“For me, there is no such thing as the definitive photograph. The very act of fixing an image in a split-shutter-second suggests the dialogue that may ensue… Does the subsequent viewer see it this way? Or have I missed something vital and telling.”
Foy Nissen, A Solitary Moment: The Other India | Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1982
Curated by Kamini Sawhney, the show represents over fifty years of work by a lensmen who combined a keen sensibility with a quiet discipline. Foy Nissen photographed people, festivals, places and monuments and his images of the city are invaluable to the preservation of Mumbai’s heritage.
It was the 1990s that saw Mumbai’s heritage movement find its voice.
But Nissen was way ahead of it, photographing and documenting his beloved city bit by bit starting way back in the 60’s. He wandered the streets of Fort detailing its combination of Neo-Gothic and Art Deco buildings. He 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....all the way up to Bandra with its winding streets and colonial bungalows. His meticulous work provided the base for Mumbai’s first heritage list which then helped develop legislation to preserve the city’s heritage precincts.
The “internet of his times” Foy Nissen had writers, artists, conservationists and scholars all gravitate to his home Olympus, in Altamount Road to learn more about the city. They would often be swept off to all his favouriate haunts on his Vespa scooter. Most writers on the city acknowledge a debt of gratitude to this chronicler of the what was once christened the urbs prima in India, for being so generous with his scholarship. His close friendship with artists seems to have been inspirational with the celebrated British artist Howard Hodgkin creating Foy Nissen’s Bombay, a work that has provided the title of this exhibition.
The exhibition celebrates not only a great historian of this city but also one of its most talented photographers. It was not just Mumbai that Nissen recorded in loving detail. He travelled to many parts of the country and beyond, from Pune, and Goa to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Nepal. His lens uncovered not just the beauty of monuments but of people as well, even as each was often juxtaposed with the other. The photographs capture the delicacy of a moment, whether it is a hamal lying wearily in his basket, a koli woman looking forward to her first sip of tea or a young girl intently examining her doll. His camera seems to penetrate the soul of his subject seeking that defining emotion– sometimes pensive or lonely at other times tender or playful and in some instances just plain bored.
This exhibition also celebrates the generous gift by the estate of Foy Nissen, of the complete range of his photographic work to the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation. The collection of gelatin prints, slides and negatives that reflect over fifty years of Nissen’s scholarship and documentation are held in safekeeping for the benefit of this great city and its people.