Kolkata Travelogue

imageI recently got around to tidying up the Travel section on my web site, and at the same time posted new images from my last trip to Kolkata.

I first visited Kolkata back in 1986 (it was still called Calcutta back then). The trip was a nightmare. The friend I was travelling with ended up in hospital with dyssentri, and instead of travelling around the country, we were stuck in the city which back then was quite horrible. It was extremely overcrowded – people were fleeing the impoverished countryside in masses and ended up as squatters in Kolkata. The city was polluted, smelly and traffic perpetually congested. I literally still had nightmares of the place months after being back in Europe. It took me almost 30 years to go back to the city, but when I did, in 2013, I found a place much changed for the better. It is a lot less crowded, and it is less dirty and hectic than Mumbai for instance. I returned there again in 2014 and 2015, which tells you that now I am quite fond of the place.

Kolkatans take pride in that their city is different from other Indian cities, and indeed it is, even though, as an outsider, I may find it difficult to judge just what that difference is. Kolkata is relatively young, of course; daring back to the 18th century only. It used to be India’s most populous city, until Mumbai overtook it, and during the British occupation, it was the capital of the British Raj. And indeed, it is this British past which characterises Kolkata to a large degree – certainly in its architecture, from the Victoria Memorial on down to the many stately villas, many of them now sadly crumbling or being demolished. The city once boasted a vibrant Jewish community, which numbered 5000 before Indian independence, but is now down to 26 members. Similarly, Kolkata is home to India’s only Chinatown, but the ethnic Chinese community has also dwindled considerably.

The city is named after the goddess Kali, and a friend of mine argues that it this which leads to women being far more empowered in Kolkata than in the rest of India.

The photos I put up are from those three last trips – unfortunately I have no photos left from the 1986 trip. I organised the images into three sets:

  1. The City: as the name implies, photos from around the city. It is not meant to be a travel guide, and many of the landmark sites are missing from the collection. Instead I have included images of those places which interested me the most. My favourite ones were probably the overgrown grounds of the National Library and the equally overgrown Victorian-era South Park Street Cemetery. Also included are photos from two of the three Kolkatan synagogues.
  2. Kolkata At Night: these are scenes from night time festivities during three Kolkata festivals: the Durga Pujas (in honour of the goddess Durga, a manifestation of the goddess Kali), the Kali Durgas (in honour of Kali), and the all-Indian festival of Diwali.
  3. Across the River: images from the area outside Kolkata, on the opposite banks of the Hooghly River, as that particular branch of the Ganges is called –  Chandannagar, an area which once belonged to the French (and Portuguese and Swedes).

For more India travel photos, click here.

For portrait and street photography from India, click here.

Click here to read more on Kolkata’s Jewish community.

South Park Street Cemetery
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Where Angels Tread


Italians love their monumental cemeteries. Rome and Milan both feature impressive ones, and so does Bologna: the Cimitero Monumentale della Certosa di Bologna. I have recently uploaded a series of photos taken at that place, showcasing humanity’s vain attempt to live on after death through monuments to past glories.

Click here to view Where Angels Dare.

Photos taken with a Fujifilm X-T10 camera.

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Autumn Polaroids

“Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence”

Yoko Ono – Seasons of Glass


Now that the weather is turning (for the worse), and the last of the leaves are dropping from the trees, it’s time to kiss autumn good-bye. Time also to put together the photos from this year’s autumn photo outings, which, predictably, I did using Polaroid cameras this time around. So here it is then, a brand new collection of polaroids taken around parks and cemeteries in Berlin: Autumn Polaroids.

I used a variety of Impossible Project films when taking the pictures, which explains the different colour shades that can be noticed when browsing through the set: the new PX 70 Color Protection, which provides the more natural looking, warmer colours; the PX 680 Color Protection with also natural looking but less saturated colors, and the older PX 70 Color Shade Cool film with its trademark slight yellow tinge.


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A Chilly Peace


Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on this blog entitled “Peace… Eternal“, after having visited and photographed one of Berlin’s oldest and most charming graveyards. In it, I described the ambiguity I felt of being in that remote, utterly peaceful place while being constantly reminded of death.

I recently came across a blog entry written by one Masud Mahmood about the American poet Emily Dickinson, and what the author refers to as her ‘graveyard mentality’. I’m not overly familiar with Dickinson’s work, although I knew that death was a central theme in her poems, and so it took this article to show me how she had in her work repeatedly referenced graveyards and their uneasy peace – what Dickinson called a ‘chilly peace’. Since I was back visiting more cemeteries these past couple of week-ends, I thought the new pics and Emily Dickinson were reason enough to warrant a second blog entry on the same subject…

Here are some passages from Emily Dickinson that reflect the mood I was talking about:

Writing from a dead person’s point of view, in this poem Dickinson paints this cheerful picture of a graveyard:

It’s stiller than the sundown.
It’s cooler than the dawn –
The Daisies dare to come here –
And birds can flutter down –

(poem#51)

But in other ones, such as this one, the emotions are mixed, sadness mingles here with the feeling of peace:

Where every bird is bold to go
And bees abashless play,
The foreigner before he knocks
Must thrust the tears away.

(poem#1758)

While in this one, the mood turns downright sombre:

A chilly Peace infests the Grass
The Sun respectful lies —
Not any Trance of industry
These shadows scrutinize —

Whose Allies go no more astray
For service or for Glee —
But all mankind deliver here
From whatsoever sea —

(poem#1443)

I was reminded of this poem on the week-end as I strolled through one more old Berlin graveyard. But first I should explain what I’m doing in these places. I’m not particularly attracted to death, nor am I driven to seek refuge from the city bustle among the lost graves. I go there, primarily, because I find cemeteries intriguing witnesses to a city’s history – a history that, in Berlin’s case, has been rather turbulent. The cemeteries are a showcase of Berlin’s once great past and its downfall – but that is a topic that I would like to save for another blog post.

Additionally, I find the monuments and statues to be very photogenic indeed – hence that other collection of photos which I entitled Postures of Grief, which focuses on the statues and their depicition of grief and salvation. But, walking around these old and overgrown cemeteries in this season, high summer, I also found intriguing the notion to try and capture this unique look and feel, and through the photographs convey both the sense of peace and the proximity of death, in other words, this ambiguity that Dickinson so aptly called the ‘chilly peace.’

I used, once again, the Polaroid SX-70 camera and the Fuji Instax to try and capture that mood. Again, I found the Polaroid camera and the Impossible Project’s Color Shade film the perfect instrument to depict the ‘otherworldly’, dreamlike state of an old light-filled graveyard full of overgrown and crumbling tombs, walls and statues. The resulting images’ tones and colours imbue them with a sense of melancholy, of past times and of loss; a mood I find very reminiscent of some of the quieter, less dramatic works of the 18th century romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or William Turner, who also had a fondness for depicting ruins and old, forgotten places overrun by nature in paintings full of melancholy which reflect a yearning for simpler times.

The Instax camera, on the other hand, delivers more saturated images, which paint the cemetery a different shade. Here, the photos I took in plain sunlight stress the colours of summer, highlighting the abundance of nature that has taken over these places; while in the photos taken in late afternoons or under cloudy skies, they reflect a starker, more sombre mood, where the abundance of nature seems almost menacing. I found these darker images to be the perfect conclusion for the Peace Eternal set.

I updated both the Peace Eternal and the Postures of Grief sets with new photos. Here are the links:

And here is the link to the article “The Graveyard Sensibility of Emily Dickinson” by Masud Mahmood.

Postures of Grief; or: Polaroid vs. Instax

 
I recently took my two instant film cameras, the Fuji Instax 210 and a recently acquired Polaroid SX-70, to a couple of nearby graveyards. My main goal was to give the Polaroid its first serious try-out, but at the same time I wanted to find out how the two cameras compare.
It should be stated first that comparing the two cameras may be a case of apples and oranges. The cameras and the films work differently and use different chemical processes, achieving very different results. They are also targeted at very different groups of people. Fuji seems to market its instax cameras towards the snapshot-happy crowd, trying to place the cameras as a party gimmick for young people (mind you, I very much doubt that the clumsy 210 camera is lugged around much to parties); if you browse the instax flickr groups, people are using the Instax for all sorts of shots – from moody nature pics to fashion shootings. Impossible Project on the other hand caters to the more art-oriented crowd, a fact highlighted by the various exhibitions it organizes around the world. At the price that the new polaroid films sell, they are definitely not meant to be used for snapshots. Additionally, the imperfections inherent in the current film stock mean that its users are willing to embrace those.
Nonetheless, having the two cameras with me for shooting under the same conditions and in the same environment provided me with a good opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of the two cameras for a specific project.
For the SX-70, I consider the results as mixed. I like the otherworldly quality of the polaroids, which imbues the images with a dreamy, even ghostly mood that fits the subject matter extremely well, even giving the depicted statues a sense of timelessness. However, on some of the pics, the discoloration is a bit too intense even for me. I’m still learning to fine-tune the darkness settings on the camera, which may be part of the problem. Having shot some 20 photos, I consider about five to be good, and of those three to be better than good; although I should add that I really like those three.
The photos taken with the Fuji Instax are very different in quality and in mood – more realistic, sure, but still a bit off – softer than digital or normal film would be, and thus, again, less realistic than straight photography. I was also surprised to see how well the camera handled more muted colors in less than sunny settings, having previously shot mostly colorful scenes on sunny days. These muted colors give the resulting photos a very sombre feel, again very appropriate to the setting but totally opposite to the effect achieved by the Polaroid camera. On the down side, I am less than impressed with the shots where I used the flash – the flash is way too bright. Also, it doesn’t handle large contrasts very well – the light areas tend to come out all washed out. Overall, however, I got a larger number of satisfying photos from the Fuji, although, at the end, again only 3 or so which I find better than good. 
Beyond the aesthetics, there are other factors to consider when comparing the camera. The price of the film for one, you can get 20 instax pics for the price of eight polaroids. The Instax also delivers results faster, you can at least recognize what you shot 30 seconds after taking the picture – with the Polaroid, it takes 4-5 minutes. 
A couple of factors which weigh more heavily in favor of the Polaroid cameras is for one that Impossible Project offers a choice of films, including black & white, while Fuji just offers one. Then there is also the fact that there is a stronger community than there is for the Instax. The Polaroid flickr groups for example are a lot more active than those dedicated to the Instax, and Impossible Project itself is fueling the community through its web site (which offers plenty of advice as well) and through different exhibitions and contests (see also my earlier review of David Sylvian’s Glowing Enigmas exhibition).
Overall I guess it comes down to a matter of taste if you prefer the one to the other, or for what purpose you intend to use it. I for one am happy to have both and will be using both, but for different ends.
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