In ‘Shadows of Shangri La,’ medieval and modern in Nepal
“Shadows of Shangri La: Nepal in Photographs” consists of 29 images Kevin Bubriski took in that Himalayan country between 1976 and 2011. Most are large. A photograph of a shaman in a trance is a banner-size 8 feet by 11 feet. Others are in the vicinity of a more manageable 4 feet by 5 feet. Three-quarters are black and white. All are arresting.
Bubriski first went to Nepal in 1975, as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has been back many times since. Thus, he’s able to see this land both as cherishable and exotic, as we do here, and as cherishable and mundane, as they do over there. It’s a place as medieval as a man’s back serving as an ambulance, and as modern as traffic jams and cellphones and police with riot shields. Sometimes both medieval and modern show up within the same frame, as in Bubriski’s photograph of barbers plying their trade in the misty open air.
The show, which is sponsored by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the university’s Asia Studies Center, runs through Sept. 30 at the Center for Government and International Studies.
In the exhibition’s accompanying volume, “Nepal, 1975-2011,” Bubriski describes his 20-year-old self as “optimistic, energized, curious, eager” upon encountering “a wholly new and mysterious world.” A sense of discovery informs all these photographs, the recent ones no less than early ones. Yet a sense of discovery can get tricky, producing chagrin, superiority, or (worst of all) both. Bubriski’s photographs lack those qualities.
Perhaps the best indication of this is how his subjects tend to respond to Bubriski’s camera. Young and old, male and female, religious and secular: All calmly return its look. Neither photographer nor subject stares. Both gaze. That is no small thing, especially when West meets East.
The one problem with “gaze” is that it suggests a generalized acceptance, an undifferentiated taking in. Bubriski has, in fact, a fine eye for detail. In his photograph of a stupa in Kathmandu, the viewer is equally taken by the distinctiveness of the religious structure and the sight of monks and pilgrims in procession around it. Look closer and find that Bubriski includes the most startling thing of all: the sets of eyes painted on the stupa’s steeple-like top. In another photograph, a father and son who make bricks dominate the foreground. Their calm engagement with the camera is such that a viewer might not notice the long lines of their handiwork stretching behind them; they simply seem like part of the terrain. Bubriski noticed.
To notice is not to define. With becoming modesty, Bubriski writes, “The photographs document only one person’s experience, not a culture, historical period, ethnographic group, or complex social or economic condition.” Yet in their particularity — their refusal to generalize — Bubriski’s images convey a sense of Nepal that feels strong, full, and nuanced.
Bubriski’s photographs are casually hung. Neither framed nor matted, they’re pinned to the wall. There’s an argument to be made for doing this. It counters the scale of the images, making their size less forbidding. There’s also an argument to be made for how awkwardly the picture labels have been placed, close to the floor. The idea, perhaps, is to encourage identification with the porters seen in several of the photographs. The burden on crouching lower backs shows solidarity with that on straining shoulders? If that was the idea, it wasn’t a good one.
An additional selection of the photographer’s work is on display at Gallery Kayafas, in the South End. “Kevin Bubriski: Nepal 1975-2011” runs through July 26.