December 2014 | Barbara Basbanes Richter

A Home and the World


The Home and the World: A View of Calcutta, photographs by Laura McPhee; Yale University Press, $50.00, 160 pages, 92 color illustrations. (Published November 2014) 

'Tis the season to be surrounded by family, so it seems fitting to share a particularly stunning photography book of Calcutta living spaces and their residents. Large-scale photographer (and Mass College of Art and Design professor) Laura McPhee set her lens on the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital city of West Bengal now known as Kolkata. For the better part of a decade McPhee has been traveling to the region, documenting the richly textured culture and history that seeps through the walls, courtyards, libraries and dining rooms of this megacity.  

Dancing girls etched in the windows of the library, Pal House, North Kolkata, 2001. Reproduced with permission from Yale University Press. 

Once the capital of the India, "The City of Palaces" is a also city of contrasts - from the small, wealthy heart of the city nicknamed "White Town," to the sprawling slums that give Calcutta another, less glamorous title, "The City of Dreadful Night." Novelist Amitav Ghosh's insightful forward examines the dichotomy that has historically identified the city.  Art historian Romita Ray further discusses the vibrant Calcutta neighborhoods as well as how McPhee's unique photographing technique explores the diverse neighborhoods of a city both steeped in history yet racing towards the future.  It's worth nothing that McPhee's camera is not equipped with modern bells and whistles; rather, a mahogany 1950s collapsible Deardorff, complete with hood and tripod, captured the images reproduced in this book.  McPhee's photographs are fascinating portraits of a former colonial city as well as the 4.5 million people who call this place home. 

A nanny with her two charges, Jodhpur Park, South Kolkata, 1998. Reproduced with permission from Yale University Press