Robert D Stephens’ constant companion on his frequent air travels used to be his small pocket-sized camera. He would hastily dig it out of his bag during take-offs and landings, clicking the cityscape. “When I started, it wasn’t for anything specific, more like photographing a friend. You find a nice frame and you want to freeze it,” says Stephens.
As many as 24 such photos taken by American-born, Mumbai-based Stephens from a distance of 15,000 ft above the ground are now on display at the Artisans’ gallery in Kala Ghoda for his first solo show, Mumbai Articles: Contemporary Aerial Photographs of Mumbai, on till November 19.
An amateur photographer, Stephens has brilliantly captured the thin strip of the mega city arching gracefully into the Arabian Sea, the city buried in mist on a cloudy day with the Bandra-Worli Sea link peeping out and the first light of the day touching the Imperial Towers.
The images have been taken during Stephen’s six-year stay in Mumbai.
The American first came to India in 2006 on a backpacking trip with friends. He decided to get a job and stay back. A year later, his resolve was tested when the Mumbai monsoon left him drenched on his first day of work at an architectural firm. “I thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. But three days later, roaming the streets and taking in the city’s architecture and history, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere,” he says.
Strolling the city’s streets nurtured Stephens’ other hobby — collecting old books. “I was walking around Flora Fountain and stumbled upon a treasure of rare books on Bombay dating to the 1800s,” he says. Over the next few months, Stephens’ pored over Gazetteeer of Bombay City and Island (1909), The Life of John Wilson (1879), Bombay Handbook – American Women’s Association (1973). “Occasionally, I’d come across a paragraph and think I have a photo that will go perfectly with this,” says the 30-year-old architect.
Stephens has juxtaposed each photo with excerpts from these books. Below a photo of Malabar Hill, a paragraph talks about whale sightings in the 1900s along with sea snakes and turtles that the Colaba waters were famous for. A section of the show dedicated to the water bodies carries a text with record of a pani-walla, who in 19th century, would collect water from natural wells and lug it door-to-door during a dry spell in the city. “With help of these texts, the exhibition takes the visitors back and forth in Bombay’s timeline and points out some interesting ironies,” he says. For instance, a photo of a crowded Mohammed Ali road, carries the story of why it was constructed in the first place: For decongesting the city.
Interestingly, next to each photo is a count of the RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) count, recorded on the day the photo was taken. “I took a great picture one day but when I printed it, it was grainy. Someone told me there was a reason why Bombay was among the most polluted cities in the world. So I let the photo be.” So if you see a clearer photo, you know it was taken on a day we breathed easily.