A conversation with Carl De Keyzer

When it was published back in 1987, India became an immediate and gigantic succes. It has sold not less than 8.000 copies and  many still regard it as Carl De Keyzer’s best book because of the aestheticizing flash techniques and of the relaxed mood in the pictures. In this post, we are going back with the photographer to 1987 to learn from him how the book was originally created and received. Today he disagrees that his book is his best one but he confirms that it helped him to catch the attention of the legendary Magnum Agency and that it layed the foundation for an impressive series of (till date) 16 other photobooks. So, it is safe to qualify the book as a milestone in the history of Belgian photography.

The story of India started in Arles where young Carl De Keyzer showed to Dutch publisher Dirk van der Spek his little, black Ambassador wading through the monsoons.

India. Bombay. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987. 1985.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

At that moment De Keyzer had already spent two summers on the subcontinent sleeping in shabby motels, travelling in crowdy third class wagons, tirelessly waiting to make those two or three precious images per week. Van der Spek promised to publish a book on the condition that De Keyzer would return one more time. Thus, young De Keyzer who was teacher in Ghent in those days, returned one more time during the next summer break. With a kind of reluctance though, because inevitably there would be monsoon season again!

India8

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But today, the photographer realizes that this was the way how he has learned to finish off a project. As for his famous flash technique, he claims that the use of his old and powerful Metz was rather a necessity than a deliberate choice to aestheticize. “The Indians were all the time taking refuge from the blazing summer heat in the shadow. Without my flash they would have remained invisible. I had to develop a technique by which I could both show what happened in the daylight and unveil what remained hidden in the world of the shadows.”

india2

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

Picture 052

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

After his return Van der Spek kept his promise and the Ambassador (and its passengers) would famously become the cover of the book. But Van der Spek had done the selection and sequencing of the pictures without much consultation. It makes De Keyzer smile today but he admits that he never was very happy with the result. Especially van der Speks introduction that coined the book as a positive, joyful testimony of India leaves the photographer with ambivalent feelings.

Dirk van der Spek: “Laughing people in the land of Nehru and Gandhi, the land of cultural conflict between Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs, Biharis and Bengalis. The land that is also notorious for its gigantic natural and environmental disasters. Ostensibly it seems as if the people cheerfully accept these problems.

KEC1987001W00329-15 001

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

India. Bombay. Beach laundry. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987. 1985.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

According to the photographer, it was not at all his ambition to create a positive image of India in the book.  On the contrary, he wanted to show “the back side of the postcard images” that only show the Taj Mahal, the nice beaches and the beautiful saris. The photographer also states that Indian critics were not pleased at all. They could not understand why a photographer had to show someone repairing his bike in a river (“Is that being modern?“) or a shopkeeper helplessly lying in his inundated business (“Do they like it in Belgium when their shops are flooded?“).

India. Calcutta. Howrah bridge © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

India. Benares. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986. Book India "1987".

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But, recalling his days in India, De Keyzer also agrees that he had been too easily charmed by the never ending stream of children that came up greeting him all the time and by the Indians in general who still took a keen interest in him as a foreigner. “Maybe I have been a little bit naive in the way I have portrayed them. Maybe the book contains a neo-colonial point of view. After all, westerners like this way to look at the third world.India would teach the photographer a good lesson.  In his later books, he would become more critical for himself, his public and his subjects. He would not be the one trick poney photographer with a daylight flash. He would elaborate his subject much more profoundly, he would become a sharp critic of contemporary politics and society.

Despite De Keyzer’s afterthoughts, the book remains a real pearl! When I  am leafing through the pages, Carlo Levi‘s account of his travels in India in the 1950’ies are coming to my mind: “At every step, a thousand apparitions surge toward us until, in the narrow lanes of the marketplace, as if all the veils had been pulled aside, we see a world that is so real that it seems as if words can scarcely keep up with the sight, stuttering, filled with wonder.

India. Agra. Taj Mahal. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

In De Keyzer’s book, we can see the same pre-globalized or even pre-modern India that Levi witnessed when he stepped out his car: “Hordes of children come towards us, along with dappled cows and enormous black water buffaloes….an ancient enchantment, a sort of incomprehensible, earthly magic, seems to envelop us suddenly, along with the mysterious silence of a remote era…..But also a transition is going on there, from one era to another, from the most primitive tribal coexistence, from the most retrograde feudalism to full participation in modern history.” (C. Levi, Essays on India)

India. Benares. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

For sure, the book beautifully displays De Keyzer’s timeless look at the world. There are no explicit references the 1980’ies visible. Naturally, time has played its intriguing role, and De Keyzer becomes a little bit nostalgic when he looks at his book. India did undergo an irreversible transition. “In the 1980’ies, Coca-Cola was still forbidden. On the billboards you only saw religious effigies or Bollywood stars.” India of the 1980’ies has disappeared for good.

India. Madras. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum. 1987. Book "India" 1987. 1987.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

India14

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But not in his wonderful book. Thank you for this Mr. De Keyzer!

Share this...
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn