The rain on her face, John B Turner

Monsoon
Brian Brake
David Bateman, $59.99,
ISBN 13978186953608

For those familiar with Brian Brake’s “Monsoon” essay from Life and other magazines in the early 1960s, or those who more recently enjoyed the large-print exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in the summer of 1998-1999, this book is long overdue. Along with George Silk and the late Tom Hutchins, Brian Brake OBE was an outstanding New Zealand photojournalist in the post-WWII era. Talented, ambitious and striving for recognition, he earned his associateship of the Royal Photographic Society for Pictorial Photography at the age of 20, in 1947, the year Hutchins had his first photograph published in Life magazine. Silk had joined Life in 1943.

Brake was apprenticed to Spencer Digby, a prominent Wellington portrait photographer, and later trained as a cameraman with the New Zealand National Film Unit, visiting Great Britain in 1950 to study colour cinematography, and returning to make award-winning films, including Snows of Aorangi, for the unit. He returned to London in 1953, working as a freelance photojournalist. In 1954 Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to join the prestigious Magnum picture agency. This was an auspicious moment in Brake’s distinguished 40-year career as a photographer and filmmaker that was cut short by a heart attack in August 1988, when he was only 61.

Magnum’s Robert Capa, who was killed in Vietnam in 1954, had first suggested the monsoon as a story idea when the photographers’ cooperative was founded in 1947, but it was Brake who took up the challenge, and did it in colour. By 1959, when he first visited India in preparation for photographing the 1960 monsoon, Brake had completed successful assignments in Great Britain, Russia, Africa and China. If the monsoon story presented the worst possible conditions for photography – scorching heat, extreme humidity, the deluge of water and life-threatening floods – then Brake, who was admired for his technical skills at Magnum, was certainly up to the challenge. He made memorable images on slow (25 ASA) Kodachrome film that were second to none in their time, and are still impressive after nearly 50 years.

Brake crisscrossed northern India, chasing phases of the monsoon, from Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east, concentrating on rural and village life for its sense of timelessness, rather than big cities with their telltale advertising hoardings, new buildings and fashion-conscious city dwellers. His essay succeeded because it was so unabashedly romantic and lyrical, the equal of poems and prose on an inexhaustible subject that is too multifaceted, and too contradictory – like India itself – to ever be captured in full. Like his friend Ernst Haas’s pioneering colour essays, “Monsoon” was hailed as a groundbreaking body of work in the early 1960s for its expressionistic qualities and relative lack of reliance on the traditional extended captions used to unite and bridge images in order to tell their story. It cemented Brake’s growing reputation, and grossed $75,000 for Magnum as one of their financial successes of the decade.

Contrary to the publisher’s statement, Brake’s idea for this book did not start in the 1980s. He visualised this essay as a book right from the beginning, a fact mentioned during various interviews made following the exceptionally wide and generous coverage afforded “Monsoon” by the big pictorial magazines such as Epoca, Life, Paris Match and Queen in 1961. He told the editor of Leica Fotografie that he would publish a book of the colour photographs of the monsoon “in 1962”. And in 1963, the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly reported that he had shot 85 rolls of 35mm film for the essay, and “Now a book is in preparation using the best 100 photographs, with text by one English and two Indian experts.” Clearly much of the work for this book was done before he returned to it in the final years of his often hectic career.

Printed by Everbest in China, Monsoon is a beautiful book with high production values. The design by Trevor Newman lets the pictures speak for themselves and pays particular attention to the colour nuances central to Brake’s expression. The subtle colours and tones of the Monsoon plates – digital scans from the original transparencies – in fact show up the harshness of the original magazine reproductions that led 14-year-old Apana Sen to comment that she looked more like a 28-year-old on the cover of Life. Typographically, there is some confusion over the book’s title which is given as both “brian brake monsoon” and “monsoon brian brake” in the layout.

Monsoon starts with a movie trailer-like glimpse of images interspersed with introductory texts. A man lies face up on a floor, languid, conserving energy in the coolest heat available, opposite the title page. Storm clouds gather opposite the list of contents; and overleaf an image of swinging children is juxtaposed with one of crowded oxcarts making their way along a flooded street. There is a host of colourful saris next to the acknowledgements; a man beautifully poised with a large bundle balanced on his head under a black umbrella next to the late Sir Edmund Hillary’s foreword.

The April 1988 preface by Brian Brake is illustrated with a bare-chested man on his back, carefully positioned to take advantage of the scant shade under a Moghul arch. This is followed overleaf by a Mobil advertising poster announcing “The Monsoon is due in a few hours”, and ends with a woman praying in the Ganges. Next is a brief essay, “The Arts of the Rains” by Deben Bhattacharya, and a poem by Narottam Das. These are followed by the essay “Village in the Rains” by Subodh Mukherji, accompanied by a truncated image of people sloshing through a muddy village thoroughfare.

Altogether there are 123 photographs in the essay proper, which begins with a signature Brake aerial photograph of a brown baked patchwork of rural land stretching to a river in the distance. The images are spread through seven chapters with explanatory titles such as “Months of great heat”, “Approaching rain”, “The rain”, and finally, “The floods”. The background to each chapter title page and accompanying picture is colour-coordinated according to the dominant hues of the photographs in each section. Select brief texts, some attributed, some not, are included with these chapters, and the picture essay is concluded by an image of a lone man praying in the Ganges.

The afterword by Asoke Roy Chowdhury, Brake’s Indian assistant in 1960 (not 1963, as given in a glaring typo) vividly describes the difficulties of reaching the Sun Temple of Konarak in Orissa during the rains. The final picture is of two scrawny bullocks pulling an empty wooden cart through a city street, with cars and people going about their business in the pouring rain. The cars date this picture, but Brake’s interest for this, perhaps his most personal book, was in the timeless social and spiritual meaning of the monsoon, not contemporary India.

The hardened photojournalists at Magnum were not all sold on this romantic treatment, which sidestepped the extremes of death and destruction caused by the monsoon. They were particularly disturbed by Brake’s inclusion of the “monsoon girl”, the now iconic image that stands for the whole essay. By avoiding mention of the controversy about journalistic ethics that surrounded this image of a so-called “Bengali girl in the first rain”, the publisher has done a disservice to Brake and his audience. There was no need to perpetuate a half-truth when a simple acknowledgement of the actual situation would have cleared the air. The girl, Apana Sen, was a 14-year old movie star photographed on the set of a Satyajit Ray film, and this particular picture was a set-up.

Wanting to find out for himself how “The sensuously virginal and rain-spattered face of … this girl on the cusp of womanhood … became … the very badge of the monsoon ….”, photojournalist Bruce Connew interviewed the now famous actress, writer and director in Mumbai for the New Zealand Listener of 31 October 1998. As she explained, Brake “took me up to the terrace, had me wear a red sari in the way a village girl does, and asked me to wear a green stud in my nose. To be helpful, I said, let me wear a red one to match, and he said no … I think a green one. It was stuck to my nose with glue, because my nose wasn’t pierced. Someone had a large watering can, and they poured water over me.” Brake just said, “Feel the rain on your face.”

“It is as if the secret of life lies somewhere in the falling rain,” Deben Bhattacharya notes. This handsome book is a tribute to the sensitivity, and audacity, with which Brian Brake, with his sense of perfection, sought to capture that elusive something about India and the monsoon.

 

John B Turner is a senior lecturer in photography at the University of Auckland and editor of PhotoForum magazine.

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography and Review
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