of citizen’s pouring into Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata hoping for a better life? The tribals are resisting land development of their natural sacred sites …the same old story of human progress”…development carries with it heavy consequences.
AF:Can you say something about using colour in India?
KK:I am very self conscious of exoticism and its links to colour often disparaged by Europeans of the North who may still prefer their cool pastels, soft greens grays and objective typologies and tasteful minimalism. There is a puritanical chromo phobia which sees rich visuality as linked to a consumerist culture of excess or kitsch.
Colour is very much part of Indian popular culture found in giant advertising posters and film posters. Colour in India is all pervasive; even in the desert the bright clothes of people, the drawings on the mud houses, mirrors on women’s skirts, the makeup of the Katakali dancers in the south. Colour is a powerful visual tool that is absolutely right for my new work in India.
AF:What process do you go through when making a body of work?
KK:It is an extensive, ongoing process… reading as much as I can about the stories that relate to Indian visual culture … collecting images, researching the history of the architectural sites. Trying to grasp the complexity of the rich philosophical traditions in India that intermingle. I am reading the foundation stories of India which include The Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panchatantra… these are very old stories based on an oral tradition and they get performed and visualized in dances, paintings, miniatures throughout India. Bollywood and Bhangra music is part of Indian popular culture that has a huge audience. I am studying the Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray and the Mahabharata of Peter Brooks, also Black Narcissus, the extraordinary film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger .
AF:How do you relate to the insider/outsider debate?
KK:There has always been a confusion about my identity and where I fit in. In the 1980s I represented British photography internationally in arts council and British Council touring shows. I represented Britain in the Fifth Sydney Biennale in 1984. Yet now I have not had a major exhibition in Britain for over 9 years although I have retrospectives of my work across France, Spain, Belgium and Italy. My work is in museum collections in France yet very poorly represented in public collections in Britain. My work rarely gets included in British survey shows because it does not fit comfortably yet I have taught many of the photographers in these shows. I have lived for most of my life in Britain, yet I am a resident and still hold an American passport. My mother tongue was German and is now lost as I speak English, Puerto Rican and French.
I am an outsider, I have never felt totally at home in England and even though I have been part of the British art world, I operate discretely eschewing the celebrity culture endorsed by the auction houses and Charles Saatchi. I doubt I will ever become a ‘national treasure’ as I find the inequality in a still-class based Britain unacceptable. This is an important space for me to operate in. It has become part of my identity. It may be a romantic position but it is also a critical position which entails self critique.
AF:Has making work in India changed us?
KK:The opportunity to exhibit work in India has been vital to me. I really wanted to engage an Indian audience in what I have done in the past before I presented a final version of the work I am making in India, to provide an identity for my work and some context for who I am. This seemed particularly important for a documentarist. I was thrilled to be invited to exhibit at Tasveer and the opportunity has been very beneficial for me. I have also gained enormous knowledge from the staff and students at the various institutions that I have worked in, particularly the National Institute of Design. None of the work I have done would have been possible without the generous support of The University for the Creative Arts and The British Council. Being in India has undoubtedly changed me: the nature of the people and the country, so gentle and generous, has rubbed off on me – it has enabled me to look at the world through very different eyes.
AF:Like you I feel absolutely privileged to be accepted as a fine art photographer in India. To be asked to make work in India has changed my life at time when I least expected it. It has also been thanks to time given to me to pursue travels and research by my colleagues at the University of the Creative Arts that has helped me make this work possible. I am inspired and hope to continue to develop this project into a film project in the near future. My dream is to work with the Indian film industry in an experimental way using simple methods and High Definition video to tell new stories about contemporary India .
*Anna Fox is one of the most acclaimed British photographers of the last twenty-five years. Working in colour, Fox first gained attention for Work Stations: Office Life in London (1988), a study of office culture in Thatcher’s Britain, originally commissioned by Camerawork and The Museum of London. She is best known for Zwarte Piet (1993-8), a series of twenty portraits taken over a five-year period that explore Dutch ‘black-face’ folk traditions associated with Christmas. Other projects have included The Village (1992), Friendly Fire, Cockroach Diary and My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words. A major monograph, Anna Fox Photographs 1983 - 2007, was published by Photoworks in 2007. Anna Fox is shortlisted for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010.