Soham Gupta, Angst

JTF (just the facts): Published by Akina in 2018 (here). Hybrid cover with foil embossing, 164 pages, with 84 color and black and white photographs. Includes various texts/stories by the artist. In an edition of 300 copies. Edit and design by Valentina Abenavoli. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Angst is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a handmade version of the book, with coptic binding in 12 signatures, in a screen-printed black cardboard slipcase. Each copy features a different Hahnemühle Baryta Gloss Fine Art print tipped-in on the cover. In an edition of 100 copies.

Comments/Context: A troubled childhood and the artist’s struggles in finding his own place in society lie at the inspirational heart of the Angst series by the young Indian photographer Soham Gupta. The multi-year project was shot entirely at night on the dark streets of Calcutta, where Gupta documented the less fortunate and most vulnerable inhabitants of the city – the outcasts, the junkies, the lepers, the insane, and the prostitutes. Tagging along on his nocturnal wanderings is a rather uncomfortable process.

“It’s very performative in nature. All of these pictures are staged”, says Gupta about his photographs. Usually he photographs people with whom he feels some emotional connection, taking his time to build relationships with his potential subjects. He listens to their harsh stories of sexual harassment, madness, domestic abuse, running away, and hunger, often while sharing some jokes and a bite to eat. Out of these experiences and observations come written notes, which he then uses as the raw material for fictional writings. And later when he feels the moment is right, he takes the flash lit portraits, which he sees as a wholly collaborative process.

The series was recently published as a photobook by Akina, after its first dummy had been produced during publisher’s workshop in Kathmandu. With its thoughtful design and smart production choices, Angst stands out from the usual crowd of photobooks. The cover depicts a couple in a tender kiss shot against complete darkness, as the title of the book is split in two vertical lines over the image. The dark images on the endpapers are a clever device used to force our eyes to adjust to the book’s enveloping darkness, featuring what looks like an old building wired by branches of trees – as our eyes recalibrate, more details become visible. The title of the book then appears again with one massive letter per page, the bold graphic design amplifying its presence. The book opens flat, and the strong smell of ink adds to its overall sensory experience. And a quote from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel The Room hints at Gupta’s inspiration: “They don’t know the terrors that go through your mind as you lie there in the pit wailing for a hint of light to tell you that the night is over.”

Shot at night, the portraits slowly come forth from the darkness, and the light on the faces creates a theatrical effect. The book opens with the sequence of photographs capturing a man in slightly different poses as he lays on the ground, and few spreads further, shots of the expressive face of another man, as he make gestures with his arms. These images evoke a sense of vulnerability, madness, and quiet helplessness. A photo of a woman on the ground follows: as she turns her head, we see that her face is painted gold, as she touches her arm with her tongue, adding a performative element to the scene. A few spreads later, a woman in a pink head scarf holding a stick falls deep into her own thoughts, her eyes closed and her mouth slightly open. Gupta’s subjects often look straight into the camera, with confidence or curiosity, its presence seemingly comfortable.

As the portraits pile up – a boy covered in white fabric, a naked man with amputated right hand, a smiling man holding two bunches of flowers, a woman holding a baby, a man sitting on a pile of a rubbish dump picking food – a heavy sense of loneliness and isolation takes hold, yet there are also moments of people smiling, dancing and hugging. A shot of two older men caught in a friendly hug is warm and tender.

Gupta’s writings appear throughout the book, setting the atmosphere and adding further layers of meaning. These texts (usually taking up no more than third of a page) first grab our attention with the playful use of typography, via eye catching arranged paragraphs, and capitalized and bolded words. The mix of observations and stories is at once brutal and poetic: a driver of a fancy car crashes in a poor neighborhood and gets lynched by an angry mob; a parking-fee collector who always greets Gupta with a smile talks about his routine and sharing his dreams; prostitutes wait patiently for clients; a young woman dances wildly to the song played on a mobile phone. Gupta also notes that “in Calcutta, when you have nothing except frustrations within you, life makes a master of caustic humor out of you”. These vignettes, mixed with striking and sometimes unsettling portraits, present a despairing slice of life in Calcutta.

One section of the book alternates texts and sets of full bleed black and white images printed on different paper stock. It is almost impossible not to stare at some of these arresting and often visually disturbing portraits. One shot captures a young girl with her tongue out and her eyes wide open. Another is of a man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition which forms tumors on his face, making it look as if his face is melting; while a black scarf covers part of his head and as he looks straight at the camera, there is deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability in the portrait.

Across the history of the medium, odd-looking outcasts and socially transgressive people have always attracted the attention of photographers. From the forbidden Parisian life of Brassaï and the American freaks and marginalised communities of Diane Arbus to the circus dwarf of Bruce Davidson and the intrusive portraits of Bruce Gilden, the lives of others, especially when they lie outside cultural and societal norms, have offered opportunities to examine how we define ourselves and others. Gupta’s photographs also bring to mind the harsh but incredibly personal and soulful portraits by Anders Petersen.

As Gupta captures his ghostly figures, he avoids the trap of harmful exploitation by building an honest and compassionate dialogue with his subjects, treating their fears and vulnerabilities with a sense of measured respect and grace. Gupta writes that “deep within Angst runs my anger, my frustrations, my hatred for a world in which there is no place for the weak, where weaklings are left to rot”, and we feel this strong empathy in his photographs. His provocative pictures arouse reflected feelings of human connection and community, rather than the look-at-this separation and isolation we might have expected. As a photobook, Angst is a well-conceived and thoughtfully produced object, with photographs and texts that are interwoven via a mindful editing process deeply rooted in Gupta’s engaged position. It stands as a solid contender for 2018 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award.

Collector’s POV: Soham Gupta does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).

Read more about: Soham Gupta, Akina Books

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