For a westerner to photograph India without being ensnared by the country’s clichéd exoticism of color, population, and poverty is not easy. The French photographer Patrick Faigenbaum seems acutely aware of these pitfalls in his series of black-and-white and color photographs, Kolkata/Calcutta, focusing on what was once the capital city of British India. Street life compels Faigenbaum, winner of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2013. Not unlike the photographs of Cartier-Bresson himself, Faigenbaum’s work, on view at Aperture Gallery through November 7, is distinguished by his unobtrusive images of small groups of people representing, in this case, the larger community in a bustling Indian metropolis.
Three large black-and-white photographs exemplify his observations of quotidian life: A shoe polisher stationed under a Victorian arch, working-class men who make the sidewalk their dining rooms, and a group gathered around a shopkeeper’s television for a bit of evening entertainment. Faigenbaum’s deep empathy for his subjects is evident in his dignified images of the men, which also capture the constant collision between old and new, rural and urban in daily Indian existence.
Faigenbaum’s interest in life outside the home extends to his colorful wide-angled panoramas of the agricultural countryside. Reminiscent of Camille Pissarro’s harvest paintings, a photograph of a shy moment between a young couple working in the fields during peak season, and another of an infant precariously balanced between his parents next to a paddy field are neither sentimental nor idealistic. Again and again, Faigenbaum’s cast of characters, whether manual laborers, women at a well, farmers, or children, are acknowledged for their presence in the large scheme of humanity.
Although the project was inspired by Faigenbaum’s friendship with the artist Shreyasi Chatterjee in Calcutta, his photographs of Chatterjee and his images of practicing musicians, though they document another social strata, are stiff and mannered compared to his dynamic and humane portrayal of the street life of Calcutta.