Traditionally a trading community by profession – indeed, the term Bohra derives from the Gujarati term ‘vehru’ or trade – the Bohra’s are a people who constantly invented and reinvented their identity in keeping with migratory patterns. Absorbing and negotiating influences around them, their complex cultural makeup is strikingly reflected in their entirely unique architecture that is an amalgamation of Hindu, Islamic, Persian, European and Colonial styles.
The photographs in this series are saturated with fragments of the past, residual memories and trace histories that persist in the facades of buildings, in empty rooms, windows, doors, stairways, and other distinguishing features of Bohra architecture. In many ways, this series is both a comment on the slow dissolution of a culture, and an exercise in preservation, a record of ‘the remains of the day’.
Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past is on view at the Tasveer Gallery, Bangalore until the 28th of August 2014, post which the show will travel to other cities in India.
Extracts from an interview with Sebastian Cortes by Annu Dey:
What were your inspirations, influences and reasons for making this series?
I have always been attracted to cities or towns that have, for some historic, social or economic reason, fallen off the map. Sidphur emanates the same kind of atmosphere that you find in abandoned mining towns in the American west, or cities in southern Italy that once had great commercial importance, then history moved on and left them drifting in the indifference of time. But Sidphur has an added element that fascinates me even more and that is the layering of visual, architectural and symbolic elements that seem to linger in the homes like so many ghosts.
Having been influenced consciously and subconsciously by an Italian mother, who can trace her family history to the early stones of Venice and a father whose last name eludes to a background of great upheaval and historic change, my formal and visual education interwove a curious pattern, which also rests on some very persistent American experiences and ways of being. It’s inevitable that vagabonds and culturally variegated individuals like me become more sensitive to that notion of impermanence, which I seek to arrest in my pictures. My process of observation, when freed of the ridged and shallow obligations of editorial or commercial discipline, tends towards a “vision of loss”. At the very outset of photography, William H. Fox Talbot noted the camera’s special aptitude for recording “the injuries of time”.
My continuous point of reference and influencing force is the American school of photography, as expressed by Walker Evans, Stephan Shore, William Egglestone and my contemporaries Robert Polidori and Alec Soth- I share and admire their disciplined approach to recording reality. I also like to include a slightly more European and softer chromatic gaze, which finds its best expression in the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri.
How does this body of work differ from your previous projects in India?
The process I follow is always the same in my projects and I try to remain similarly disciplined. At the same time, what I have learned about India from each project and the deeper fascination, understanding and feeling of kinship, which has developed, helps me to be more susceptible to nuances and subtle details. In the end, every project interjects a different matrix of elements, which seem to arise as I go through the process of recording and searching. Every project is different in content but similar in the questions it posses.
In previous projects you mention that you have been influenced by literature, what were some of the non-photographic influences here?
I think that the influences of literature are always playing a role in any of my projects. Writers as different as Max Sebald, Orhan Pamuk, William Dalrymple and Susan Sontag, are constantly setting a tone to my process of observation. I spend allot of time reading and finding men and women of my generation who share my state of mind and help me to objectively entertain a vision of the world. But I’m also easily moved by simple curiosity and the fatalistic sense of opportunity, which is often just a working through of my personal process and path.
You seem intrigued by aspects of life that are often overlooked: the mundane, the ordinary, and the domestic. Can you please elaborate on why these are recurring themes in your work, and what you are attempting to convey through your imagery?
The obvious, the domestic, the routine are elements that I like to explore in the context of an exceptional condition. More clearly, the psychological and metaphorical importance of rooms and what they silently describe, holds my attention and I want to draw the viewer in to the pathos of discovery. The vibration of the empty rooms and all the surface information speaks to us about a people and their need to express themselves, the exteriorization of the soul life or personal values- the emblematic image of an age, a brief but rich moment of creativity and domesticated poetic fantasy.
Sebastian Cortés was born in New York and took up photography while at New York University film school where he studied and collaborated with many of the best names in the industry, shooting several short films.He has shot fashion, travel and lifestyle photography assignments for many international magazines and commercial clients, including, among others: American Express, Condè Nast, Ermenegildo Zegna and Publicis. In 2004 Cortés moved to India; he currently lectures at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication. His images are exhibited and reviewed widely in Europe and in India.