Monday, February 5, 2018

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth, Toronto, May, 1993

I PHOTOGRAPHED THE WRITER VIKRAM SETH FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE just after the publication of A Suitable Boy, the book that made his reputation. I didn't know much about him except that he was Indian but lived in the the UK, but wasn't what I would later know as an "Anglo-Indian." I also knew - from a glance - that his book wasn't the sort of thing you undertook reading lightly; the library paperback edition I have on my desk is almost 1500 pages long. It's a good thing that photographers weren't expected to do much research before a shoot.

Reading him today at leisure, I'm impressed by how very old-fashioned he is, as a writer. A Suitable Boy is almost Victorian in its epic scope and cast of characters, its careful concern with social status and that very particular place where real life particularities harden into historical detail. There's just as much concern with detail and specifics in An Equal Music, his later novel - blessedly much shorter - about a doomed affair between two classical musicians in modern London. The long gaps between his books are apparently due to the careful research he does, even when he's dealing with a subject (caste in India, classical music and musicians) he knows well.

Vikram Seth, Toronto, May, 1993

I don't need to guess where I took these photos - the upholstery on the chair and the view out the window tell me it's the old Four Seasons in Yorkville. The Voice was an important client for me - hardly regular, but my most reliable one in the American market, so I did as much as I could in the brief window I had for the shoot. Adjusting the ratio of light between the window outside and my Metz flash on its stand, I filled the background behind Seth with a high key white and a swirling backdrop of clouds (slightly touched up in Photoshop to eliminate the reflection from the Metz in the window.)

I don't know if I printed and submitted the shot below to the Voice, but it's the one that - with hindsight - sums up the writer and his work best of all. He seems deep in thought, with the city and its people spread out behind him. I can't imagine Vikram Seth making Toronto the setting for one of his books - I'm sure he'd consider it insufficiently complicated, especially compared to any European capital or town on the Ganges - but it'll stand in for any of those jostling social milieus, pressing in on his characters, conditioning their expectations, containing the path of their lives as palpably as a riverbank directs a river.

Vikram Seth, Toronto, May, 1993

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