TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1981

books

Nicaragua, Falkland Road, and Rajasthan

WHILE IT CONVEYS INTIMATE DETAILS of a revolution, and therefore of a historical event, Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua should not be treated as any kind of historical analysis. The book has been criticized for deciphering less about an event or a situation than a 60-second television news report, but this is fatuous. Whatever a book of still photos can tell its readers and viewers is clearly not of the same order of experience as a television broadcast. While such a book does not attempt to fill in the gaps between occurrences, it does impart their flavor and mood. If it doesn’t furnish corporate and predigested causes and effects, it does offer consultable images—all the more provocative since viewers are challenged to interpret them. More loosely edited and richly various than any spot news account, these books, as they buildup, establish the social and emotional texture of a locale, which is a form of information in its own right. This knowledge, though miscellaneous, is also more graphic and often more revealing than that found in the pabulum of the nightly update.

Moving through Nicaragua, one feels engaged, alongside pitifully armed guerillas, in a vicious and confused struggle against a mechanized National Guard. The outcome is by no means clear until the rebel tide subtly begins to rise, about midway through, and the companeros finally surge forth to their triumphal entry into Managua. Because we’ve been shown beforehand what their own government had done to brutalize them, in all its chancred ghastliness, the revolution is both subjectively explained and justified. The looks on the faces of these Sandinistas not only register the fact that the battle has turned in their favor, they reflect their moral consciousness as well. They have a gaiety and sweetness—which is what I think the book was planned to visualize. Unless a film documentary realized entirely from their viewpoint has yet to be distributed, I can’t imagine a more responsive visual report than this work by a Magnum Agency photographer who did not hesitate to expose herself to gunfire.

Aside from accusing it of being “naggingly incomplete” (because it doesn’t show Somoza’s casualties!), the New York Times’ Andy Grundberg complains that Meiselas’ book is the effort of a “glorified tourist.” Apparently this is the stigma of all photojournalists, who can “picture with style and preconception” but cannot deliver “essential insights” into a milieu.

Even less charitable judgments stem from the fact that Nicaragua is in color. Certain minds can only associate color with playfulness and a charm that deceives. “The sickening,” writes John Leonard of Nicaragua, “is made slick . . . the grief has too much style.” I find this attitude hard to understand. The idea persists that color is misleading and superficial when compared with black-and-white photography—a notion as valid as assuming that we are less serious than we ought to be because we see and live in color. A photographer who acknowledges the full sensory range of our perceptions is somehow considered a tourist to them. We all know revolutions are grim, and therefore they take place in dour black and white—an idea reinforced by the newspaper photos that greet us daily. If a photographer thinks otherwise, she’s automatically guilty of flitting about in the cause of chic exhibitionism.

It’s difficult, though, to suspect that Meiselas had this aim, consciously or unconsciously, while dodging bullets. Nor do I think that Mary Ellen Mark (who initially endured being pinched, abused, and soused with garbage by the prostitutes of Bombay) should really be called a “tourist,” or that Raghubir Singh immersed himself in the windstorms of the Desert of Thar so that he might trivially illustrate the prettiness of Kodachrome. Mark’s Falkland Road and Singh’s Rajasthan were published at the same time as Meiselas’ Nicaragua. Collectively they demonstrate, if this were necessary, that color can enhance involvement with a subject—that color is an inherent and primary factor in the photographic recall of an event, not a distracting irrelevance.

Like flashy and iridescent sardines, the juvenile whores of Falkland Road are packed into street-level cages where they’re checked out by passing clients. Mark first touches on this public aspect of her locale, then immediately brings us behind its facade to show the girls at work, and sometimes at play. Since their job entails a great deal of makeup—of daubing and powdering the body—and the flaunting of gaudy costume, color display is utterly intrinsic to the subject. Here color performs a role in erotic ritual, as in the mating patterns of natural species, and the fact that the hues are wildly artificial, overpoweringly alien to the flesh, contributes to the sadness of the report. When they appear, the transvestites, with their greasepaint and lipstick above hairy limbs, add to its morbid tone and dismal brilliance. It would not be a world of lower-class prostitution if it did not attempt to cover up, in the most grating way, the difference between the sex that is fantasized and the sex that is there.

Falkland Road, on one level, reads as an obvious exploitation of a vulnerable subject. But the essential pretenses of this scene are driven home by the force of their color, to which these photos accede with a sense of discovery. When the scarlets and cerises of the saris are contrasted with the shiny blue enamel or the green moldiness of the walls and the indescribable chromatics of ooze on the floors, when the mascara blazes up in the light of the flash and the yellows and turquoises of plastic buckets seem almost exasperated, one’s sensory perceptions are aroused far ahead of one’s social stereotypes. Colors do not harmonize with one another—they offer a series of concussions in an environment of caresses.

It’s the reverse in Nicaragua, where the foreground violence jolts against the coloristic suavity of backgrounds. Incendiary acts sputter off within the spumoni pastels of tropical villages. Environment and action here are psychically out of joint with each other, casually but inevitably dissonant in their combined impact. You can no more resolve the pleasure afforded the eye with the sorrow and outrage affecting the mind than you can confirm these images in terms of the better-known photographic genres. And this irresolution makes the spectacle increasingly poignant. As these young Nicaraguan guerrillas deck themselves with baseball hats and bandanas over the lower face, or with the weirdly calm masks of an Indian tribe, in conjunction with sweatshirts, plaids, and jeans, they look like amateur desperados—trick-or-treat mobsters escaped from a comic book, except for their very real fright. A shot of Anastasio Somoza with his entourage, all in white suits, has an amazing, bleached yet tender delicacy; a picture of a Somoza informer’s van, burning orange against the black smoke and blue sky, or of the phosphorescent greens of a tear-gas assault against demonstrators in the night, is terribly beautiful. The contrast between one’s moral knowledge of the subject and its sensory effect would have cheapened the photographic witness if it had been made deliberately ironic. Yet it’s not that that contrast was knowingly sought, but rather that it was everywhere to be seen, at least by someone with eyes as well as consciousness. In black and white, the visual character of the revolution would have been restricted and schematized. Predictably, the viewer would have been encouraged to deduce a horrific surrounding from the stimulus of its neutral tones. Because this is the opposite of what happens in Meiselas’ book, with its broader, wrenching descriptions, the effect is much more irrational and disquieting. The dissonance sinks in, all the more memorably since it serves no rhetorical interest.

Raghubir Singh’s book on Rajasthan does have a rhetoric, if a visual affection for the state in which he was reared and here revisits (from Paris, where he lives) deserves that name. His pictures open with a view of the commanding Jodhpur Fort, seen in the raked light of late afternoon, and with this, as in many images like it, color is lifted into a new realm of optical privilege, almost, it seems, as a king ascends his throne. The huge land glows with an awesome opulence, the common possession of its inhabitants high and low. While poor farmers line up for a dilapidated rural bus, a peacock struts in high feather on the damp sand. Having seen his “Villagers . . . [enjoying] iced sweets,” one finds hard to forget the orange sting of their ices, simultaneously the hottest color accent in the scene and, by implication, the most refreshingly chilling. If Singh had been attentive only to the thermal extremes of this Indian region, he would have caught one of its basic features; but he is intensely observant of its social range as well. Small artisans, merchants and peasants, minstrels and erstwhile maharanis, priests and horsetraders, landholders and sheep herders, all figure in the loose structure of his survey, along with the celebrations they enjoy, the work they perform, and the architecture that surrounds them. Singh constantly layers strata of information, so that wall murals, shop signs, movie or circus posters, religious sculpture, graffiti, the body language of ritual, and the repose of prayer interact to form a kind of pictorial regalia. From this material he fashions photographs that are exceptionally dense and complicated when located in the city, though he is equally capable of open and rhapsodic simplicity when out in the fields.

The making of icons, the forms of native decoration, the habits of cooking and ploughing—all are attributes of this culture, or, rather, of several related ones. To invoke the grace of these living cultures, in cadences established deep within their long history, is the unified motive of the book. With such a theme imposed throughout, the photographer can allow divergent episodes to compete with or subtly complement each other. As a subject for photographic report, culture has a history of cliché and generally works as a static or inert concept; Singh, however, re-enters the cultures of Rajasthan with an insider’s sustained knowledge of their customs, which he respects and continually distinguishes from each other. At the same time, though, he pictures Indian life with a nervous, self-demanding expectancy that sets him off as an artist with the skills of the Western street photographer. Implausible as it may seem, his photographs fuse the soul of a Rajput miniaturist with the outlook of a Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Singh’s book, which operates in the appreciative mode, looks more reserved than the images of the Western photographers here, whose work can’t be described as positive appraisal. Partly, too, the difference between them and Singh arises from the format of their campaigns, intensive rather than extended. The Nicaraguan revolution, at least in its violent phase, had a temporal frame just as the women of Falkland Road are literally caged, and these perimeters bear a kind of stifling urgency toward the center of the photographer’s work and contract it implosively. The rhetoric of these pictures would go quite flat if it failed to establish the strong, primitive illusion that the viewer is physically part of the scene, exposed to all the predatory forces within it. Meiselas’ political empathies and Mark’s voyeuristic heat demand that the viewer metaphorically close with the subject. That’s where color comes in, because it helps to make the sense of participation irremediable . . . and all the more arresting since it is perceived as being, expressively, at odds with the action. With Singh, on the other hand, perception is given over to the phenomenal wealth of shifting chromatic relations, events ever more fine-tuned in a way that does not so much convince that they flatter Rajasthan as that they befit it. One is not urged to empathize with or pry into this world; one is invited to behold it.

Separately and together, these three books perform a familiar social function: to import images of life far outside the ken of their intended audiences. As imagery, they bring us visual gifts no one asked to receive and news that is not always happy. Yet the books do not stand or fall solely on the basis of their pictures, for they contain texts which are in dialogue with those pictures and are meant to illuminate them. Judgment of the photographs can be informed but also tilted by their verbal accompaniment.

Meiselas’ is the only book to quote people talking first hand on their own behalf. She herself says merely “NICARAGUA. A year of news, as if nothing had happened before, as if the roots were not there, and the victory was not earned. This book was made so that we remember.” The roots are outlined in a historical chronology containing details of the U.S.’s longstanding interventions in Nicaragua and of Washington’s prickly alliance with Somoza. How the victory was earned is taken up by the pictures, while the words—a collage of remarks by fully named participants in the revolution—speak of the gradual dawn of the need to resist, the ways resistance was improvised, and the increasing wildfire solidarity among the people. Text and images converge particularly in some shots of funeral demonstrations for rebel martyrs, the interrogation of civilians, jungle bivouacs, and the making of contact bombs. There comes over the viewer, as there came over Nicaragua, the knowledge, at a certain, perhaps indefinable point, that everyone had to be in the struggle together. What’s remarkable, then, is how the photographer evidently started with the idea of reporting different communities and found herself swept up in a process whereby a new community was formed—no longer in isolated pockets or scattered groups, but across the country. The ethos of that community as it was patched together, haltingly seen in pictures, is articulated in the statements of Nicaraguans from many walks of life. This is an extremely moving dynamic: the process, we suddenly realize, that the book was made to commemorate. Instead of heroic postures, the camera finds the most heterogeneous sorts of people domestically at ease with each other, bonded in a common emergency (all reminiscent of Robert Capa’s Spanish Civil War). Pictures cannot express the determination of the businessman’s renegade son who says, “Our generation is doing what past generations should have done.” But no words can show precisely the beaten look on the faces of captured guardsmen (who comprised, not a community, but only a force that had dwindled before their eyes). Nor can words, eloquent as they are, convey the unearthly, delicate shock of the photo of the woman in the rose-colored dress who sifts through the pink ruins of a house at Masaya. Despite the grievous separation of the text, way in the back, from the pictures, the photographer’s art lends the whole package a special and enduring conviction. One of the book’s most haunting images is of a howling FSLN crowd, which lifts up above its black-and-red banner an outsized photo-portrait of a girl killed three years before. They’re demanding that this one life be remembered, and, mute amidst their shouts, its image is of an incredibly sultry face from another era—in black and white.

Though it contains many artful and affecting things, Falkland Road is an altogether less humane production than Nicaragua. Mary Ellen Mark describes a number of oppressive social relations to which her book inevitably contributes. Her introductory text, which relates some of her, and her subjects’, experiences, is an effort to mitigate this defect, not by euphemizing the circumstances of the prostitutes, but by showing how she won their friendship and gained their consent to be photographed. She doesn’t explain how she represented the eventual use of her work to them, nor does she even tell us what originally motivated it—beyond an instinctual curiosity, abetted by a voyeuristic dream (of which she says, “I awoke amused and somewhat reassured. Perhaps my dream was a good sign.”) As a result, the pathos of brothel life is appropriated for us in the form of glistening visual trophies. In order to rekindle the excitement of the dream that amused her, it was necessary for Mark to photograph subjects with a full enjoyment of their disadvantage. One can’t look at these images without being implicated in that enjoyment. Still, it would not have been clear from the photos themselves that the prostitution scene is organized according to the most stringent, ascending bigotries, and survives desperately against pitiless, mercenary rip-offs. At the pinnacle of the hierarchy she describes is the photographer herself, for whom the whole system has an aboriginal glamor, glimpses of which will adorn an art gallery in New York.

Mark writes not only of the adversary tensions inherent in the besieged communities of Falkland Road, but of her acceptance there as a sister. The attention Mark paid the prostitutes seems to have invoked a grateful relaxation and eventual spontaneity beneficial to her work. Instead of acting out their routines, the women, and especially the male inmates, can loll about and mock their own performances. Even during their more professional moments, the camera is quick to pick up distraction, repulsion, or just fatigue—moods that utterly break the soft-core spell. One or the other of the coupled figures is simply not with it, and moist, sorrowful eyes peer out amidst tangled limbs. These are psychologically ambiguous images because the photographer’s presence incites an extra dose of feigned behavior that she records, yet wants to undermine. Her subjects’ self-protective attitudes are worthy objects of study. So, even more, are the expressions that, it seems involuntarily, reflect or wilt away from the pressure of that behavior. In Mark’s single portraits one often sees concentrated the stress of all this experience, as in the faces of old and defeated vaudevillians. Whether Mark’s continued interest in this kind of pain is to the book’s credit or not is a good question, but there can’t be any doubt that suffering functions as a plea for photographic credibility. So, too, do all the shots of prostitutes en famille, crowded around by their children and elders or doing housework. Despite their exotic (to our eyes) accoutrements, these people, the book tells us, are plain folks. Falkland Road resembles what might have happened if Weegee had married Diane Arbus and the two had gone off to do anthropological roadwork . . . in color. The book owes a great deal of its disagreeable power to their tradition, but does strike out on its own. Let me cite one astonishing photograph as an example: a heavy red nursery curtain, decorated with animals and building blocks, (“G for giraffe . . . E for elephant”), gushes down almost completely over a girl pressed on a lumpy bed. From behind the curtain a large male hand reaches out, seemingly about to be bitten by her flashing teeth, while she herself, eyes closed, points to the baby illustrations above. Leaving Bombay, Mark writes that she started to cry.“‘You shouldn’t weep,’ said Asha. ‘You should say goodbye with your head up and proud and then leave.’ She walked me out into the street to find a taxi. ‘You’d better not forget me,’ she said.”

Neither a memorializing aim nor intimacies of this sort disturb Singh’s Rajasthan. His work is concerned with the present as it incorporates the past, and the photographer, therefore, doesn’t make any appeal to a nostalgic future. In his opening essay, he says:

we now have a zinc-smelter, an electronics factory, textile mills and a nuclear power plant . . . If some of the fruits of the twentieth century have reached the city and the countryside, it does not mean we have substantially absorbed the modern experience. We will do that only when we begin using with ease and grace the products of our century, not merely for our commerce and comfort, but also for our artistic aspirations. . . . In the meantime, our sole democratic arts will be those of the village folk . . . who . . . live in the hardship of shrub and stone.

Singh’s amiable introduction couldn’t possibly vie with his photography, but it does reveal, in this comment, something of his conceptual stance. Modernity, from which he has profited, has touched his native state only superficially. Because he feels relatively isolated in his possession of a patrician modern consciousness in contemporary India, he compensates by his homage to the indigenous arts. The strength of his feeling for them carries him back to his earliest memories, which possibly accounts for a childlike wonder and freshness in his contact with the scene as it exists now. If one compares his image of folk-theater actors applying greasepaint with Mark’s Bombay prostitutes doing their makeup, the contrast is between two Indias kept separate by very different mentalities. Singh associates theater with oral tradition and meaningful legend, while Mark modernistically conjures up an abused charade. He brings no reformist energy to his view of poverty, but he doesn’t conceive of being voyeuristic about it, either. While Rajasthan hardly skimps in describing the conditions of poor people, it announces at the same time that their forms of display spring from the grandeurs of their past, and are therefore precious. When misfortune strikes, as shown in the remarkable drought pictures at the end of the book, it is only nature that has brought people low or displaced them, and not the inequities of their society.

Singh has not always had this vantage. In Ganga, his first book, life along the great river is pictured as an alarming 1,500-mile visual fracas; in Calcutta, his next, the whole metropolis is represented as a stinking cesspool of filth and degradation. In crucial ways, these books are more activist than many I have seen by Western photo-documentarians in “Third World” countries. Singh’s biting color only furthered such an impression. Yet there ran through this earlier work a response to the exorbitant sensuality of India that is continued in this latest effort. Where it had been heavy, tendentious, and starkly contrasted, however, it is now exquisitely modulated. The holy men and screeching ideologues, with their divisive animus, have given way to single figures, meditating at wayside shrines. And the overwhelming, crowded frenzy of urban India has thinned out to small groups whose members act as sentinels of a space that is personal as well as social. Singh’s new, elegant inwardness lacks a tragic sweep, yet it enables him, when he wants to, to imply intense feeling with few means. The faces in Women mourning, Bharatpur are concealed, but their cradling hands and arpeggiated fingers tell expressively of their grief (as they were culturally intended to). This is indeed an album whose sensitivity reaches out, as if through the tips of fingers. But it never gropes, never approximates what it wants to say. Rajasthan is portrayed as a far more cohesive society than it must actually be; at the same time, its inhabitants are accorded their full idiosyncrasy.

Bathing them all is a light prodigiously more erotic than anything trapped in the steamy, no-exit closets of Falkland Road. It would be ridiculous to claim that Singh over-glamorizes his region, just as it would be wrongheaded to say that Mark uglifies the physical Bombay. The real conditions of which still photos form a trace always chaotically exceed any material a camera can supply. What the machine gives us, when handled well, is a visual condensation, structured by knowing reflex and tempered by expressive mood. To his particular mood, Singh brings an acute sense of timing and, above all, of placement—his greatest debt to modernism. The man who flies through the fiery hoop in Centennial celebrations, Mayo College, Ajmer, and the girls suspended in midair in Monsoon swings in a village near Jaipur, will never, to our delight, reach the ground. They mark that same buoyant precision of sighting as Cartier-Bresson’s in the famous foot levitated an inch over a puddle near the Gare St. Lazare.

The publishers of Rajasthan subtitle it India’s Enchanted Land. On the flap are notices of companion volumes, A Portrait of Lost Tibet, Caravans to Tartary, etc. Could it be that in Singh the right photographer was chosen for laughably wrong reasons—and would anyone finally care?

Max Kozloff

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Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua, edited with Claire Rosenberg (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 71 color plates.

Mary Ellen Mark, Falkland Road (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1981), 65 color plates.

Raghubir Singh, Rajasthan, foreword by Satyajit Ray (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), 80 color plates.