Old Images of Prostitutes in India Are Newly Wrenching
A 1978 photograph by Mary Ellen Mark of Nepalese prostitutes waiting for customers in what was then Bombay. Her book on the life and people there, "Falkland Road," has been reissued in an expanded edition by Steidl, and the photographic series is on view at the Marianne Boesky Gallery an d the Yancey Richardson Gallery in Chelsea. A photography review by Holland Cotter.
December 15th 2005
By Holland Cotter
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Looking Back, With Anguish, at a Bombay Street
From the book "Falkland Road," a photograph of a prostitute, Kamia, with a customer behind curtains, in Bombay, India, 1978.
"Picturesque" is what the West has called India for centuries. But when the American photographer Mary Ellen Mark started visiting in the 1960's, she didn't head for the Taj Mahal. She hung out on a jammed and noisy street in Bombay called Falkland Road, the city's busiest low‑rent, red‑light district.
Her goal was to photograph the prostitutes — men and women, children and adults — who lived and worked there. Along with their handlers and clients, they were figures absent from most travel guides and histories. In a book of photographs titled "Falkland Road," published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1981, Ms. Mark put them, indelibly, on the record.
Long out of print, the book has been reissued in and expanded edition by Steidl. And the complete photographic series, exhibited only once before in the United States, is on view in two Chelsea galleries, Marianne Boesky and Yancey Richardson. Last seen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the images are as startling and engrossing as ever. And with the devastating spread of AIDS in India since they were made, they are something more.
Ms. Mark had a tough time starting the project. The Falkland Road prostitutes greeted this American with a camera and unknown intentions with voluble distrust, pelting her with garbage and insults. But she kept coming back, and persistence was persuasive. Eventually, one of the madams befriended her, and everything followed from that.
For three months beginning in October 1978, Ms. Mark spent much of her time on Falkland Road. She photographed prostitutes at work: bathing, putting on makeup, displaying themselves in doorways or in cage-like street windows, or having sex with clients in upstairs brothels.
A photograph of Putla and Rekha, on Falkland Road, in Bombay
She also documented their private lives. Madams were hardnosed managers but also surrogate mothers to the teenagers who worked for them, and who, in certain cases, already had children of their own. Prostitutes often forged bonds of mutually protective affection among themselves. Some had steady boyfriends.
Transvestite prostitutes — many of them eunuchs, or hijras — seem particularly at ease in front of Ms. Mark's camera, with or without their male lovers. They look as if they're having fun, flirting and vamping. (For another, very different photographic take on Indian eunuchs, I highly recommend Dayanita Singh's book, "Myself Mona Ahmed," published by Scalo in 2001.)
In short, the forms of intimacy were manifold, and Ms. Mark caught many of them. She also caught ruin in progress, in images of young people made old in ways that no amount of makeup can hide. "Falkland Road" is about a life of necessity, not luxury, though it is a life with its own codes of honor, pride, status and glamour, and one with its own dangers.
When Ms. Mark was working, AIDS had not yet surfaced. Anyone coming to these photographs for the first time will surely be struck by their almost overwhelming vitality. Anyone who also saw them in 1981 will feel a remembered wonder sense of foreboding that is new.