Welcome to the book review! Whenever I get my hands on a book, I will share my thoughts with you. There are a mix of books from artist monographs to history’s to theory.
Portrait of Nepal: A Review
I have been doing some general internet searches on Nepal. During one of these searches I came across the book Portrait of Nepal by Kevin Bubriski, who’s photographs were taken in the mid-1980’s. I found it on Amazon for about $10 so I ordered it. The book is nicely done with 88 high quality black and white reproductions and introduction by Arthur Ollman. I was excited to come across this book, as I am constantly trying to extend my knowledge of photography from Nepal. Interestingly, once I did a little more research on Bubriski, I realized I had come across him before, however, sometimes information just does not stick until you come across it again.
In his preface, Bubriski explains his interest in Nepal stating that in the mid-1970’s he had backpacked alone through the Nepali mountains and by the end of the 1970’s he had worked for four years in remote villages. He goes on to explain when he returned to make these photographs in 1984, he was armed with a 4 x 5 view camera, an assistant, sheet film, film holders, tripod and two porters and they traveled the length and breadth of the country. This information is enlightening and makes sense because the love and compassion Bubriski has for the people of Nepal can be seen in the photographs.
Ollman, in his introduction, wrestles with the idea of photography to explore the far-off world, the exotic. He states that Bubriski’s intention is not to exoticize these people as he has lived among them for over four years. He explains that Bubriski, who is easily much taller than most of his subjects always put the camera at their level whether adult or child, letting them express their personalities and dignity. The introduction explores the ways we in the West see in photographs like these native populations. He explains that Westerns have mixed feelings about native populations, we often mourn their losses. However, who are we to judge the progress of other peoples and other nations. Having been to Kathmandu twice, I find a beauty in the valley, there is a mixing of traditional and modern life that co-exists there. But as someone who first visited the Kathmandu Valley in October 2015, months after the earthquake I do value the few photographs in the book of the Patan Durbar Square because I can see in in an earlier form before the destruction and with seemingly less tourists. They inform my own experience. In the end, Ollman questions our basic understanding of photographic meaning, that photographs show a singular moment in time on the space time continuum. Examining one of the photographs which shows three girls sitting on a rock, while five women behind them pound rice with logs, Ollman suggests this photograph shows cyclical time. That the girls sitting on the rocks will replace their mothers as rice pounders as their children sit on the rocks. Though the faces may change, the life of the village will change much more slowly.
The book is broken up into four sections: The Kathmandu Valley, The Middle Hills, The Far Northwest, and The Tarai. Each section has a brief introduction giving insight into the regions history, climate and terrain. The Kathmandu Valley is the seat of political power for the modern nation-state and the commercial center. The Middle Hills is a region between the high Himalayas and the lowlands of the Taria. This region used to be isolated and the people were self-sufficient living from what was close at hand. Nowadays however, the trekkers and tourists headed towards the mountains travel through this region. The Far Northwest is the most remote region of Nepal. There is a shortage of rainfall which causes regular food shortages. The peoples of the region trace their heritage to the Khasa kingdom which was at its peak between the 11th and 14th centuries and included parts of Nepal and Tibet. The last section looks at the region of The Tarai, a 10 to 20 mile region along the southern border that marks the end of the Gangetic plains. The region used to be covered by hardwood forest but now much of it has been cut away. Culturally the region has a connection with the stories of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana.
The portraits include a variety of techniques. Bubriski acknowledges that throughout the three years making these photographs some people were photographed in situ, while others prepared themselves for their moment in front of the camera. Some of the photographs are reminiscent of August Sanders and seems to explore types (see above). While other photographs are posed and others show people in spaces who seem not to know they are being photographed. While some might argue that this creates a disconnect among the photographs, I would disagree. I think this variation of shooting style keeps the images interesting. Furthermore, it is obvious that Bubriski understands lighting and framing. Many of the photographs have even lighting, however, some are shot in the early morning fog providing a mystery to the landscape and people. The fog serves as a veil the viewer must get beyond in order to truly understand the people of Nepal.
The photographs in this book are a beautiful testimony to the people of Nepal. They are great examples not only of portraiture but also the use of the 4 x 5 view camera. Bubriski puts forth his love of Nepal in this book. His photographic career persists to this day and he has another photography book on Nepal which I can’t wait to see. He has also photographed India and Pakistan. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interest in view camera photography, portraiture and/or Nepal.
Portrait of Nepal
By Kevin Bubriski
Introduction by Arthur Ollman