Mumbai Taxi Ceiling Photos: Interview with Rachel Lopez

Rachel Lopez's Instagram feed.
Rachel Lopez’s Instagram feed, @thegreaterbombay


Rachel Lopez lives in Mumbai, India, where she’s been shooting a photo series: self-portraits where she is barely visible, most of the frame devoted to the vibrant, ornate patterns of the taxis she rides in. The series is on display now—her first ever photo exhibit—at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (through February 10th, 2019). I interviewed her recently via email:

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez

Jim Newberry: The head scarf you have on in the photos—is that a dupatta? I love the interaction between the scarf fabric and the ceiling patterns.

Rachel Lopez: Hahahah, I love that people ask me that. Mine is a proper scarf not a dupatta. I wear it because I prefer traveling with the windows rolled down and the scarf prevents my hair from flying all over my face and getting stuck on to my lipstick! Everyone thinks this is some great matching conspiracy theory—that I find coordinating designs. But I assure you, my personal taste is as loud as those ceilings, so it’s quite easy to find common design ground during the ride. Also after this series, my friends have been giving me scarves as presents!

JN: I understand that this series began serendipitously; had you done much art or photography before?

RL: Not at all. I took my first picture only because I noticed that that taxi I was in had a particularly hideous ceiling—strawberries in ghastly colours like blue and purple, against a chocolate brown background. It was a bit of a WTF moment. And it struck me that I could photograph more of them. Almost two years later, I have 400 images and haven’t even seen them all!

JN: Have you done any photo series before, or any plans for another one in the future?

RL: I debut at the Kala Ghoda festival Feb 2-10. It’s the largest cultural neighbourhood festival in Asia. I have 300 pictures right on the street and I’m headed to set it up today.

JN: Is every taxi ceiling pattern unique, or do you see duplicates?

RL: Oh there are duplicates aplenty. And i don’t choose which taxi I take (that would be unfair to the cabbies who make their living from my commute). I only notice the ceiling once I’m inside. So there are plenty of repeats. Florals are the most common. Some designs I’ve only seen once. And to my great dismay, I seem to catch some really pretty designs at night when it’s too dark to shoot!

JN: Do you have any idea how this convention started, of using vivid ceilings with such a multitude of variations? Is it one taxi company that does this, or many?

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez.

RL: We have only one public taxi service—the black-and-yellows are all licensed by the Mumbai Road Traffic Org. The colourful coverings have been there as long as anyone remembers. But the older car models are being phased out so there are a lot more new taxis on the road now. That means there are more factory-fresh cabs to cover up, and that’s why the designs have exploded. As far as I know, the mechanics get these coverings from China. I suspect they just repurpose shower curtain and tablecloth patterns for this.

JN: Your first exhibition of these photographs opens at the Kala Ghoda Festival. How did that come about?

RL: The KGAFis the largest street festival in Asia. I knew my first public showing of the works couldn’t be in some sterile gallery, with a handful of viewers over-intellectualising the work. While they are certainly worthy of close study, I wanted thousands of ordinary people to enjoy just looking at them. And that’s what the festival has done. There’s nothing like looking at your own city folk take in the images and watching the penny drop as they realise these are ALL ceiling shots. It’s the best thrill!

Rachel Lopez. Photo by Bhushan Koyande.
Photo by Bhushan Koyande.

Rachel Lopez is an editor and columnist with the Hindustan Times, and also produces the IVM podcast Wordy Woodpecker.

Interview with photographer Noah Doely

Photos by Noah Doely, from series "The Expanse of a Fact" (two 11"X14" tintypes).
Photos by Noah Doely, from series “The Expanse of a Fact” (two 11″X14″ tintypes).

Noah Doely is a San Diego based photographer who makes photographs using 19th century methods. He currently has a solo show (through June 30th) at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles. Here’s an interview I did with him. [br]

Jim Newberry: Tell me a bit about your photography background.

Noah Doely: I started to get seriously involved with photography during undergraduate in Iowa. I worked with a wide range of film cameras. Increasingly I became interested in using the camera as as a tool to document staged events or performances. For the work I’m currently doing I use the wet collodion process which I learned by taking a workshop from John Coffer in upstate New York.

JN: The photos on your web site–are those scans from the plates, or scans of prints from the plates? Do you do any Photoshopping of the images at any point, or all effects done on the set? Could you talk about how you come up with ideas for the photographs, and how you make them happen? The scenes are very elaborate. Do you work with an art director? Where do you get the props and wardrobe?

The photographs on the website are scans of the plates. I shoot them directly off the scene onto tin or glass and that is the final product. Occasionally I’ll make a negative to print albumen prints from, but usually not. The images can’t be manipulated digitally, so if I want to alter the image I have to manipulate the scene itself.

The projects begin in very different ways from one another but broadly speaking, the idea for each photograph begins with a vivid mental image that I use as a starting point to generate a story/gesture that I want to explore. After some minimal sketching, I establish a visual framework that will change and evolve as I produce it. Most of the time is spent building sculptures or props, which often requires research as I usually end up acquainting myself with a new set of tools and working methods with each project. For example: with my most recent project I learned how to use the lathe. I collect other props, build sets, paint backdrops, acquire costumes, position lights, and search for models. At some point in the production, I set up my camera and begin taking test shots to see how the space manifests itself on the glass plate. After this begins a back and forth between the photographing and the building, painting, positioning, and lighting until I get the scene where I want it. When I get everything in place, I make the final images.

Photos by Noah Doely, from series "A Natural History" (two 11"X14" ambrotypes).
Photos by Noah Doely, from series “A Natural History” (two 11″X14″ ambrotypes).

JN: The details in the props for “A Natural History” are really something, that must have taken a lot of work to find all those great little objects, and then to assemble them into a beautiful arrangement on the guy’s back–nice work. And that moon (“The Expanse of a Fact”) is amazing, could you briefly explain how you built that? Finally, in “Capturing Spirits,” did you use a long exposure to make the spirits translucent, or something else (and by the way I love the capturing device)?

“A Natural History” essentially became an extensive collecting project. I was constantly hunting for objects from the natural world, arranging and rearranging them. For the moon piece I built a wood/wire/paper mache sphere and coated one side of it with plaster and then spent several months carving it. In making “Capturing Spirits” I used double exposures, movable sculptures, and makeshift pulley systems.

Photos by Noah Doely. “Capturing Spirits” (three  8″ x 10″ Ambrotypes).

JN: Have you made films, or do you plan to? Looking at the photographs I can’t help but think it would be great to see these characters and sets in a film, although there’s something about the frozen image that that leaves more to the imagination.

I’ve been involved with film projects that other people have done but I haven’t made any films of my own. I would like to make a film at some point but I suspect it would be quite a bit different from the photographs. I have no idea how I would approach it. The frozen image works well for what I am doing now. There is something meditative about spending months building a single image or a single moment into existence.

JN: Do you have gallery representation? Have you considered selling prints from the plates, or the plates themselves?

I’m represented by Moberg Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa and I sell the plates themselves.

JN: What are you working on now–more of this series? Something else?

I just finished a series of photographs entitled “The Expanse of a Fact” that are on display at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angles through June 30th. I am back to the experimentation stage right now. I have a lot of projects on deck, only a fraction of which I will actually have the time to do because each one requires so much time. Some of them are extensions of this collodion work- some other things entirely, like a series of paintings.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? Documentary

Joe Winston and Laura Cohen. Photograph: Jim Newberry
Joe Winston and Laura Cohen. Photograph: Jim Newberry

[wpyt_profile1]QtD8S5SnViQ[/wpyt_profile1] exclusive! Filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen recently completed work on a documentary film called “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” a sequel of sorts to Thomas Frank’s bestselling book of the same name. I photographed the couple (they’re married) at my studio, and planned to interview both of them here as well. Due to logistics involving their one-year-old son Milo, I ended up interviewing Joe in person, and Laura via email.

Jim Newberry: Tell me a little about your backgrounds in filmmaking.

Laura Cohen: I have been working in film and television for over ten years. Recently, I wrapped up production on the TV series “American Greed” for CNBC and “9/11’s Deadly Dust” on A&E for Kurtis Productions. In 2005, I finished research for the PBS documentary “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman.”

Joe Winston: Sure, let’s see…I didn’t go to film school or anything like that but when I got out of college my first interesting project was a public access show called “This Week In Joe’s Basement” which lasted four years and sixty episodes on Chicago Public Access…it was a great forum to do all sorts of things…But the strongest material that came out of it was usually the documentary material…We did a show called Sledgehammer Diplomacy where we asked black people, what do you think of white people, and white people, what do you think of black people, and got answers that hold up 18 years later, they could have been shot yesterday. Which is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the world…But we got really interesting very truthful answers from total strangers. Every now and then there was gold to be mined that way. After I got done with the cable access series I wanted to do longer more substantial projects…I did a could of movies in the mid-90s on the Burning Man Festival…

JN: How did this project come about?

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