“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. Follow Barbara on Instagram and Twitter.
Manjari Sharma is an internationally published, widely exhibited fine art photographer with artwork rooted in the study of personal mythology, representation and experience.
Photograph by Randhy Rodriguez
Sharma was born and raised in Mumbai, India, where she was recognized for her photographs through multiple awards and went on to work for a national news daily, the Times of India. Encouraged by her accolades, Sharma went on to pursue a fine art degree in the United States. Sharma’s images have been featured online and in print in publications such as the New York Times, Huffington Post, Life, CNN, CNBC, AOL and NPR. With solo shows in New York, Los Angeles and New Mexico, Sharma’s work has been juried in group shows in Spain and Australia and has been written about in photographic journals in Europe, China, South Korea and Japan.
In 2011 Sharma was invited to Spain as one of 10 international photographers selected to travel and be featured by Nudage, an art festival curated by Jose Luis Carballo in Santander. All through 2011 Sharma’s work was a part of a body of work titled “100 portraits” that was turned into a digital projection that traveled throughout Washington, D.C., including the walls of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and ended in a print exhibit in the Australian Center for Photography.
Sharma’s work is in numerous private collections with a recent acquisition by curator Anne Wilkes Tucker at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and she has been invited to speak at institutions such as the Rubin Museum of Art, School of Visual Arts, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Asia Society.
Sharma is represented by ClampArt from New York and Richard Levy Gallery from New Mexico.
Q: What led you to a career in photography?
A: In my case I would say it was photography that led me to a career. I feel like we all have a way of processing the world around us. Some do it through chemistry and others through cooking. In my case, I’ve always loved listening to stories, but even more so I love finding out about people’s motivations. Photography became a license to stare. The nuts-and-bolts answer to your question, though, is that I found myself interested in visual communication in college in Mumbai. Col. Prakash was my first photography instructor. He and Bharat Mirchandani told me that I had a vision that I should not overlook. Once talent is spotted in anybody, I think drive does the rest. I was definitely driven to stay in the field of image making, not only because photography allowed me to look, but also because I started to realize that if you look hard enough, it starts to look back.
Jacqueline, The Shower Series
Q: What was the concept behind your “Shower” series, and what inspired you to create it?
A: I had a shower with a window that threw some beautiful light across my marble walls. I wanted to try a portrait in that light, so the series started in a very simple, organic way. I asked my first subject if they had showered that day, and then the water came on resulting in some unexpectedly beautiful drama. Being new to New York City, however, at a more subconscious level I was missing having more meaningful conversations. It’s hard in New York City sometimes to break through the barrier of pleasantries and start to find out what makes or breaks a person standing before you. I was fortunate that about four people into the shooting I realized that the shower was giving way to so much more than a mere photograph. The conversations in that intimate space assumed a different quality. They were more raw, more real, and we walked in as awkward acquaintances but walked out as friends. The conversations got addictive, and the visual material was appealing enough that the “Shower” series lasted for four solid years.
Q: What kind of environment did you grow up in? Did your background make the “Shower” series easier or harder to photograph?
A: I grew up in a tame environment in Mumbai, India. My family, while really open and encouraging of my choices, were still rooted in a traditional style of upbringing. In its basic premise, the “Shower” series as a concept comes across a bit scandalizing, but the images are more traditional portraits. In that sense, the “Shower” series was challenging when it began since I was not perfectly comfortable with the idea of nudity. I ended up photographing women and gay men for a while until the series really began to gather its own steam. The part that came naturally to me was the conversation, and so what ensued after we walked into the shower was effortless. It was amazing to me how something that began so awkwardly would end in such immense ease and with such lyrical unwinding.
Q: How did you find and motivate your subjects, who are mostly strangers, I believe, to be photographed naked in your shower?
A: I introduced the project, and I made it clear that clothes were optional. For a lot of people, naked is a straight no, so to show them that nudity was not central to the project helped their participation. Most of the time people did end up naked anyway, but telling them they didn’t have to be disarmed the conversation, allowing them to remain interested. There were also the nudists, who didn’t really care and were enthralled by the idea at once. Once the project became substantial, I did photograph my husband, some close friends and myself as well. It was as if I was starting on outer rims of subject matter and moving inward. But you would be surprised how many people were agreeable immediately and also once the project started to get some attention, I received several emails from people asking to be photographed in order to be a part of the series. I still find that immensely flattering.
Q: You created a very intimate setting between you and your subjects. I’m curious to know what that creative connection was like and what kinds of things you talked about during the photo session.
A: The connection was what drove the series. The part that I enjoyed was that, for just a few moments, I could live through my subjects’ lives. The session always became about someone else’s conundrum, their failures, their relationships or their rise or fall. For me, it was a sense of relief to be reminded that all human beings break, hurt and heal. I also loved forgetting my world and immersing into someone else’s. The conversations ranged from siblings to spouses, parents to God. Conflict, sex, upbringing and identity were some of the topics that came undone in that shower.
Maa Saraswati, The Darshan Series
Q: “Darshan” is a very different set of images from your “Shower” essay, because you re-created classical images of Hindu gods and goddesses. What kinds of issues are you exploring in this essay and why?
A: They are visually different, but they are definitely related. In both cases, the image becomes a reason to speculate a connection beyond. The images from the “Shower” series became a reason to discuss the idea of intimacy, relationships, and the photograph brings you to the experience of being overwhelmed by that flow of water. The themes that get discussed with the shower work are the idea of a confessional, the idea of an immersion, baptism or washing away of your sins in the Ganges. “Darshan,” the work on Indian gods, is a series that invites the viewer to consider the photograph as a means of spiritual engagement. Historically, the way you make a connection with deities in Hindu temples is by gazing upon a sculpture. I wanted the photograph to represent what I had only seen in other mediums. The word “darshan” is a Sanskrit word that means vision, but it really is an experience complete with incense, lamps and invocation. Its purpose is to invoke an immediate connection between the deity and its viewer. With “Darshan,” the goal was to turn multidimensional memories of sculptures and ornamental paintings of Hindu gods into two-dimensional photographs, and the result became an elaborately staged set that was held together by the power of another human being staring back at you.
Q: How did you physically build the setups? Was it a complicated process?
A: The process did become quite elaborate, but I suppose re-creating imagined worlds can become quite a construction project. Research on each Hindu god or goddess led to the assemblage of a diorama. The team grew to approximately 35 Indian craftsmen who were directed to create props, sets, prosthetics, makeup, costumes and jewelry to exacting specifications. When these images are presented, they are life-size at the scale of 6 feet, with frames that are made of handmade hammered brass from south India. The installation is presented with the sound of chants and the smell of incense conjuring up the experience of a Hindu temple.
Q: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you most?
A: There are so many to mention, but here are a few: Raja Ravi Varma, Bill Viola, Edward Steichen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Marina Abramovic, Satyajit Ray, Sally Mann, Robert Hayden and Jagjit Singh.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m quite excited that I will be working with the 20×24 Polaroid camera in the summer, and I’ve been sketching out some ideas on shooting with it. I also have a larger project about parenthood and reflection that I have been shooting over the last few years that is far from finished but is slowly growing.
Q: Any upcoming exhibitions?
A: I’m currently showing the “Darshan” series at Richard Levy gallery in Albuquerque, N.M., and all nine 6-foot installations will be visiting the Asia Society museum in Houston, from May 2 through Sept. 14. The show will be titled “Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine.” I will be showing work alongside Raja Ravi Varma, whom I studied closely to make these works, so it’s an immense honor.
Links for Manjari Sharma: Website | Instagram | Twitter
Current show: “Darshan,” Richard Levy Gallery, Albuquerque, through April 18.
Upcoming show: “Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine,” May 2–Sept. 14, organized by Asia Society Texas Center.
Manjari will be speaking about her work at SMFA Boston on April 1.
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