The surreal world of Pablo Bartholomew

By Paramita Ghosh

September 9th, 2016

For 29 years, a box full of Kodachrome slidesheets from an old assignment lay unopened in photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew’s apartment. By the time he remembered them, they had been disfigured by time and termites. Re-examining the slidesheets, he looked at the decay he held in his hands, and put his energy to curate it as a work that had survived the kiss of death.

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Pablo Bartholomew’s photography has always been singular for the sensibility he brought to documentary photography and photojournalism. He captured the first free-thinking generation, post Independence, of the 70s and 80s without dropping heavy visual clues. Bell bottoms, beads and clouds of cigarette smoke were only incidental to his moody and unabashed black-and-white frames capturing his own milieu at the time of its turn.

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In 1985, Bartholomew had gone to Bangladesh on a National Geographic assignment to capture the building of the Feni River Dam. Fifteen thousand people had been employed to close the mouth of the river in order to control its flooding and create a freshwater reservoir for irrigation. When he re-opened the boxes, he found the colours had morphed into each other; blobs and irregular geometric shapes encircled the people he had shot. In ‘Memento Mori,’ (Remembering the Dead), Bartholomew’s new exhibition, the surviving images are images in their own right, says the artist. They point to a reality that all human endeavour undergo. Not all our work, memories and relationships will live. Some might, some won’t.

“At the Dhaka Art Summit (February, 2016), I was surprised to come across the work and know that it was Pablo’s who is known for his black-and-whites,” says artist and gallerist Peter Nagy of Nature Morte. “Some of the images were almost biblical — they had the look of things that had been excavated from the past.” At Dhaka, the work was at a preliminary stage.

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Bartholomew developed it for Nature Morte — the ‘Memento Mori’ exhibition showcases 33 photographs — and it is the third edition of the work after having been exhibited at Dhaka and Pondicherry.

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In 2007, Bartholomew exhibited the photographs of his generation for the first time with the ‘Outside In — A Tale of 3 Cities,’ exhibition to draw attention to his personal work. His resurrection of an early professional assignment shows that he has never been able to let go of a good story.

Q & A

Paramita Ghosh: Your father Richard Bartholomew was a well-known art critic and photographer. So the camera must have been a familiar sight around the house. When did you pick it up?

Pablo Bartholomew: I turned professional at 16. It was the early ‘70s. I had quit my studies. I didn’t have rich parents. I picked up the camera to earn my living. I would sometimes shoot plays or do odd jobs like processing other people’s film and printing their photographs.

PG: Your early subjects seem to have been your families and friends. They were the ones we saw in the first exhibitions you had in 2007.

PB: You don’t treat people as ‘subjects’ or ‘a muse’. It was just things you did if you found pleasure or were interested in photography. I had around 10 years of work (1971-1983) behind me when I decided to look at it from the point of view of exhibiting. It wasn’t like today’s photographers shooting their friends where everyone looks very mannered. I did these things in a stream of consciousness way — I didn't sit and analyse and think some day this is a collection that will lay a golden egg.

PG: ‘Memento Mori,’ based on a National Geographic assignment on the building of a large dam in Bangladesh, is also a looking back at old and badly damaged images.

PB: As an outsider, getting a National Geographic story was a big deal. They commission stories and kill it if it doesn’t work for them. I had a lot invested in this assignment.

PG: The first instinct, one would assume, would have been to restore them.

PB: They weren’t restorable. I had 200 rolls of film fused together. When I examined the slidesheets, I found colourful morphed images, so I thought I could do something interesting with them at some point of time. At the Dhaka Art Summit, I was supposed to exhibit a project on the Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts but I had to abandon it as the permissions didn't come through. As an alternative, I showed the slidesheet of my Bangladesh assignment, of people working to build a dam. In my head, I was thinking a different kind of ghar wapsi — returning a work to the country of origin.

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PG: Decay has produced a kind of psychedelia, and surrealism in your pictures. Does this constant looking back, and particularly in the case of these Bangladesh pictures, produce a world of abstraction? Does the pursuit of memory ultimately lead one there?

PB: You could say I’m backlogged. Haven’t you ever gone back to an old article and discovered new things in it? In the end, it comes down to interpretation. Some young guys who dropped by at the gallery, said these pictures should be in Goa at a rave. The gallery, in fact, was interested in the figurative works. Salvador Dali [Spanish painter and Surrealist] painted landscapes with the vanishing point. The photograph, Men by the River — about men actually walking on a dam even though it seems as if they are walking on a piece of land whose limits are not defined — is something like that. The ‘Three Crosses’ photograph, which is actually three people walking balancing baskets on a rod, is also surrealistic.

PG: You were in your 20s when you started your photojournalism career and got your Bangladesh story. Would it be easy for a photojournalist to get work like this today?

PB: The problem is funding. Even if you do finance it yourself, who will publish it — unless you’re a staffer of a media house. Photojournalism has nose-dived post 2000 and it's more and more difficult for young people to work in that milieu.

‘Memento Mori’ is being exhibited at Nature Morte, A-1 Neeti Bagh, Delhi till September 24.

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Photos: Pablo Bartholomew, Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi
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