Hari Shankar Yogi

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Alexandra Anderson Spivy, Review Magazine, Nov. 1997

Marcus Leatherdale, who first went to India in 1972, now lives in Varanasi for at least four to six months every year. For more than five years he has spent part of each winter traveling around the country, photographing a very wide range of its people. From the beginning his intention has been to pay homage to the timeless spirit of India through a highly specific portrayal of its individuals. His pictures explore how essentially unaffected much of the country is by the passage of time.

Leatherdale’s hundreds of PORTRAITs now include princesses, movie stars, boatmen, circus performers, Adivasi tribal people, street beggars, bishops, and mothers and children in traditional garb. Last winter, he concentrated on images of holy men and wrestlers, photographed in and around Benares. The focus was at first a practical one. Then its meaning began to RESonate on deeper levels. As he put it, “Most women would say no and the ten percent that said yes never showed. And these guys are all healthy exhibitionists. But I also wanted to contrast the physical and the spiritual and how they crossed over-the holy men were also yogis, and the wrestlers were all doing their exercises as devotees of Hanuman in the temple. The title is a metaphor for the physical versus the spiritual, the two planes.”

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Western ideas of the subcontinent largely have been formed by the various impressions recorded by explorers, travelers, missionaries, colonial settlers, adventurers, military figures, and seekers of spiritual enlightenment.

Leatherdale may be seen as another searcher from the west who has become attached profoundly enough to Indian culture to expatriate himself part-time from New York and Canada. In a way, his passionate and dedicated connection to India resembles Bruce Chatwin’s sensitive literary explorations of Patagonia and Australia. His portraits, while they are created in a formal, rather unadorned and documentary style that acknowledges continuities with nineteenth-century forbears as Samuel Bourne, are nevertheless far from the “ethnographic” portraits produced during the domination of the Raj.

Leatherdale’s familiarity with Indian culture and society is distinctly post-colonial. He is an artist who acknowledges difference but never consigns anyone to the category of the strictly exotic. transcending expected clichés, his photographs grapple with the purely individual personality of each of his sitters. And he deletes from these images any modern trappings and accessories in order to emphasize the cultural survival of still-extant traditional vocations and observances. Noone unfamiliar with India and not at home there could have taken these portraits, let alone been able to convince many of the subjects to sit for him.

Those who still think of Leatherdale as the chronicler of the extremes of downtown Manhattan’s club and fashion scene will be surprised by his Indian portraits. In the 1980s he was known as an acute observer of the edgy, glamorous, decadent parts of New York. He had emerged as a kind of late nineteenth-century pictorialist who produced mysterious images frequently tinged with a sense of the gothic. (His association with Robert Mapplethorpe gained him early recognition but also helped to obscure the expressive originality and value of his own work.) In a stunning change of direction, this denizen of the ultra-fashionable quietly left town a while ago to find for himself an entirely different universe of subject matter which has given his work increased depth and directness.

Leatherdale has been an acute observer of New York, but it is India he loves. The respect pervading his recent pictures defies most contemporary photographic conventions. His Indian portraits are composed with a symmetrical formality that emphatically rejects the snapshot esthetic currently in vogue. Such formality, which has been one of Leatherdale's strengths as an artist, here banishes squalor or slumming from the equation altogether.

Leatherdale's matte printing techniques, which adapt nineteenth-century processes and employ half black, half sepia colorations, reinforce the timelessness of his subjects. At first I wondered whether these techniques made these pictures too sentimental, but I see now that the sepia tones and matte surfaces effectively differentiate the portraits from the easy slickness of fashion photography. They require us to slow down and savor the surfaces when we look at them, rewarding scrutiny with an eerie and humbling transmission of fierce human spirit.

Leatherdale was right to get out of town; to seek and find sources and subjects beyond Western culture. His life in India has enabled this photographer to use his camera to capture souls but not to steal them. Now all of us who see these portraits are the beneficiaries of his enlarged horizons.