Nandita Raman, Do Not Forget Me @sepiaEYE

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color and black and white photographs, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the very small side gallery, and the office area.

Works from the following series are included in the show:

  • Film Studio: 17 archival pigment prints, 2013-2014, sized 16×20 or 28×36 inches (or reverse), in editions of 7
  • Cinema Play House: 4 archival pigment prints and 1 gelatin silver print, 2007, 2009, 24×30 or 24×36 inches (or reverse), in editions of 4 and 7

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The forward march of technology is such a powerful force that in keeping our eye on the excitement of the new, we often lose track of the old that is being ground up and left in its ravenous wake. While our attention on this site is largely aimed at the wholesale transformations that have taken place in the history of photography, Nandita Raman has pointed her camera at a parallel set of changes that have redefined and reinvented the film industry, particularly in her home country of India. And like many technology stories, it is tale of obsolescence, and the human forgetting that goes along with the creeping process of fading and disappearing.

Raman’s family owned a single screen theater in Varanasi, so her journey into the subject began there. Her Cinema Play House series (also on view in a concurrent exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image here) investigates the surfaces of these decaying (and often defunct) movie houses. In gently tactile black and white, she looks closely at battered cash boxes, aging theater seats, old style ticket windows, peeling posters, and the wider architecture of the theaters themselves, where rot pulls down the ceiling tiles and hardbacked wooden seats are eternally folded up.

Her more recent series Film Studio conceptually walks back a step in the film-making process, digging into the remains of old production houses, sound stages, and the rest of the technical infrastructure from decades past. Gregory Crewdson followed a similar path when he documented the aging backlots of the Cinecittà studios in Rome (reviewed here), but Raman has moved in much closer, preferring to look at the intimate surfaces and details of the forgotten and dusty equipment, rather than Crewdson’s wider views of scaffolding and buildings.

As a key member of the pantheon of Indian cinema, the influential director Satyajit Ray hovers over the proceedings here like a benevolent ghost. Raman shows us Manik-da’s chair (now wrapped in foam, and puzzlingly sitting alone outside in an open air courtyard) and his camera (given a hallucinogenic tripling by a multiplier filter), and then she brings us to the Technicians’ Studio, where the sound editing for Pather Panchali was done. The years have not treated this critical location with much reverence or respect, the dated knobs, wires, and consoles now frayed and covered with a coating of dust. Amid the peeling paint and abandoned rooms, she finds a dense flock of standing light fixtures tucked into a corner and a rusty crane out among the trees, its wheels now permanently stuck in the dirt.

At other studios, Raman unearths even older remnants of Indian film history. She discovers old silent era cameras and a faded framed poster, as well as spools of rotting celluloid and shelves full of film canisters. Some rooms are echoes of their old selves, with crusty backdrops drooping from the ceiling or stages now filled with rubbish and debris, while others remain a tantalizing mystery, the stored objects covered with sculptural sheets and drapery. Old lenses are protected under glass and in sticky foam suitcases, and the glow coming from an ancient editing table seems to imply that it still has a life of its own. With these images, Raman seems to have located the place where old films go to die, as time seems to have stopped in these now silent workplaces.

While we tend to stereotype India as a land filled with bold colors and endless visual stimuli, Raman’s color photographs are remarkably muted in their choice of palette. All of the images seem to have been taken in the pure light of the morning, so the tones are dry and dusty, as though a fine sand has been thrown over everything. When brighter colors do appear (a pink curtain, some blue film canisters), they seem to get drained of their intensity by the ruined surroundings. Like Dayanita Singh’s overstuffed file rooms, Raman’s film studios recall the old ways of doing things, the echoes of human use still visible in the subtle, tactile surfaces.

In both of these projects, Raman’s understated reverence comes through, her affection for the magic of these forgotten places and things forming the base for her ongoing explorations. As a result, the photographs feel a bit like a treasure hunt, where curiosity and memory intersect and intermingle, the artist’s own personal history informing her search into the past. Her appreciation and respect for what has been lost is palpable in these formal pictures, each rediscovery a clue to bygone greatness that deserves to be better remembered.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The prints from the Film Studio series are $3500 or $5000, based on size. The prints from the Cinema Play House series are $3500, $5000, or $6000, based on size and process. Raman’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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