11 July 2011
A Critic's Eye, Richard Bartholomew
Photographs by Richard Bartholomew. Published by Chatterjee & Lal, Photoink and Sepia, 2009.
Subdued, unassuming even, this small hardback, published jointly by a trio of photographic institutions based in India, sets out to afford the most respectful and thoughtful possible summation of the late Richard Bartholomew's work as a photographer. From the subtle, simple cover, swathed in muted duck-egg blue and featuring a small, enigmatic black-and-white image - a woman gracefully throwing her sari over her shoulder, glimpsed as through a door stood ajar - the book feels calculated to communicate an atmosphere of quiet, earnest aesthetic observation.
This mood is carried into the book itself, both as a quality of the particular selection of photos and of their presentation, which is modest to the point of being disconcerting, at least to a reader familiar with more commercial and lavish photobooks. There is no 'blurb,' no overbearing critical or editorial presence; all text, including an insightful (if densely argued) essay contributed by Aveek Sen, is relegated to the back of the book and the reader is left to a consideration of the photographs themselves.
And what photos they are. A variety of subjects, including intimate scenes from Bartholomew's family life, gatherings among his circle of art-world acquaintances, outdoor studies (for want of a better word) and more loosely conceived urban and suburban landscapes, are united by several key visual themes. Presence and history are inscribed on every surface shown here, for example, from the trunk of a tree carved with lovers' initials to the patched canvas walls of an abandoned marquee. This is perhaps to be expected from a man whose work (in the role for which he is best known, as an art critic) was the study of man's creative instincts, and showcases Bartholomew's skill in capturing the texture and minute detail of even mundane scenes.
A seemingly irresistible attraction to light effects, natural and artificial, is another striking aspect of this work, often expressed in images of delicate beauty - a battered street lamp at night, the illuminated buildings of New Delhi seen from rural surroundings - and frequently used metaphorically to suggest human thought and subjectivity, a point drawn out in the essay accompanying these images. Indeed, sensitivity to the world as it is 'felt' through the senses is the great theme of this collection, best summarised by a tender image in which Robin Bartholomew, the photographer's son, is depicted sleeping silently beneath a screened window, across which a tiny lizard, softly defined in silhouette against the screen, can almost be heard padding its night-time path. These photographs are attentive and will reward the viewer's attention.
Perhaps the impact of this quietly perceptive approach is heightened for Western readers by the ubiquity of coffee-table books that relentlessly treat India and its citizens (or those of any other 'Eastern' clime) as the subject of colourful, exoticising travelogue. The editors of this volume, by contrast, have consciously emphasized the minutely-observed quality of the work shown here, for example through their commitment to small-format presentation of these complex black-and-white images, and have highlighted the unsentimental, though formally sensitive 'critic's eye' of the photographer. The effective sequencing of this book foregrounds the almost literary skill of the photographer in communicating a great deal of information through the subject matter arranged within a frame.
Indeed, the book almost lies open to the accusation that it too emphatically constructs the persona of the educated and refined artist (bear in mind these are 97 images carefully selected from an archive of approx. 17,000). It is saved from preciousness, however, by wit and an openness to the magic possible through the photographic medium. Two ghostly figures appear in the background of one image - a dramatically lit tree is reflected perfectly in the dark body of water beneath it - and there is a visual charge: simple and beautiful.
This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 12th November 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Richard Bartholomew, published by Chatterjee & Lal, Photoink & Sepia, 2009.