Photographer Patrick Faigenbaum on Capturing the ‘Spirit’ of Calcutta
When you look at the photographs of Patrick Faigenbaum, you can instinctively see how his subjects are informed by their settings. From an aristocrat’s dining room to a crumbling, flooded street in Calcutta, the places in which these people are situated influence the viewer’s understanding of who they are, where they’re from, and how they live day-to-day—all at a glance. Born in Paris in 1954, Faigenbaum first gained renown in the 1980s for his portraits of Italian aristocratic families. Since then, he has pointed his lens on such cities as far-flung as Tulle and Prague. This month, an exhibition of his work entitled Kolkata/Calcutta opened at the New York-based Aperture Foundation.
The exhibition also happens to mark the inaugural partnership between the Hermès Foundation and the Aperture Foundation. (The Hermès Foundation is a patron of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, which Faigenbaum won for the photographs on view.) “Before, the winner was only displayed in Paris,” said Catherine Tsekenis, the Creative Director of the Hermès Foundation and voice of the Hermès vision. “It’s a very good opportunity to show the winner.” While the Foundation doesn’t play a direct role in selecting the recipient of the award, Tsekenis believes that Faigenbaum’s work is a good match. “It’s generous with a lot of humanistic values,” she says. Travel + Leisure recently sat down with Faigenbaum to discuss his interest in Calcutta and the ways in which photography has changed since he began shooting in the 1970s.
You recently arrived from Paris. How is the photography scene there different from it is in New York?
When I began photography in 1972, there was more focus in Paris on reportage, advertising, and fashion. None of these three genres interested me. You didn’t hear about all the great photographers who had worked in France except Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were strict rules about photography—at that time you had to have photographs with the black frame around to show you didn’t crop the picture. That was a wrong idea. Cartier-Bresson didn’t care if you cropped or not.
You didn’t hear about all the great photographers—Brassaï, Kertész, Doisneau. Man Ray and the Surrealists of the 1930s, the photographers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, maybe the ‘60s. You couldn’t see them until they came back into vogue in the ‘80s with books and museum retrospectives.
I needed advice because I learned photography alone. I came to New York on my own to see the great photographers. I met Richard Avedon, Eugene Smith, Ralph Gibson. Gibson liked my work so he called for me the publisher of Popular Photography, the magazine, and I had an article two years later in 1979.
How did you develop an interest in India, and particularly in Calcutta?
I was very attracted by Indian culture, art, and film. Jean-François Chevrier [the curator of the show at Aperture] discovered the work of artist Shreyasi Chatterjee in India. He came back suggested her as a subject. I visited her, saw her work and discussed it with her. She works in a neighborhood and environment and comes back and makes mixed-technique works. She makes embroidery; she paints. She puts into her paintings what she saw in the streets. But it was not possible to concentrate it only on her. I was very interested in Calcutta as a capital but also the countryside and the villages—how people were working with the land and with animals. So it evolved. I wanted to meet other artists and find the intellectual sustenance, the spirit of the city through music, dance, theater, painting, films, and acting. So my work was more in that direction. More social.
How did your understanding of Calcutta change from your initial ideas of the city through your first and second visits to the city?
It’s really difficult to understand. It’s very complex and takes time. For the first time when I was traveling, I was afraid. Not of the people, but of getting lost. I’m not great with plans or maps. It was even more difficult in India. You don’t see names of streets. The cab drivers don’t understand you. Most of them live in the country and come into the city to work. Someone has to go with you. It can be impossible to get around. Not just for me, but for locals too. They would try to take a cab and the cab wouldn’t take them.
What does it mean to be an artist capturing a different culture? How did you approach this task as an outsider?
India has been photographed a lot. There are so many images out there. It was difficult to figure out what hadn’t been done before. You had to think a lot about different composition, different things you could do. It wasn’t like other projects where I could get lost in a city and work with intuition. We had to construct, to build a kind of project. I had to think about what kind of people I could meet. The work with Chatterjee was important because I was inside her home. I saw how she lives with her husband, with her work, with her mother. It was important to see how people live there.
Chatterjee is middle class. She looks very poor. In India, you have very poor people, and you have very, very rich people. I wanted to talk about misery. I wanted to show poor people because they are there, but I didn’t want to make miserable work. That means you have to stay with people and talk with them. To be able to communicate with people, stay on the floor with them or in the countryside and try to understand a little bit. It’s so complex, India. If only I understood a little bit.
What’s great is that though it’s so far, you can feel so close to people. As close as I’d feel in Paris, where I was born. That was good, I think. To feel like an instrument, to show visitors or spectators what I experienced and lived. To put that together. But the pictures were very difficult to do. I took hundreds of pictures. I thought what I was doing might be different because it was coming from me. You have to trust your intuition, what you’re able to do.
It’s also the right time for me to be doing this work. You have to be more mature. I think ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I had to pass through other experiences to create these images. You have to give a lot of yourself. And you can’t only be taken by the spectacle of what you see. The scenes in front of you may be strong, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to do those pictures.