Photo-documenting History
Sohrab Hura
Photo-documenting History by Vicki Goldberg Roli Books, 2011, 144 pp., 595
November 2011, volume 35, No 11

When I was asked to write a review of a new book of photographs by Margaret Bourke White sheer excitement ran through my nerves. While Henri Cartier Bresson has been a much talked about figure in the photo communities here in India Margaret Bourke White has in comparison been quite invisible at least amongst the discussions that have gone on among my contemporaries. And it was only befitting that at a time when not just photographs of historical significance but also their authors like Lala Deen Dayal, Sunil Janah and even other less known photographers are generating an immense amount of interest in the younger generation—photographers as well as non photographers—that a book celebrating the life and work of Margaret Bourke White in India had been published. This photographer has made some of the most important photo documents of the period during which India gained Independence and her photographs during the mass migration and the carnage that preceded and accompanied it as well as photographs of both important political leaders and people of the masses during that time all come together to give a holistic visual perspective of those times. This however is also where the trouble with the book begins.

The book doesn’t flow freely when you go through it. It seems to have been divided into different chapters; ‘seems to’ because this division or whatever it is leaves the viewer extremely confused. Maybe they were meant to simply be excerpts from what she wrote in her book Halfway to Freedom. But excerpts with headers like Meeting the Mahatma or Pakistan’s Quaid-I-Azam: Mohammed Ali Jinnah are very clearly followed by their respective photographs thus giving an impression that those excerpts are chapters of some sort. On the other hand excerpts like The Great Migration and Direct Action Day have been placed randomly in the middle of nowhere without any referral photographs preceding or following them. In addition to that all the little white space that is available is used by captions as well as some more short excerpts from Halfway to freedom, making reading this photo book a terribly cluttered and frustrating experience. This practice of taking so many small excerpts from Bourke White’s original writings and pplacing them out of context next to her photographs is a dangerous one and leaves one extremely sceptical of the editor’s photo edits as well.

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