We love the idea of tropical ruins, vestiges of an older world kept alive in the cherished husks of 1950s automobiles and non-gentrified colonial structures, of late. Some of our greatest writers regularly extol, now, the beauty of great cities from the more tattered days of their youth. Much of our art is about seeing beauty in chaos, about finding some salvation in the decline and fall of a civilization.
Fionn Reilly’s new photo book, Kolkata/Calcutta — which will be celebrated at a December 9 afternoon book launch party at the Center for Photography at Woodstock complete with author Tony Fletcher interviewing his fellow Londoner about the work he’s just written an intro for — takes a long-awaited close glimpse at the much-maligned Indian city known more for its destitution, its Mother Theresa-year, than its being a birthplace of its nation’s greatest cultural gifts to the world.
Reilly’s long had a keen eye backed up by a well-read yet insistently curious literary mind. His fashion work always reached beyond what some termed “heroin chic” in the 1990s into something both sweeter and sexier, without ever harassing propriety. His explorations of the overlooked British suburban life he moved away from in his twenties, his adventurous off-the-beaten-track travels around Europe and the backwoods of our Hudson Valley, and photojournalist work with a number of local publications (including quite a few Ulster Publishing papers) over the years has yielded a singular vision. He’s mastered color, and large format exhibition styles, but is best at something many have moved away from in photography of late: densely informative (and informed) black and white verite glimpses of lives that reward long immersive looks and that most valued of artistic goals, a bit of empathetic imagining about what greatly “other” lives entail, as well as a simultaneous nod towards the ever-increasing surreal side of modern life.
Which makes the subject of this book, published by KMW Studio Publishing (based in Dutchess County), so perfect for Reilly. We’re speaking of capturing one of the great fabled cities years after its heyday as the center of British India in the 19th Century, its era as the hotbed of cultural and political revolutions in much of the 20th century, and decades of decay as the world seemed to punish it for having become the world’s largest popularly-elected Communist entity and a home for street-bound refugees. Think of Detroit, Industrial Revolution magnet cities years after their reigns ended…or Havana. Without any tourism draw. Which allows Reilly to explore his penchant for cluttered urban landscapes, iconic images of men and women struggling to endure hard lives with dignity, and the ways in which nature re-asserts itself as a weapon of beautiful ruin with insistent ease.
“I went to Kolkata in the 21st century, but shooting in black and white revealed the older city, Calcutta,” Reilly notes of his book’s title. “A million photographs could not describe this place.”
But what he includes captures quite a lot. There are the cluttered streetscapes of crumbling buildings chock-full of small businesses, street beggars, trash, and teaming humanity we’ve grown used to seeing. Hardworking men and women carry massive piles upon their heads, drag rickshaws filled with people and goods; roadways appear blocked still with all manner of vehicles. A couple luxuriates in a garden strewn with what appears to be trash. Marble palaces are overrun with vegetation; piles of paper sit inside crowded offices, outside of which wait patient typists with old manual typewriters. Art — be it in the form of movie posters, sculpture, street performers or loudspeakers — seems to be in evidence everywhere. But so does water, verdant overgrowth, loose animals, and endless streams of people.
What comes through, in the end (including a few choice color photographs), is the life and soul of a city that’s far beyond what we’ve been led to expect from years of gentrified tourism and lifeless images of other forgotten places where the focus is on architecture, cars, and the stuff civilizations leave behind.
“Black is the color of shadows, and in Calcutta the shadows of the past cast a Victorian darkness in contrast to the blinding tropical sun that erodes those elements of its past and is fuel to its future,” Reilly has said of what’s attracted him to this city, this world view. “I was told as a child that my bedroom looked like the Black Hole of Calcutta. Perhaps that is what originally attracted me to the place.”
Reilly is a great storyteller, both within his images and when recounting the journeys and insights they’re chosen to relate. His book signing and talk about Kolkata/Calcutta, one of today’s world’s great unsung tales, runs from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, 59 Tinker Street (www.cpw.org). For further information see www.kolkatabook.com.