Fact and fiction documentation

Finding a shoe box with old photographs taken by an unknown man in an unknown place, gives rise to curiosity which ends in tales of fantasy. The story of ‘Following the Box’ is exactly the same story retold through an exhibition.

A box of 127 vintage photographic images of India, taken in 1945, by an anonymous man alongside the work of 12 contemporary artists, inspired by the images, is displayed at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts.

Husband-wife pair Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral (curators of the exhibition), have a store in Chicago where they deal with old and antique products including photographs. They found the shoe box with photographs at an estate sale 28 years ago. The images displayed provide a window into an India that has changed dramatically in some parts while remaining the same in others. As a visual story telling across space, time and culture, a mystery tale of old photographs and new artistic interpretations.

The photos show a camera, which is extinct from the photography scene now, with a Speed Graphic 4x5” press camera, the negatives too are not the usual 35mm ones, but 4x5”.

In 2013, they were awarded a Fulbright-Nehru grant to continue with the research. They spent five months in India and determined that the photographs were made by a US soldier stationed at the Salua Airfield, a once secret American base near Kharagpur, West Bengal.

“In each photograph, it is written with white pen, for example, ‘10 PTU-3-4S-914-Indian with a musical instrument’. When we did our research we found that the photographer was associated with the ‘10th Photographic Technical Unit (10 PTU)’ of the XX Bomber Command, which operated in the China-Burma-India Theatre during World War II.”

“The unit worked from 1942-1945 preparing for a possible invasion of Japan. With the end of the war in Europe and the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the unit was dissolved,” Zbiral tells Metrolife.

May 1945 was a transitional period, while the men were waiting to be reassigned. The photographs were mainly candid and it seemed like the photographer wanted to make some memories of India.

Teller, says, “Jerri and I bought these pictures for merely 20 dollars not having known their sentimental value attached to India. We started exploring Bengal in search of a story behind them. This shoebox, full of wonderful vintage photographs, has a 70-year-old story behind it.”

Zbiral also tells Metrolife about the field visit in Bengal, where she stood with one of the photographs of a man standing in front of Balaji Mandir.

“A man casually comes to inquire and sees the photo in hand and says, ‘That’s my great grandfather’. That was an overwhelming moment. But we still don’t know who it was and why he clicked these pictures,” sighs Zbiral. ‘Following the Box’ is a true story with an open ending, which can be anything you want it to be.

The exhibition is 20 days long from January 11 to 31 and also displays works done by Indian contemporary artists like Sanjeet Chowdhury, Sarbajit Sen, Prabir Purkayastha, Chhatrapati Dutta, Alakananda Nag and seven others.


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