September 1, 2021 11:40:18 am
On a foggy night, a man, with his back to us, looks on his right at river Ganga. On his left lies a deceased person, awaiting a holy dip before cremation. This image, titled Before the After, is among 26 photographs part of a forthcoming exhibition “Beyond the Imaginary Line” (at Berlin’s Galerie Z22, from September 11-November 13). The layers of meanings surface gradually. The person could be us, the viewer: a traveller, standing on a ghat’s railroad-like pavements, on his journey to the other side, ahead are apparitions in the fog. Stephanie Cornfield paints with her camera – in low lights, enigma of night-time. Characters appear to “vanish like ghosts, drifting away”, freeze-frame shots of women or sadhus (godmen) in motion. Light and shadow play on naga sadhus’ bodies. Raw, edgy, noirish. “Mysterious, magical, cinematic,” chips in the vivacious woman sporting a Goth/grunge look. Like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, for her, too, “the aesthetic of the obscure, the mystic is an unavoidable attraction.” These images are a departure from her usual – celebrity portraits, which won her awards (2011 Venice Film Festival).
Cornfield wielded her lens at Magh Mela in Prayagraj in January, at Varanasi’s cremation ghats and then for Maha Shivaratri in Haridwar, where despite precaution she caught COVID-19. Her ticket to entry: “dress like them” – in all orange, from the kurta to her mask. Being in the “amazing gathering” was a “striking experience, to see the ritual, feel the vibe, hear trance-y sounds”. It wasn’t easy, to be alien and alone, trying to avoid stampedes, being groped in the crowd.
Indian life and dreadlocked-and-deeply-furrowed godmen – the postcolonial “exotic Other” – continue to hold a peculiar appeal for the Western gaze. “It’s the reality, like arranged marriages,” Cornfield quips. It’s part of her reality now. She moved to Mumbai in the last decade. It’s “ironic” that “these religious men” would fascinate her, she says, “I’m spiritual, not religious. All these wars in the world, ethnic divides, terrible tragedies are because of religion.”
It’s come full circle that the German government provided the wherewithal for this project to a Parisienne whose grandfather once fled the Nazis. A Jewish Russian-Romanian married to a Greek Orthodox, who lived in Istanbul’s immigrant community, and arrived in the US in 1941. He changed his name and, eventually, became the American film studio 20th Century Fox president (for Europe and Middle East), but left the US later. His father was a pioneer of cinema in Eastern Europe. Stephanie’s uncle Bernard Cornfeld (who kept the original surname) was a famous financier/impresario and father Hubert Cornfield, a Hollywood director. “What saved my grandfather was that he spoke fluent German (among 13 languages),” says Cornfield.
Her father worked with big names – Sidney Poitier and singer Bobby Darin in Pressure Point (1962), and Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day (1969). Cornfield was only six years old when her parents divorced, and 10 when her father moved back to the US. Her father had three best friends – Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and James Dean, letters exchanged with Stanley Kubrick. And why he’d choose carpentry over letting others direct his scripts. Once her mum, at a dinner, on her dad’s set in Paris, saw Brando’s “pretty gross” tomfoolery – he’d put butter in the ears of one of his girlfriends, to make fun of her (the notorious no-consent “butter scene” in Last Tango in Paris was a few years away, and Brando being named in the #MeToo movement decades away). Cornfield grew up with these stories, but “never starstruck”.
The political science student, at American University, wanted to be a war reporter. She joined her then journalist boyfriend in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. “I saw what it was and thought I’m not strong enough psychologically to do this. I was more attracted to art,” she says. And started off photographing the underground scene in Paris, London, New York. As a rockstar photographer, she’d incredible encounters (Iggy Pop) and the autodidact “learnt what it was to be a portrait photographer” which helped her shoot film celebrities later. Her first celeb project was on French director Tony Gatlif’s set for the film Swing (2002). From the “charming” Nicholson “with an incredible voice, almost unreal”, David “a certain aloofness” Lynch, Kirk Douglas (who “offered to hook me up with his son Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, adding with a malicious smile that she was not photogenic…”) to Matt Damon (at this year’s Cannes for Los Angeles Times), the saga continues. It was at Cannes 2012, she bumped into Anurag Kashyap, who was there with his film Gangs of Wasseypur.
She moved to India. She, the opposite of the “very bright and posey” Bollywood, thought she might stand “a chance, because I’m different”. She wasn’t completely right but Kashyap gave her a chance. It was just before Bombay Velvet (2015). She googled to find the “super busy” Kashyap had had a back surgery. One day, she landed at his place while he was immersed in script-reading. Days later, Phantom Films assigned Cornfield a look test of Anushka Sharma, and was later flown down for publicity shots of Sharma and Ranbir Kapoor. Though she didn’t get to work on a Kashyap set, she hopes to someday. Later when hired for Queen (2013) poster, she missed the “total creative freedom” Kashyap had given her. Her regular portraits (Ashim Ahluwalia, Adil Hussain) aside, she missed out on some big gigs: a magazine cover with Kangana Ranaut, Sajid Nadiadwala’s directorial debut (Kick, 2014), and Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal (2016).
She went gallivanting, drawn by people’s “raw and vibrant energy” and felt “hypnotised by India’s beauty – photogenic, cinematic, amazing light and adventurous nature, anything can happen. Once you taste it, it’s difficult to live without.” Cornfield recalls how two years ago, in Los Angeles, when producer Jon Kilik (The Hunger Games and Spike Lee films) saw her Indian photographs, he told her, “Ah, so you want to be a director?” “I believe in karma, to be good with people, because what goes around comes around. This exhibition is about that,” she says.
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