A boxful of old photos

The Asian Age Staff

The accidental discovery of a shoebox with 127 vintage photographs of India taken in 1945 by an anonymous American serviceman inspires 12 contemporary artists

The accidental discovery of a shoebox with 127 vintage photographs of India taken in 1945 by an anonymous American serviceman inspires 12 contemporary artists

Photographs have played a significant role in archiving the history and culture of a society. But have you ever wondered how pictures also raised questions about how cultures perceive one another (both the photographer through his camera and the subjects looking back). Curators and artists Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral have put together an exhibition titled “Following The Box” showcasing works by 12 contemporary artists, inspired by 127 vintage photographs of India taken in 1945 by an anonymous American serviceman.

Talking about how they found these vintage images of India, Alan says, “My friend’s widow was selling few of his items after his death. In that estate sale we found an ordinary shoebox filled with 130 brown envelopes. On further examination we found a collection of black-and-white images that were so fascinating that we couldn’t help but acquire them.”

Most of the images were of temples and scenes of rural village life — people doing laundry, catching fish in a net, threshing rice, plowing fields with a team of oxen, playing the drums and sitar and stuffing betel nuts with spices to turn it into paan. “There was an anthropological quality to the collection, as though the photographer was consciously trying to document the villagers and customs that were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old,” shares Alan. Jerri adds, “The photos appeared to have been taken in India. The only clue to their provenance was the notations someone had made on the bottom of each negative that read ‘10th PTU’ with a date.”

Allan and Jerri’s curiosity made them wonder about the American soldier who liked to wander around with his camera. Based on the size of the negatives, they suspected he had probably used a Speed Graphic, an army-issued press camera. The backstory of the photos went deeper and they began researching about the US army’s presence in India during World War II.

“In that research we found that the images are taken in West Bengal and based on the locations of several temples that the photographer had shot and also the exterior of a building clearly labeled ‘Bombay Cinema’, Kharagpur was the more likely candidate,” shares Allan.

That is when their journey of ‘following the box’ began, shares the husband-wife duo. Their quest to know the story made them realise that these images can inspire the creation of new works too. Jerri says, “The artistic energy in these images is what is keeping these pictures alive. We were aware that the mystery of the photographer’s identity is one of the greatest attractions of the project and we wanted to explore how an artist will build a work around it.”

Alan adds, “We have the freedom to invent whatever we want. The basic concept of this exhibition is to showcase the cross-cultural take of art through these vintage photographs — how will a group of American and Indian artists reflect on works by an American photographer 70 years ago and pick up on the same things.”

According to them, these images provide a window into a India that has changed dramatically in some areas while remaining the same in others. Jerri says, “The exhibition is a visual storytelling across space, time and culture, a mystery tale of old photographs and new artistic interpretations. Each artist presents their own interpretation and narrative of the images.”

They are also planning to showcase a documentary during the exhibition featuring their journey and the artistic interpretation. Jerri says, “The documentary will show how each artist perceived the works. For example, one artist created a short film that incorporates all 130 photos accompanied by a voice-over narration by the soldier and another one created a scroll narrative using these images.”