Review: Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods)


Book Reviews, Photobooks

There is no shortage of books about Havana and its decaying infrastructure, or about Paris and its architectural treasures; and there are many other such places which to some extent have been transformed into photographic clichés. “If Calcutta had the appeal of Havana,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s leading newspapers, wrote, “its palaces would long ago have become the subject of various coffee-table books.” And who says they don’t have that appeal? Thanks to Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods), we now have the opportunity to see for ourselves.

Unlike most other photography books, Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods) is the result of 21 young photographers, working under the supervision of their teacher, German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski (who regular readers of this blog will be familiar with from my conversation with him). In five teams, these 21 young photographers set out with large-format cameras to survey the area around Chitpur Road, a neighbourhood of Calcutta. The results of their collective work are nothing but amazing, since they managed to create a body of coherent and beautiful work, with Peter Bialobrzeski’s guiding hands visible in the overall feel of the work.

Unlike many of the books on, say, Havana, Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods) avoids too narrow a focus on architecture and incorporates the people living around Chitpur Road into the images, with the slightly longer exposures of the large-format equipment resulting in an added sense of life - moving people are blurred. Add to that the beautiful, but just very slightly subdued colours, and you get a tremendously beautiful book, which manages to stay clear both of clichés and of an overly pretty and thus ultimately superficial National Geographic look.

For the work, the students had to let go of their individual ways and styles of work. “Is this allowed?” asks Peter Bialobrzeski in the introduction, answering “Our successful attempt to produce an archival photographic record without succumbing to artistic mediocrity proves that it does in fact work. And paradoxically, at the same time it reinforces the necessity of an education that promotes the individuality of expression. Only by concentrating on one’s own voice can the clarity, meticulousness, and rigor be developed that are evident in the works of the Kolkata Heritage Photo Project.” I have the feeling that some people might disagree, but given the quality of Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods) and of the individual work of the students - they have a website here, and there is a website about the project here - I think it will be very hard to disagree with Peter Bialobrzeski’s assessment.

Unlike Steidl, German publisher Hatje Cantz is less widely known, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Just like Hatje Cantz’ other photographer books (many of which belong my favourites), Calcutta (Chitpur Road Neighborhoods) is beautifully produced and printed (in Germany), and I can only recommend it to anyone interested in either contemporary photography or in getting, well, a beautiful coffee-table book about Calcutta.