As time stretches on, Mumbai’s personality is in constant scrutiny, by the innumerable artists who seek it as a muse. It wasn’t much different for Pune-born chronicler, historian, and photographer, Foy Nissen (1931- 2018) of Danish descent. Nissen’s documentation of Mumbai gives viewers glimpses of a city that is familiar yet unrecognisable. The artist’s obsession with the changing landscape is apparent in Kamini Sawhney’s extensive curation of 90 black and white photographs of Mumbai from the 1960s until the 1980s. In frames showing the vast expanse of Apollo Bunder devoid of bobbing yachts, or the left-behind umbrella of a palmist out for lunch, Nissen taps into an occasional moment, that of a calmer city.
The collection of gelatin prints are a small slice of the photographer’s oeuvre, that comprises of 5,000-10,000 stills, and umpteen boxes of negatives. After Nissen’s demise last year, the archive was bequeathed to the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation. For the show titled, Foy Nissen’s Bombay, Sawhney was keen on displaying works that showed the photographer’s meticulous mapping of Mumbai, and his juxtaposition of the city’s people with its monuments. After sifting through copious amounts of photographs at Nissen’s home in Altamont Road, Sawhney encountered his compulsive chronicling. Along with a snapshot of a bungalow in Bandra, Sawhney found notes like — “demolished in 1974” scribbled at the back of the photograph.
In scenes from Teen Batti, Walkeshwar 1963; JJ school of art, 1984; and Magen David Synagouge, 1972; this merging of people and spaces stands out clearly. One of the first few photographs of the exhibition shows a hamal lying wearily in his basket with the words ‘pressure cooker’ plastered on the wall behind. The image is representative of the simmering pressure cooker that has come to be synonymous with the city.
Mapping a metropolis
“Foy wandered the streets of Fort creating a map detailing its combination of Neo-Gothic and Art Deco buildings, worked his way through the bowels of Crawford Market and Bhendi Bazaar recording every carved cornice and fountain, and then into Bhuleshwar and Girgaum capturing the quaint homes of Khotachiwadi,” says Sawhney. She also talks about Nissen’s deep friendship with British artist Howard Hodgkin’s whose painting, ‘Foy Nissen’s Bombay’, is the inspiration for the show.
Nissen was known to be the “Internet of his time,” and developed long-standing relationships with writers, artists, conservationists and scholars who were keen to learn more about the complex metropolis. Hodgkin and Nissen whizzed through the city on the latter’s Vespa, as they discovered the spiritual significance of Banganga, and capturing Bombaywallahs, hanging out their balconies through the day. “Foy knew that for so many, the world is outside, since the space inside is so little,” adds Sawhney. Nissen played a significant role in documenting the city long before the heritage conservation movement began in the 1990s (his notes actually helped form the first Heritage List).
The show includes Nissen’s Nikon FN1, Canon F1, Ilford negative film rolls, and negative photo wallets, to further fuel the imagination of what went behind the making of each print. With a few large originals, and some printed copies, the collection includes his travels through Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Nepal.
Nissen respected the sanctity of the moment and his protagonists, often letting go of photographing every single thing that caught his eye. As he put it “I have often derived the most satisfaction from a photograph that is not taken, precisely because doing so would have disrupted that solitary moment, something precious that I was privileged to observe.” Nissen’s words makes one introspect about the cascade of moments, and continuous evolution that we aren’t documenting, the in-between time between the pressing the shutter and letting it go. Adding frames into a folder titled ‘photographs not taken.’
Foy Nissen’s Bombay is ongoing at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, Fort until June 16.