New York

Marcus Leatherdale

In Marcus Leatherdale’s scrupulous Indian portraits, he posed his subjects before a dark, unobtrusive canvas that he sets up at markets or in the courtyard of his house in Varanasi (Benares). In all but three of the twenty-five works on view, he used natural light. This neutral staging of all the portraits allows differences in the religious, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds of his subjects to reveal themselves. A portrait of the dwarf Amrit Lal shows him standing on top of a small wooden table, his arms raised in the air, a key hanging from his neck by a lanyard. According to Leatherdale, Lal is exhorting people to be happy, but his face seems masklike and reveals an expression nearer to fear or sadness than joy. Hari Shankar Yogi (all works 1997), a white-haired sadhu (a Hindu ascetic), stands with his eyes closed. The vertical crease at the center of his brow is outlined by two thin streaks of sandalwood paste that converge on his forehead and continue toward the peak of his hairline. Such marks accent rather than obscure the textures and features of the subject’s skin. His necklace is strung with roodokshree (or “eyes of Shiva”—seeds from the banyan tree of Indonesia) and a large amber bead. In one hand is a trident, symbol of the Hindu godhead of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. In the other he holds up a small copper drum shaped like an hourglass, its inverted cones converging at a flared center along which the instrument is balanced.

A number of the photos present wrestlers, young men who generally pursue the popular sport as an avocation and spiritual practice before they marry. One stands severe and defiant, with his feet apart and fists propped at his waist, his chest and elbows thrust out. His face looks especially tough as his cheeks are stuffed with paan, betel leaves mixed with tobacco. His lower legs and knees are scarred and battered, but only a few marks on his upper body betray the violence of his numerous bouts. Another muscled fighter, Uma Shankar Pandey, poses in a less assuming, almost vulnerable fashion. Each wears only a lungota, a snug-fitting loincloth a man might wear when he exercises, or bathes in a river.

The subjects often seem to be hovering within the photographs, as though the film is imprinted with their auras. In one portrait of Shukhudev Baba, for example, the yogi appears to be levitating; he sits cross-legged between enormous lengths of dreadlocks piled in two loose spirals before him. In another photograph we can just glimpse his cobra-spine necklace. Such effects are subtle, and leave us marveling at the fidelity of each impression to the exceptional character of its subject. These sepia-toned gelatin-silver prints recall the glass-plate and albumen studies made by explorers and anthropologists of the nineteenth century. But there is a greater intimacy in Leatherdale’s images, a feeling of familiarity and affection as well as curiosity. His thoughtful and beautiful portraits aim to reveal truths about his subjects deeper than those of ethnography.

Tom Breidenbach