In 1983, a German photographer, Herbert Hesselmann’s striking images of valuable classic cars languishing in a nineteenth century hamlet in France, coated with thick layers of dust and returning to a ‘state of nature’, began to appear in the press. It’s first most intensive feature appeared in the German magazine Stern in 1983, and led to great disbelief, and even outrage amongst classic car enthusiasts. Following the publication, Michel Dovaz who owned these cars, became the prime target of enquiries and solicitations, and even abuse and reproach when he refused to sell any of them. This resulted finally, in Dovaz moving both the entire collection (over sixty cars) and himself to a new secret location in 1984. Two years later, Hesselmann, along with writer Halwart Schrader published his astoundingly successful book about the collection: Sleeping Beauties.
Krishna Tummalapalli’s recent project, its namesake, also casts as its central protagonists, unmoored cars, from in and around Central Bangalore where the photographer lives. However, unlike Hesselmann’s work in which the central drive is directly related to its state of neglect, and produced through the visibility of the cars (and their classic value), in Tummalapalli’s photographs the cars are all covered — deriving their drive through their visually shrouded existence.
“As I made images of the covered forms in the everyday landscape, I began to see them as symbols of wasted abilities. This series of photographs is my reflection on human potential and possibilities.”
Tummalapalli cites that one of his primary visual inspirations with the Sleeping Beauties series was the acclaimed American photographer Robert Frank, who in his most famous body of work The Americans, published in 1958, includes an image of a covered car from California. Though there are some similarities in form, the central shared aesthetic that is worth highlighting, is that in Tummalapalli’s work, as in Frank Roberts, still life evokes grander ideas and produces a remarkably astute snapshot of contemporary life and the urban condition.
Cars have long been revered as objects of desire, and since their advent have also been symbols of financial power and social status. Inevitably, in India as elsewhere, the ownership of cars are also deeply tied to aspirational desires. With a turning economy and larger spending power, the ability to buy and own cars has dramatically risen in the last two decades; and the average urban Indian is more likely to own one, than not. However, cars are not necessarily the most convenient or inexpensive of modes of travel, and in cities with bad roads, not even the most suitable one; thus, many families in India, especially those belonging to its expansive middle class find it cumbersome for everyday use, and reserve it for special occasions. Rather than abandoned, they are in fact, prized possessions. Tummalapalli’s aim though, is not to merely document, and through his deliberate framing and use of early morning light, these cars appear as if tinged with a certain melancholic air.
“The photos are not so much about what you see but more about how they make you feel,” says the photographer, to whom the images “serve as a metaphor for human potential and possibilities”. He elucidates that cars are predominantly functional objects, meant to take you from one point to another, and yet here they lie dormant instead, not serving any function.
While one may argue that cars aren’t simply a means of transportation, and are also extensions of, and statements about, their owners, those in this series provide few clues to the individuals who own them. Instead, they highlight unanimously highlight a barren landscape, devoid of human figures and narratives. At the centre of each photograph is a covered car, and Tummalapalli explains how the trajectory of his project has evolved in form: moving from an initial four-element composition to a two-element one. Earlier photographs from the project all include the car, the street, the surroundings – both green and concrete, while more recent images eliminate the presence of concrete entirely. Seen in sequence, this is particularly hypnotising, moving as it does from a familiar visual landscape to a somewhat surrealist one.
The romantic nature of these photographs is further still emphasised, since Sleeping Beauties also of course finds resonance in the fairytale of the princess who slept for a hundred years before being awakened by a kiss from the prince. In the story, the entire kingdom is put to sleep for a hundred years by the fairies, so that the princess should not awaken alone — depicting a similar ghost town, Tummalapalli’s beauties sit veiled, enveloped in vegetation and architecture, as if awaiting their prince.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
*Title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
A self-taught photographer, Tummalapalli took to photography in 2011 after attending a workshop by German photographer Heidi Specker. Sleeping Beauties was shortlisted in the Professional Still Life category of the 2015 Sony World Photography Awards, that recognizes the best in contemporary photography.