Print Edition - 2014-12-20  |  On Saturday

Nepal in pictures

  • Kevin Bubriski’s book ‘Nepal 1975-2011’ captures the various facets of the country
- Michael Gill
Nepal in pictures

Dec 19, 2014-

Kevin Bubriski, whose work has been exhibited in leading galleries and museums all over the world and who is widely recognised as one of America’s finest living photographers, inadvertently began his professional photography career in 1975.  In that year he was dispatched as a Peace Corps Volunteer to the upper Karnali Valley to work on drinking water systems.  Fortunately for history, he took his trusty 35 mm M3 Leica with him.

There is much to be said for the well-informed, long view.  This obvious truism is amply illustrated— quite literally—by Bubriski’s “Nepal 1975-2011”.The 200 photos in this retrospective were premiered in a major exhibition last spring at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.  Presented now in a handsomely bound volume issued by Radius Books, this is the work of a master, a long, elegant photographic love letter from Mr Bubriski to Nepal.

Bubriski has maintained steady contact with Nepal ever since his Peace Corps days.  His first published collection of images from Nepal, Portrait of Nepal(1993),which was based in part on work done with support from a Fulbright fellowship, features images shot from a tripod with an old-fashioned 4x5 camera. The current volume includes photographs made not only from his Leica and the 4x5, but also Rollei flex and digital cameras. The book unfolds in six chronological sections, each introduced by a short essay by the photographer.  What unites these images from different periods in the life of Nepal and the life of the photographer is not only Bubriski’s highly refined artistic vision, but also his unfailing empathy for his individual subjects and for Nepal, his collective subject.  

I was stunned by his earliest work from the 1970s. The film was developed with varying degrees of expertise at various photo labs in Kathmandu, yet these deftly printed images depict the incredibly difficult lives of Nepalis with undeniable, raw power. We see huddled, barefoot porters awaiting hire under the eaves of Kasthamandap, draped in rough, homespun woolen blankets with namlo-dori, the simple tools of their trade, at the ready.  Then there are photos of Rara Village and its inhabitants.  Having visited that village in 1969, I found these particularly poignant, as it no longer exists, having been forcibly abandoned in 1978 due to the establishment of a national park.  There is also a series taken on the occasion of the King Birendra’s royal inspection tour of Jumla in February 1978.  We see nervous security personnel armed with ancient rifles, an umbrellaed crowd of Jumlis shivering in a cold rain, anxiously anticipating a glimpse of their ruler, and finally, the young king himself.  Here he is, in a jauntily angled birke topi, starched military fatigues, and shiny boots, striding confidently through Jumla bazaar, followed by his still slender queen.  He seems the very image of a take-charge ruler who knows where he is going, yet is completely ignorant of — how could it have been otherwise — the terrible fate that awaits him.  

That latter image brought to mind a story told to me by someone who worked for USAID, who reported seeing something quite odd in the late 1980s. Just days before another of Birendra’s royal tours, near Khaptad National Park, she witnessed a parade of porters grunting their way up a steep trail, toting beds and other equipment, enough for an entire hospital—including a couple of sick patients—to an otherwise completely unfurnished government hospital that the king was due to visit.  One wonders if the king was impressed and if the patients survived.

So many of the images in the book became instantly engraved in my mind. One is tempted, but limited by space and no doubt by reader patience, to mention them all.There is the 1985 portrait of the beautiful Humli mother and child, echoed by a later image of the same woman, still beautiful but now wizened, in 2010. A ghostly composition from 1989 shows a group of barbers, their wooden stools arrayed on a foggy winter’s morning on the Tundikhel in Kathmandu, awaiting and attending to customers.  Among the more recent ones is a jarring, heartbreaking image of Kathmandu’s homeless boys, sprawled over each other helter skelter.  The caption informs us they are passed out from sniffing glue.  

Indeed, many of Bubriski’s images are accompanied by captions proving that the photographer was not simply passing through: he knew his subjects, their tribulations and aspirations.  For example, note the haunting, deceptively simple caption for this fine 1987 family portrait from Humla.

This empathetic connection produces vastly different images from those created by another great photographer, Cartier-Bresson.  The French master’s signature was the fleeting “decisive moment,” whereas Bubriski’s hallmark, particularly in his portraits, might be called the cultivated moment. I find the latter much more intimate and informative than the former.

Ironically, despite the fact that so many of Bubriski’s early black and white images depict a deep poverty seen less often now, I found much of the early work visually richer than the newer colour photographs of a more globalised Nepal, with its American flag t-shirts, shiny bikes and well-dressed urbanites. If that opens me to the charge of engaging in an orientalist nostalgia, so be it.

However you look at it, “Nepal 1975-2011” is a remarkable artistic achievement, a detailed, incredibly varied and rich visual history of Nepal spanning four decades.  Those interested in seeing the images from this fine book for themselves should mark January 7 on their calendars.  That evening, Photo Circle will host an illustrated talk by Mr Bubriski at The Bakery Café in Sundhara and copies of the book should be available for viewing and sale.  Photo Circle also plans to exhibit prints from “Nepal 1975-2011” in 2015.

Nepal 1975-2011

Kevin Bubriski

Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press

Michael Gill is a former Executive Director of USEF Nepal and the Fulbright Commission

Published: 20-12-2014 08:59

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