12 Jan 2020


After Sunday Lunch
After Sunday Lunch

A recent show at Koel Gallery presented a series of old photographs that stirred waves of nostalgia in viewers, by framing the past through a contemporary rendering. Saving Daylight — a title borrowed from the last chapter of Sara Suleri’s memoir Meatless Days, and an inversion of the term “daylight saving” — is an ongoing project by Nurjehan Akhlaq. Based on archival photographs, it examines the “mythmaking of modernity, nostalgia, place and time”.

Akhlaq uses old photographs and transparencies spanning three generations and about 50 years (1950-2003), using old technology and celluloid film which she pulled out of photo albums and re-photographed. A lot of them have been shot on Kodachrome, which is a reversal film stock known for its unique quality of colour. The resulting prints display various techniques, such as photomontage, and genres of photography, such as portraiture, landscapes, visual research, artwork documentation and travel photography, all searching for a narrative in the mundane.

Through this visual essay, the artist seems to be emphasising the materiality of film in a subtle, unspoken quality the images evoke. It is indescribable but separates the images from anything shot with modern digital cameras. There is something very tactile about the images, perhaps because of the texture of the grain, the haziness and even the colour palette. The sense of looking back in time is potent, and the pictures have a quality — that “old photo” quality — but also because many of the compositions are so familiar, specifically the portraits, group family photos, and touristy pictures, which seem to be a constant in every old photo album.

Nurjehan Akhlaq uses archival photographs to explore various techniques of photography and the materiality of film

The results of some of the images are ethereal and haunting, especially where multiple photographs have been layered in a montage, such as ‘The Adventure’ and ‘Eclipsing Twilight’ — where the subject seems to be fading away and buildings seem to be shifting in space. Many of the landscape and nature shots, with hazy fog, lit up by daylight and filtered through trees, create an atmosphere that transports you in time and space. ‘Monsoon Terrace’, ‘Haunted Garden’ and ‘The Lovers Were Ambassadors To Imaginary Utopias’ are some of the strongest images of the series. All of them have a dreamlike quality.

Millionaire’s Room
Millionaire’s Room

In the portraits or or in photos where people appear to pose in front of scenic backdrops, another aspect of wonder is added — who are these people, what are their stories, what were their lives like? Yet there is also a sense of familiarity, as if we are a part of them. ‘Looking Towards The Monument’, ‘From That Day She Only Remembered The Sound Of The Waves, Crashing’, ‘Posing Against The Water’ and ‘Untitled’ (group photo on car trunk) are a few examples. On the other hand, portrait works such as ‘The Secret’ and ‘Mirroring’ are interesting snippets of endearing moments in time, that give a unique insight into human relationships.

“Saving Daylight” was on display at Koel Gallery from December 14, 2019 till December 27, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 12th, 2020