This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes.
These new black and white photographs by Vicky Roy overturn all expectations of landscape photography. Made entirely in Himachal Pradesh, they are remarkable documents of the hand of man on what was ‘Dev Bhumi’ – a sacred land. Instead, we are presented with a vision of a scarred land, where man and machine are gouging the earth on a Himalayan scale. These are no landscapes of Nainsukh or Roerich – vistas of romance or mystical power. The Himalayas were most memorably photographed by Samuel Bourne in the 19th Century. These photographs are updates on those pristine vistas. These are seen through the eyes of a cool modernist using the tool of the still camera.
When I saw the first images which initiated this series of photographs, I was instantly reminded of the 1975 exhibition at George Eastman House in New York – New Topographics. As an undergraduate at MIT then, this exhibit and the work that it showcased of the ten photographers - Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Jr., and Bernd and Hilla Becher, was being talked about generating heated discussions. Here were photographers who were looking at the American landscape with a cool, unsentimental and detached eye and formal strategies – and it was obvious that this generation were seeing the effects of industrial and technological development on the American landscape with a critical eye, shaped by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. They were a far cry from the vision of Minor White, who had founded the photography program at MIT. When I showed those images to Vicky, he was taken aback. He had stumbled onto a similar vision decades later in a totally different culture.
The famous photographs of the Himalayas by Samuel Bourne made in the 1860s were inspired by the visual traditions of British landscape seeing. Bourne was discovering the English landscape in India – a way to seduce the colonisers into thinking that a homely familiarity could be found here.
The Himalayas have been loaded with symbolism in our culture – the abode of Shiva, the source of the sacred rivers – all goddesses. These were the icy heights into which the Pandavas retreated after the end of the great war. Romanticised by Kalidasa, visited by the Beatles and by thousands of pilgrims every year.
When photographers extensively photographed the new industrial construction in India in the 19th century – bridges, railroads, ports - it was a part of the colonial enterprise – the development of a new colony to be settled and exploited. The photography of the new industrial projects after independence in the Nehruvian modern moment – the dams, steel factories, coal mines, railroad factories done by photographers like Sunil Janah or Ahmed Ali – were suffused with the positivism of the new India. These images were constructing the new nation – in which the worker and the peasant were heroes in the Soviet-inspired Five Year Plans.
It has struck me forcefully that Vicky’s generation of photographers are now seeing India through a different lens. There is a new criticality which eschews easy emotional traps. These photographs are also in richly toned black and white – avoiding the easy seduction of colour. The reductiveness and abstraction of the black and white image reinforce the stark and almost beautiful post-industrial landscapes which are the Himalayas now. The misty vistas are clouds of dust from landslides caused by road building. The roads themselves scar in poetic loops over rocks and pasture. No human being is visible, only the marks of their enterprise. This is the poetry of India now.