ENCOUNTERS IN FRONT OF MARINA BEACH
*1952. Studium der Philosophie, Psychologie und Sozialwissenschaften an der Freien Universität Berlin, parallel Foto-Studium an der Werkstatt für Photographie von Michael Schmidt in Berlin-Kreuzberg. 1980-86 Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Psychologischen Institut der FU Berlin. 1988-2018 beim Goethe-Institut, u.a. als Institutsleiter in Bangalore und Lissabon sowie als Regionalleiter für Nordafrika/Nahost in Kairo und für Südasien in New Delhi.
Heiko Sievers veröffentlichte 2016 seinen Fotoband „1980. In Berlin."
ENCOUNTERS IN FRONT OF MARINA BEACH
BY HEIKO SIEVERS
Under the sultry heat of the South Indian monsoon sun, the sand of the beach melts into dazzling grainy patchworks of light fading into the void of the humid vapor rising from the surf of the sea . Seen through the viewfinder and converted to black & white, this ocean of rays becomes an opaque sheet of sheer white, impenetrable like the backdrop in a photographer' s studio. Fora European, this foil could serve as a screen for the projection of the cliches he carries along, of the sweet and sour images of " lndia" that the media keep diffusing and implanting into the public mind: poverty, disease, child labour, violence or spirituality, mysticism, traditional art.
Markus Bullik spent four weeks on the beach in Madras. With his bulky 4x5 Linhof Technika he could be sure to draw more attention than he would have liked to. What motivated him to go there and to subject himself and the people he met to the laborious pains of taking pictures in a studio-like fashion we don't know. One wonders, of course: What was he looking for, and who did he look at? The answers are his photographs. And they speak clearly.
Before the drapery of white sand and mist, we see the dark body of a man in shorts, shawl around his hair, in an absolute symmetrical posture, perfectly upright but relaxed, concentrated, earnest, selfassured . His physique reveals that he works with his hands - perhaps a fisherman, a labourer, a coolie, and that he is barefoot: his broad feet have a firm grip on the ground. The realism of this statuary portrait gets strangely subverted by two creatures in the background.
Symmetrically positioned behind the man and as strongly fixated on the camera as he is, two white horses stare at us. No doubt, this picture is completely staged: the man being accurately placed in the centre with equal margins top and bottom, left and right, the horses carefully arranged behind him, and the blank backdrop. And yet, it seems to carry only little of the photographer's views - may be his obsession with symmetry, his love for the large formal of his camera, but, to my mind, there is no trace of any stereotyped or "imported" image. The encounter between the man behind and before the camera seems to have been genuine, novel, mediated only by aesthetic conventions and by the technical dimensions of the camera.
Another picture against the same backdrop, this time on a slight elevation above the shore. A young boy hovers in the mist, crouched on top of some planks tied together like a cone that only after a second close look, and only if one has seen this in reality before, can be identified as a fishing boat. The same unwaivering, serious expression in the face of the boy like in that of the man, the same firm look at the photographer, and a similar unreal setting: absolute symmetry, conversion of the boat into the base of a sculpture, detaching the boy from his apparent place of work, rendering his presence timeless.
ldentical background, two boys hand in hand: hair, faces, bodies, shorts and legs sticky from the salt water and covered with sand. They must have been playing, tossing themselves around the beach, but their faces reveal neither mischief nor high spirits. They look rather strained and slightly sheepish as if caught, but nonetheless upright and face to face on an equal level with the viewer. Again the scene has an unreal, this time a farcical touch: The boys' faces look as if painted for a mascarade, and their appearance is clearly staged.
In some pictures, Bullik drives this theatrical allusion even further. Still on the beach, but with his back to the water, he arranges for a moment of true commedia dell' arte: A juggler or a dancer stands for a portrait with a mask amidst a scenery of dilapidated walls taking us far away in time and place with his performance. The fantasy, however, is being intruded upon by reality. On the right edge of the print one gets a glimpse of the shoving and jostling of spectators who the photographer could not control, and in the background, boldly and quite preposterously one of them has stepped into the limelight . In another photograph, he has set the stage for a fisherman wearing a dhoti and with a fringed towel wrung around his head, perfectly balanced in a classical position on standing and trailing leg, his right arm horizontally bent to a 90 degree angle delineating the focus of the picture in the golden section. The makeshift construction of wooden poles behind the man seems tobe void of any functionality, like a weird installation before the backcloth of humid mist in an absurd play. The man, however, is by no means acting. He is quietly and unobtrusively presenting himself. (A shadow looming from the right betrays a spectator and hints at the fact that the pictures are "cleansed" from all traces of the social event the photographer is creating on the beach.)
lt is paradoxical: Format, setting, composition, even the contents of the pictures are completely controlled by the artist, but the portrayals remain immaculate, the expressions genuine, the personalities untouched. There is an easy explanation to this seeming paradox. Bullik is not interested in chance encounters. His involvement with the people he likes to photograph obviously goes beyond setting up the camera and identifying a location. He invests time and enters into a dialogue with his "models" which is the essential precondition for both the intricate mise en scene of the pictures as well as for the realistic portrayal of the individual personalities. With this approach he is very much in the tradition of modern portrait photography : Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, Hugo Erfurth and, most of all, August Sander. But compared with their work, as diverse as that may be, there is also a striking difference: Bullik steers clear of becoming too closely involved with his subjects, on a social as weil as on a psychological level. There is no indication of any form of social commentary or sociological classification in his pictures nor any trace of moral judgement, ridicule or self-projection. In this sense, his work is clearly that of a stranger, of someone who is not part of the social context he has stepped into, who doesn't feel or get affected by this environment.
Visually, this fundamental dimension is reflected by the distance Bullik maintains between himself and the people in front of his camera. In cinematographic terms, he is exclusively using either "full" or "medium shots" : the "full shot" showing the entire person and a good part of the surroundings, the "medium shot", the favorite of the American Western, a person from knee or hip upwards where in a showdown the action takes place . While the first one provides space for characterizing the physical environment, working place or social interaction, the second one concentrates on the outward appearance of the individual. Bullik exploits these potentials with amazing skill, but completely avoids the intimacy, confidentiality and inwardness of the close up. lt is not coincidental, therefore, that his photographs are also reminiscent of Raghu Rai's series on "Unknown People" in which the photographer arranges portraits in the same distanced manner in front of bare walls as Bullik does in front of the beach.
lt may be due to this inevitable lock of familiarity with the Indian mind and social character that in some of Bullik' s prints symmetrical arrangements and formal aesthetics dominate over the individual expression, f.i. the three boys sitting in the bow of a fishing boat, or the gentleman in riding attire and topi atop the torso of a white horse. His familiarity with the individuals of Marina Beach, however, lends most of his pictures the quality of valid and durable self-portraits - proud, unpretentious and sometimes almost tender manifestations of unique personalities: a woman with a bucket draped in a sari with floral design; a man with glasses clinging to his briefcase; a boy huddled in a chequered lungi cross-legged on the planks of a boat.
With this, Bullik' s work is the protocol of a successful encounter and a creative exchange between human beings of worlds apart.