The northern Indian city of Varanasi, perched on the banks of the Ganges river, is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, a site that has drawn pilgrims literally for millennia. Its famed for its burningghatsthe sloped-approaches to the waterfront where for centuries devotees have brought their deceased loved ones for cremation, then floating the ashes into the mighty, holy Ganges. Some Hindus still believe its auspicious to pass away on these steps. In Varanasis morning fogs and along its shrine-lined streets, visitors can feel an ancient, intangible power, a sense of place that is defined more by ritual and time than geography.
Varanasis burning grounds drew critically-acclaimed photographer Fazal Sheikh, whose latest project,Ether, on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20, is the product of his own nocturnal wanderings in the old town. New York-born Sheikhs two earlier India-based projectsMoksha(2005), of a community of widows, andLadli(2007), portraits of young women in orphanages, hospitals, brothelshad a decidedly engaged, political edge.Etheris less so. Other documentary pieces of mine are much clearer in the pointed nature of what I wanted to say, says Sheikh, who first came to prominence with his work from refugee camps in Kenya. This project is a bit more open and broad. Its an exploration of a mood.
Sheikhs vigil would begin at nightfall and end at dawn. Ether itself is that mysterious, unfathomable fifth element of the universethe others being water, air, fire and earthand is a property Sheikh attempts to articulate in his work. He makes elemental gestures throughout: The embers of a fire glow with an almost cosmic intensity. The stars wink and gleam in a night sky. Four dun-colored city strays curl into the trammeled earth.
Sheikh describes working in Varanasi as a sort of nurturing experience. The whole place was calming; there was a kind of quiet. InEther, there is a dreamy, contemplative quality to the pictures, but it rarely feels overly sentimental. Departing from Sheikhs earlier portraiture, many ofEthers images are of bodiesboth those of sleepers and the deadwho dont directly engage the camera. The inability of a photograph to fully penetrate its subject fascinates Sheikh: There are some things that a person holds for themselves, some things that will remain inaccessible. carrera de fotografia . But if there are visions of a world beyond our world, its traces are in the ether.
Fazal Sheikh is a photographer based in Zurich, New York City and Kenya. His latest project Ether, is on displayon exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20.