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Eye from the sky: Mumbai, through a Brit's lens

In a stunning spectacle of aerial photography, English photographer Robert D Stephens' frames of Mumbai from 15,000 feet above sea level will go on display at an exhibition, starting next week. the guide gives you a sneak peek of this unique cityscape.

Q. Why Mumbai? What was the driving force/reason to decide to shoot Mumbai from the air?
A. I first came to Mumbai in 2006, and then returned in 2007 and have been here since. Year after year, I observed the changing cityscape, which has become more and more visually similar to what one would see in New York City, Tokyo, or London. One could not help but mourn the ebbing loss of context, a specific and local feeling of the place.
But from the air, the geographic city context is redeemed. The reality of Mumbai as a port city is refreshed, surrounded by the highways of sea-based trading routes. Mumbai Articles is meant to celebrate this unique contextual reality.

Bandra-Worli Sea Link
Mumbai Mist. An aerial view of a misty Mumbai with the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in the foreground. This is Stephens' favourite frame from the current exhibition. Pic Courtesy/Richard D Stephens.

Q. Looking back, what were some of the biggest hurdles that you faced as you embarked upon this project?
A. Pollution. The air of Mumbai is exceptionally polluted. Nitrogen Oxide, Sulfur Dioxide, and RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) are some of the irritants that occupy our air space. As the content of these pollutants varied day by day, they had a direct impact on the way in which the city was perceived. This is also part of the reality of our context, and each image in the exhibition has a specification of the pollution levels during the day the image was taken.

Twins and Antilla
Twins and Antilla. Pic Courtesy/Robert D Stephens.

Q. What kind of background research was necessary to ensure you get the best shot? Have you captured the city at any earlier stage?
A. I think it is very important to know the subject of one's photography. My wife is a wedding photographer, and she always tries to meet clients, weeks before the wedding, just to get to know them. In 2007 and 2008, immediately after I moved to Mumbai, I would spend hours walking the streets of Mumbai on Sundays.

Bombay Island City
Bombay Island City

That was my period of getting to know the city, and now in retrospect, I realise that footwork was my research. Then, in 2009 when I first began shooting the aerial images; it was if I was photographing a friend from a new perspective.

Q.What about retakes? How was that engineered, if at all?
A. No retakes. One of my mentors, Wilbur Sargunaraj, regularly inspires me with his YouTube videos which are always “first take-only” videos. There is a certain vulnerability and human-ness in such a working style, which I find very refreshing.

Monsoon Sunrise
Monsoon Sunrise

Q. Why do black and white images dominate?
A. The images on exhibit are printed on a thick, off white 350 GSM, 100% cotton etching paper. When black pigments of ink interact with this paper, it creates a soft visual texture. The result is an image that appears to be archival in nature, but the content of the image reveals that it is a contemporary image.

Tardeo to Dadar
Tardeo to Dadar

Q. Your favourite frame from this project would be...
A. Mumbai Mist. The megacity of Mumbai does not naturally elicit such a description as “beautiful”. With each passing day, she grows more and more into a collective of impatiently constructed and culturally shallow towers. However, in a matter of hours, a visual redemption of the city takes place by the sweep of a cloud, a mystical mist. A gentle reminder that even in the midst of severe pollution and overcrowding, redemptive beauty, even if temporal, can take place.

Urban Kabir [an aerial view of Bandra-Worli Sea Link from the Bandra end]
Urban Kabir [an aerial view of Bandra-Worli Sea Link from the Bandra end]

Mumbai Articles: Contemporary Aerial Photographs of Mumbai
The idea emerged from window seats of flights over Mumbai, approximately 15,000 ft above sea level, and on the footpaths of Flora Fountain. Featuring 25 aerial photographs of Mumbai, in black and white, and colour too, Stephen’s works took shape between 2009 and 2014. Supplementing the frames will be an installation of antiquarian books about Mumbai, dating to the late 1800s. Books and quotes featured in the exhibition were sourced from footpath bookstalls of Flora Fountain.

Robert D Stephens, Photographer
Robert D Stephens, Photographer

On: November 13 to November 19, 11 am to 7 pm
At: Artisans', 52-56 Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Rhythm House Lane, Kala Ghoda.
Call: 9820145397

Did you know?
Robert D Stephens, who is a Principal at RMA Architects, Mumbai, co-produced a feature film with India's first YouTube star, Wilbur Sargunaraj, titled, Simple Superstar, in 2013.

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