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BACK TO THE ARCHIVE

It is always interesting to follow what serious photographers do with their own archives. Photography is about the passing of time. Yet, there are many ways in which a photographer's early work could become integral to his or her evolving, ongoing present. At its best, this act of self-recovery poses a formal challenge as well. The artist has to think carefully about what to do with early images in order to make them part of a new body of work, in which old and new photographs might come together to create, perhaps, a more complex experience of time. But, when not at its best, and done too frequently or without enough thought about the why and the how, going back to the archive could become a somewhat tired and predictable exercise.

The value of Nemai Ghosh’s best photography is inextricable from the impact of Satyajit Ray’s cinema (of the late Sixties onwards). There is an edge of brilliance to the work that Ray drew out of this most ardent of Boswells. It takes Ghosh’s visual history of Ray’s filmmaking beyond the documentary, towards a wittier unsettling of the Real. But the infectious high that Ray never failed to give him is noticeably absent when Ghosh shoots other filmmakers at work, although his photographs continue to be historically invaluable. The long-overdue exhibition and book of Ghosh’s best work, last year, were subtitled “Satyajit Ray and Beyond”. We get more of this “beyond” — though not without the expected glimpses of Ray — in NEMAI GHOSH’S KOLKATA (Collins, Rs 1,999), with an introduction by Ghosh himself, a foreword by Amitabh Bachchan and an essay by Sankarlal Bhattacharjee. Yet, the charm of the Ray work is missing in these photographs. This is partly because Ghosh’s depictions of Calcutta, from the Seventies onwards, draw on an iconography of the city — Howrah Bridge, Mother Teresa, poor people, rickshaws, Coffee House, life on the Maidan, rallies, graffiti, and so on — that may have been engaging in the politically heady, Cartier-Bressonesque decades when the photos were taken, but are now part of a clichéd Calcutta photo-language that would fill the sophisticated contemporary viewer with a sort of retinal weariness, in spite of Bhattacharjee’s nostalgic evocations.

The size and design of the book — large, Raghu-Rai-style, coffee-table format and glossy paper — do not help either. In photography, content is seldom redeemed by scale. The smaller images placed alongside the texts (or printed as postcards) work better than the ones that are massively enlarged, which reduces the quality of reproduction and makes the book unwieldy to handle. This body of images from Ghosh’s archive needed a greater degree of formal and editorial rigour to bring it up to scratch.

This photograph was taken when Mrinal Sen was shooting Interview (1971).