Published  10/06/2008

Photographing Nepal from the Inside Out

Photographing Nepal from the Inside Out

Nepal in Black and White: Photographs by Kevin Bubriski
Rubin Museum of Art, New York
14 March–13 October 2008

On 14 March 2008, the Rubin Museum of Art, a venue dedicated to Himalayan arts and culture, opened two exhibits centred on Nepal.1 'From the Land of the Gods: Art of the Kathmandu Valley', shown on the third floor, brings together more than 50 examples from the Rubin's permanent collection. Wall texts describe the means by which complex historical, spiritual and political influences circulating through the Kathmandu valley, a major nexus of busy trans-Himalayan trade marked by many sacred pilgrimage sites, shaped the subjects (primarily Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses), forms (painting, sculpture and devotional objects), media (wood, clay, metal, stone, pigment-dyed cloth) and techniques commonly used by Nepalese artists from the beginning of the Malla period (1200-1769) through the 19th century.2

The museum's upper levels are linked by an elegant spiral staircase. Immediately upon entering the exhibition space on each upper floor, visitors are enveloped in a truly serene atmosphere. On the third level, lavish, earthy hues chosen for pigment-dyed pictorial cloths and exotic embellishments on the art works in 'From the Land of the Gods' draw visitors away from the bustling city streets and, it seems, into the past, halfway across the world.

The second component of this celebration of Nepal, located on the lower level, produces a much different effect by grounding pervasive belief systems, a panoply of gods and goddess and distinctive visual symbols, viscerally in the lives of people living in the country for the past 35 years. 'Black and White: Photographs by Kevin Bubriski' is a selection of more than 30 black and white photographs taken between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s and five large colour photographs of stoned carved Hindu and Buddhist deities taken at ancient shrines around the Kathmandu valley. The selection of images represents a much larger body of work that Bubriski has built up since he first went to Nepal in 1975 as a Peace Corps volunteer to work on water supply pipelines. At that time, he lived in one of Nepal's most remote and poorest areas, the Karnali zone. From then until he finished with the Peace Corps in 1978, Bubriski used a 35 mm camera to record his impressions. Eight years later, in 1984, he returned to Nepal with a 4 x 5 view camera, tripod and mobile professional set up. Although exhibition catalogues were not produced for either show, some of the images in 'Black and White' appear in Bubriski's books Power Places of Kathmandu: Hindu and Buddhist Holy Sites in the Sacred Valley of Nepal, available for purchase in the museum's gift shop, and Portrait of Nepal.3

Bubriski's medium and method proved to be ideal for capturing what his inner eye registered. He is, viewers will understand, a humanist artist who practices a human art. Each of his images strikingly blends portrait photography and a much larger cultural context. With his camera, Bubriski transforms posed, formal shots into intimate bridges between viewer and subject. His subjects communicate a strong sense of their daily lives as they experience growing pressures to adapt to global notions of progress and change. The rhythms of such lives are dictated by now ancient beliefs, coloured by centuries of devotional practices that take place in the home and at the many sacred sites in the valley. One photo from the 1980s, showing boys wearing Western-style sunglasses and clothing, is a strong visual statement of change, while a photo of a sadhu, an ascetic Hindu renunciant, suggests a solid anchor to spiritual systems based on an a priori goal of liberation from worldly things, a rejection of money, power and social standing.

At age 13, Bubriski took his first photographs and has not stopped since then. A graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (1975), he earned a Masters of Fine Arts in 1997 from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. Earlier in his career, he worked as a fine art photographic printer for French photographer Bernard Plossu.4 Clearly, camera in hand is how Bubriski meets the world, particularly people and events signalling a critical change or crossroads. For example, just following the 11 September 2001 attacks on Manhattan's World Trade Center, he travelled four times from his home in Vermont to the site to document the faces and emotions of people who worked at the site, lived in the city or had, like him, travelled in support of those suffering in the aftermath.5 And again, in the midst of the palace-declared emergency (another painful incident in Nepal's long-running civil war, provoked by a royalist takeover), on 10 February 2005, the Tibetan New Year, Bubriski arrived on the scene.6

At this point in his distinguished career, Bubriski has exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. His photographs are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography in New York City; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California; Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut; the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona; and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Asian Cultural Council, Bubriski won the Golden Light 1999 Documentary Award and the 1994 Paul Cowan non-fiction award for Portrait of Nepal. Still an active traveller, he maintains a home in Vermont with his wife and two children.

Studio International spoke to Bubriski after his return from a recent trip to Pakistan.

Cindi Di Marzo: Welcome back to the States. Can you tell readers about your recent trip? What did you see and record in Pakistan?

Kevin Bubriski: I was in Pakistan for two weeks photographing poets and painters. I spent a week in Karachi covering the Aalmi Mushaira international Urdu poetry festival, and then a week in Lahore covering the National College of Arts and its programme of contemporary miniature painting. With all of the fear-inducing headlines and news our media feed us about Pakistan, it was wonderful to be on the streets of Karachi and Lahore with educated, caring and generous Pakistanis who were very appreciative that someone was interested in telling hopeful stories about the rich life of the arts in Pakistan. The poverty and illiteracy in Pakistan are a reality, but there is a genuine overall friendliness towards foreign visitors and also the aspiration by the Pakistanis for a lasting democracy at home.

CDM: Do you remember the first photograph, your own or another photographer's work, that made you realise you wanted to spend your life doing this?

KB: It may have been seeing the book The Family of Man [a catalogue from the 1955 exhibit of Edward Steichen's work at MoMA] as a young person that convinced me of the transporting power of black and white photography. While I grew up with copies of National Geographic magazine, it was the black and white photographs from the Fifties that were my first exposure to the power of black and white. When I was a high school student, I kept the February 23, 1968, edition of Life magazine, which reproduced black and white photographs of Vietnam by [American photojournalist] David Douglas Duncan.

CDM: Did you travel often when you were younger, or did your life as a world traveller begin with the Peace Corps?

KB: My first trip out of the USA was as a seventeen year old, to Peru with a college classmate. In Peru, I made several 35 mm black and white photographs that I liked and then had the inspiration to see many more places beyond the USA.

CDM: What struck you first, and most, about the Karnali zone and the people you met there?

KB: The other-worldliness of the Karnali zone is what initially struck me and stayed with me the entire time I was there. Even after I had spent a year in Nepal's central and eastern mountain villages, it was a culture shock experience to arrive in the very remote north-western Karnali zone. This culture shock was shared by Nepali teachers and civil servants, as well, who were posted there at the time.

CDM: The Rubin Museum's press materials highlight how your photographs reveal changes encroaching on an ancient way of life in the Kathmandu valley. But for me, your photographs reveal an essential, timeless quality amidst change, eternal qualities of dignity, patience and authenticity. As the inevitable cultural changes become more widespread in Nepal, what do you most fear losing?

KB: I think you are asking what I fear Nepal will lose. The individuality of Nepal's cultures is under pressure from tourism, globalisation and internal socio-political change. When I photograph in Nepal, I am always straddling the timeline trying to understand whether my photographs are primarily a salvage ethnography of the past. The challenge in photography is to make interesting, compelling photographs. So as Nepal changes materially and culturally, one still has opportunities to make interesting pictures. During the emergency in February 2005, the interesting pictures for me were of the ubiquitous bunkers and barbed wire fortifications throughout Kathmandu. Now it would be the Maoist slogans that adorn the city's walls. But powerful photographic portraits can be made of anyone at any time regardless of the surrounding material culture.

CDM: You worked for a while with French photographer Bernard Plossu. When Plossu was 13, he began taking photos while he travelled with his father through the Sahara desert. Subsequently, Plossu became a travelling photographer. Did he and his work influence you?

KB: Yes, Bernard was a close friend over those years in New Mexico, between 1981 and 1983. He strongly believed in the Nepal photographs I had done as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was a great mentor who introduced me to the New Mexico and California photography communities. He gave me faith in following one's intuition photographically and working with a great economy of photographic tools. For Bernard, this tool was a simple manual 35 mm camera with one 50 mm lens.

CDM: I read a quote from Plossu indicating that working in black and white gave him more control over his process. How do the type of camera and rendering in black and white reveal your aesthetic or point of view?

KB: Black and white eliminates many elements of the natural way we see in full colour. Black and white photography brings the visual world to an essential common denominator of light, line and form. Now, in the world of digital photography, the common denominator is so great that it can become hard to differentiate an individual's photographic work. Since all of the cameras now deliver incredible sharpness and rich colour, it becomes harder for the photographer to find his or her own signature or visual photographic voice. In black and white, there is a more direct visceral statement visually that is already quite abstracted from reality.

CDM: The 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center left many feeling empty, without words to describe their profound sense of loss and change. Yet you were able to capture those feelings so poignantly, freeing others from the enormous effort needed to express the inexpressible. Can you describe, in hindsight, your own feelings when you first visited Ground Zero and then on your subsequent visits?

KB: I was struck by the solemn ritual of so many visitors to the site. This is why I turned my camera away from the devastation to show the complexity of individual expressions of disbelief, fear and grief. I feel that this series of images expresses a universality of how humankind grieves. I saw this same emotional power in the 1961 images of Dani village mourners taken by Michael Rockefeller in highland New Guinea. One can find those images throughout the history of mankind as expressed through religious and secular art.

CDM: What was your intention when you planned a return trip to Nepal in 2005? The photos you took, some of which can be seen on your website, are powerful. Can you describe what you saw there, in words, when you arrived just ten days after a state of emergency was declared?

KB: It had been eight years since my last visit to Nepal. I had an incredible sense of familiarity, along with incredible physical change in the modernisation within the city - more concrete, higher buildings, more crowded streets, sprawling suburban infill of what had been rice paddies. But within the old city, I also recognised many of the same flower sellers, some of the same caretakers of the temples who had been there when I had visited their locale.

CDM: Also on your website is a gallery with photos of sadhus, ascetic Hindu monks. There is one in the show, as well. I will not forget the piercing, challenging gaze of the figure as I thought of my own situation and the choices I have made to survive in a world in which everything, it seems, has an invoice attached, a price to pay. What inspired you to record their presence?

KB: Like the villagers of the Karnali region and elsewhere in Nepal, I was struck by the sadhus' closeness to nature. This connection to ancient tradition and nature is what continues to fascinate me about the sadhus. Admittedly, there is also a great level of self-conscious and frequently theatrical awareness on the part of the sadhus. While they may be naked, except for the ashes smeared on their body, they bring to the photographic portraits of themselves an often deeply spiritual and complex emotional resonance.

CDM: You wrote a book on Michael Rockefeller and the photographs he took in 1961 in New Guinea, which you mentioned before. Rockefeller's remarkable work expresses his admiration for the Dani people, their culture and art. His own story is quite tragic.7 How did the project come about?

KB: A few years ago, I was asked by my friend Robert Gardner to look through the photographic archive of Harvard's Film Study Center.8 I was struck by the strong energetic black and white photographs taken by the twenty-two-year-old Michael Rockefeller while he was on the Harvard Peabody New Guinea expedition. The story of his drowning and disappearance months later off the New Guinea coast is still disturbing. But I find the moments of Dani warrior/farmers lives captured in his images to be what really draws me to Michael Rockefeller. While working with the archive, I often imagined what path his life and photography would have taken had he lived for several more decades.

CDM: Can you give Studio International readers a snapshot of your travel plans for 2008, as well as future projects?

KB: I don't have any immediate travel plans for the next few months. My recent trip to Pakistan reminded me that south Asia is a place in which I feel very much at home. I would always be happy returning to Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or, of course, Nepal. As a mid-career photographer, I look back on over 30 years of my Nepal photographs and know that there is a very good retrospective book to be made of a selection of those images. So along with the next trip and the next destination, it's also time to look back and put archived images in order as well.

Thank you for speaking with me, Kevin, and for giving our readers a behind-the-scenes look at your work and the people and places you have encountered during your travels.

To view more images of Kevin Bubriski's work, please visit:

1. Prior to viewing exhibits at the Rubin Museum, visitors are encouraged to walk through an introduction to the collection, 'What Is It? Himalayan Art', displayed in the second-floor gallery space. Although a large part of the museum's audience consists of scholars, students and natives of the Himalayas, many people from the USA and overseas often have their first encounter with Himalayan art there. 'What Is It?' attempts to orient them to the geography, history, ethnic populations and spiritual traditions of the region. During this introduction, visitors will explore the purpose, visual symbols, mediums, materials and distinctive elements of paintings, sculpture, textiles, ritual objects, costumes and architecture of the region.
2. The Malla rulers came to power in 1200 and initiated 500 years of thriving trade and agriculture. These rulers cultivated relations with Hindu and Buddhist leaders and artists and were responsible for the creation of many palaces, shrines, temples and devotional objects made mainly by the Newar people, the valley's first inhabitants.
3. Power Places of Kathmandu: Hindu and Buddhist Holy Sites in the Sacred Valley of Nepal (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions; London: Thames & Hudson, 1995). The cover photo of Bubriski's Portrait of Nepal (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1993), among others from this book, is in the Rubin's exhibit. Portrait of Nepal is currently out of print, but used copies are available from:
4. Plossu was born in 1945 in Vietnam. His black and white photographs record his travels in the desert, across the globe, and in the American south-west, particularly New Mexico. See Bernard Plossu's New Mexico, photographs by Bernard Plossu and text by Gilles Mora (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).
5. Bubriski's photographs from Ground Zero are reproduced in his book Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero (Brooklyn, NY: powerHouse Books, 2002).
6. Bubriski explains, 'I arrived at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on 10 February, Tibetan New Year Day, ten days after the King of Nepal's declaration of emergency. I was ticketed to have arrived a week earlier, but under the state of emergency, flights in and out of the country were suspended, phone lines cut, dissidents arrested, Parliament dissolved and the press shut down. By the 10 February, the city was trying to get back to normal as some of the restrictions imposed were lifted'.
7. In 1961, Michael Rockefeller joined an expedition to New Guinea as a volunteer sound technician and photographer. Sponsored by Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, participants were sent to study the Dani tribe living in western New Guinea. A side trip taken by Rockefeller, during which he discovered the Asmat tribe and their art, sparked a passionate interest. Later that year, he returned to the country. On 11 November, while leading a small exhibition with anthropologist Rene Wassing along the southern coast of New Guinea, Rockefeller disappeared when rough waters swamped his canoe. In 1964, Rockefeller was declared dead. Bubriski's book, Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961, Peabody Museum Collections Series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University/Peabody Museum Press, 2006) reproduces many of Rockefeller's photographs taken in New Guinea.
8. Documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner was director of the study centre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1957-97.

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