October 2003

, this building,left, might lead a viewer to think of several possibilities before learning this is Oakland's Sears building on Telegraph Avenue, titled "Sears I" by photographer Katherine Westerhout. Felice Beato's "The Bank" was shopt in 1859-59 in India. The Delhi bank building was a casualty of the 1857 rebellion by Indian soldiers to battle for control for control of the city.
IN HIS CLASSIC history of photography, Beaumont Newhall devotes an entire chapter to the camera's role as "the faithful witness." Beginning in the 19th century, it recorded the pyramids of Egypt, the victims of the American Civil War and the vacant, medieval buildings about to be demolished for the grand boulevards of Paris.

Buildings and monuments were among the earliest subjects for photographers as the process was being perfected in the 1840s and 1850s. For one thing, they didn't move during long exposures, and they usually had great lighting -- the sun.

Whether or not they're elevated to the status of "architecture," buildings are more than simple, mute subjects for a photographer. They have stories of their own to tell, and sometimes those aren't the ones the photographer had in mind.

As Newhall observes, nothing can "evoke a moment of vanished time" as powerfully and completely as a good photograph. That melancholy resonance comes through even in family snapshots.

Some of the most memorable photographs evoke the past and the present, as well as suggest a possible future. These also get back to some of the most basic questions about the camera as "the faithful witness": What is this? Where are we? Is it real?

Haunting photographs

These questions came to mind recently while I was looking at photographs from two vastly different sources: Bay Area buildings by Oakland photographer Katherine Westerhout (on view last month at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in downtown Oakland), and more than 100 images of India in the 19th century. This collection, titled "Reverie and Reality," is at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco through Feb. 15.

Westerhout's images, which can still be seen on art dealers' Web sites, are astonishing and, at first, mystifying. Are they right side up or upside down? Indoors or outdoors? Ancient ruins or modern constructions? Her photographs are crystal-clear and precisely detailed, and she doesn't manipulate the images in any way, she says. Yet viewers can get lost in these large-scale photographs and create their own worlds.

One photograph looks like a temple floating in a lake, with the building's solid, massive pillars receding into the distance. But the double-hung windows along the side of this vast space suggest something else. And it's not a lake but an expansive puddle of water, reflecting pillars, roof and windows.

Where are we? The answer is in the photograph's title, "Sears I." The setting is the old Sears department store on Telegraph Avenue, on the fringe of downtown Oakland. Once you know that, it seems as if she has captured the end of an era in a city that was once a leading commercial and industrial center.

The more you know, the more you realize this isn't the end of the line for the building. The old Sears structure was refurbished for commercial and residential use -- that's where Oakland's mayor, Jerry Brown, lives. Sears took over the grand old Capwell's department store building on Broadway.

Creating 'timelessness'

When I telephoned Westerhout to ask about the vision of her photographs, she said, "I'm trying to create, really, a sense of timelessness." She doesn't see a sad, abandoned department store, but the grandeur of the structure, with all the trappings of a sales floor swept away. In the Sears building, the pillars reminded her of ancient structures in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Her other images are just as mysterious and complex. The empty Ford Motor Co. plant in Richmond, built in 1931, looks even more like a temple, with the sky reflected in water that covers the floor. The balcony of the old Fox theater in downtown Oakland suggests a rediscovered Egyptian temple or crumbling Italian opera house.

"It was like a dream space," she said of her first visit to the Fox, and that's the feeling that drifts out of the image to envelop the viewer. "It felt so out of time." Again, she didn't see an empty, forlorn theater: "It was playful and wondrous at the same time," she said. "I think the people who've been in it have left a sense of their spirit."

What a perfect introduction to the Legion of Honor's exhibit of more than 100 photographs taken in India in the 19th century, accompanied by a catalog with an opening quote from Carl Jung's "The Dreamlike World of India."

Jung's point was that the complete life of India was only a dream to Europeans, and this collection explores much of Indian life that fascinated the British at the time: spice markets and elephant fights, courtesans and maharajas, and temples, temples, temples.

Eye of the beholder

But what exactly are we seeing here? These scenes meant one thing to the Indian people, another to the colonial power that battled throughout the century to keep its grip on this vast stretch of the British Empire. (India didn't gain its independence until the 1940s.)

We see a crumbling building on a riverbank in Felice Beato's 1858-59 photograph "The Red Fort and Salimgarh, Delhi." Yet Indians familiar with their history see one of the key sites in the mutiny against British rule in the 19th century, the rebel headquarters where the king of Delhi was held prisoner until he was exiled to Burma.

We see, in another photograph by Beato, the ruins of a classical Greco-Roman building. A temple of some kind? What is it doing in India? Actually, it is a bank building in Delhi, and the British bank manager was an accomplished amateur photographer whose views of Delhi were the basis for engravings published in London in 1857. That same year, he died trying to protect his family when Indian soldiers battled for control of the city. The bank building was another casualty.

Many of these photos were taken to show landmarks of the 1857 mutiny, or other critical events in Anglo-Indian history. But today, as the exhibition notes point out, these photographs don't recall the successes of the British in India, but an architectural tradition that extends centuries into the past and has outlived any temporary British rule.

Just as in Westerhout's photographs of industrial and commercial "ruins" of the 20th century, these images of Indian landmarks in the 19th century were recorded at a specific time and place. But their past and future are up to us to discover or imagine.

"Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth-Century Photographs of India from the Ehrenfeld Collection" continues through Feb. 15 at the Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue at Clement Street, S.F. 415-863-3330, www.legionofhonor.org. Katherine Westerhout's photographs can be seen online at www.magnoliaeditions.com.

Robert Taylor covers fine arts for the Times. Reach him at 925-977-8428 or rtaylor@cctimes.com.

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