Photographer Manjari Sharma's portraiture addresses "issues of identity, multiculturalism, and personal mythology." The artist who was born and raised in Mumbai, India, is featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists. Along with 11 other artists, Sharma was tasked with inviting another artist to engage in a visual dialogue. Sharma chose Irina Rozovsky, who makes photographs that transform "external landscapes into interior states." Rozovsky was born in Moscow and raised in the US. The different personal backgrounds and artistic approaches of Sharma and Rozovsky help inform their surprising and beautiful image-based conversation. Because both artists were pregnant during the execution of this project, there's a special through-line in the images that relates to power of giving birth to new life.
You can see Sharma and Rozovsky's intriguing pairings at the Met until Sunday, December 17. To find out more about the genesis of their collaboration and the overall process, we invited the artists to have another conversation—this time, with words. Here's what they had to say.
Irina Rozovsky: It’s funny to look back at the very start of our conversation and detect the seedling themes that would blossom later on. What were your thoughts at our very start—when you posted your first picture in response to mine? Did you have any idea where we were going? (Side note: The first photo I posted was taken in my parent’s bedroom. There was this amazing circular light beam with my own face strangely shadowed and reflected in the center... like an embryo inside an egg.)
Manjari Sharma: Funny, I didn't know it was in your parents house. I looked at that picture and thought immediately that it was some kind of a projection, I thought at the time it was in your living room and it made me think of an egg immediately. I remember being drawn to the second layer of light above the egg, it looked like an orbit and made me think of the fluid that would live in between those layers. I knew I wanted to respond to that idea of fluid “in between,” and that is how my image happened. I also enjoyed that in the image I responded with there were all these light reflections that got concentrated on my finger, creating another circular orb. I didn’t have a predefined idea of where we were headed at all, except we did discuss about our parallel pregnancies. It was a pretty magical overlap that we were both making life inside our bodies at the same time. I knew we would be addressing it in our conversation though I didn’t know what visual shape it would take.
Tell me more about image 11, where you shot someone despondently staring out the window at a sunset.
Rozovsky: That’s one of my students during a break, watching as the day fades over Boston (at like 3 PM). I realize now how many windows appear in our images. They seem to stand in for the camera lens and convey a certain separation from the world and the feeling of an interior retreat.
The image that does that the most for me is yours of a nude female torso by a window, dressed in patterned shadows. That’s a crazy picture. Tell me about it.
Sharma: Yes. That is a self-portrait. It is such a fascinating thing what happens to our bodies during pregnancy. I remember on that day thinking specifically about how the middle section of a woman’s body entirely becomes of service to another. The breasts, the belly, the uterus—they all become primed to serve the life that is about to be delivered through you. We decorate the body and put it on such a pedestal. Image in our society counts for so much! The true purpose of your chest, though, hits home so hard when you're pregnant. I had nursing on my mind, and I had the fleeting shape of my body on my mind. This picture for me embodied all that.
There was one point in our conversation that you sent a picture of your mother in the back seat of a car. This was right after I sent you a dominantly red photograph, which was a portrait of my daughter. Tell me more about why you chose to go with that?
Rozovsky: I can see why you’d be scratching your head on that one. I saw in your photo a cinematic atmosphere, like a the ghost story kids share at sleepovers, so despite the bloodred tone, it seemed innocent and playful. In my picture, a woman is veiled by this dark green shadow of the car, and it’s more about the little white dog in the back seat getting the spotlight—so in both of our photos there’s a sympathetic character within a dark scene.
What was your feeling about photographing your family for this, your daughter in particular? Did it seem autobiographical? Is it important that the viewer deduce that the girl in the photographs is your daughter? For some reason, I tend to assume that the people in my photographs are not identifiable.
Sharma: This commission was not a short one. We had a five-month-long project that literally circled the idea of birth, with a loose plan to visually depict the chaos and the beauty of bearing new life. The best part was that the only tool to be used was the ever present camera phone. I was very comfortable photographing my family actually, especially because the body of work that came out of it was 61 images that are a time stamped portrait of my family. Where my clan awaits and prepares for the arrival of their newest crew member. We also see what other formative, critical and banal events unfold in the world around us. I think I want the viewer to find a reflection of their own relationships to humanity in there. And while it's not important that they recognize who the cast of characters pictured are, it is I'm hoping evident how intimate these relationships are, like layers of an onion or like a spool coming undone picture by picture.
Rozovsky: In the middle of our string of pictures, there are a few from the Women’s March and from the election. Two of these became the pictures they used for the face of the show. Let’s talk about how our dialogue turned toward the political there and how you just can’t hold a tough pussy down…
Sharma: Ha, that picture is so meta. I remember you telling me that you wanted me to be careful at the Women's March, to stay out of harm’s way as best as possible. I saw so many women there, little girls, young and old women and those on wheelchairs. The atmosphere in DC was electric. A ton of tough pussies all united standing against bigotry and hate. I felt that sign was just so fitting, especially with the pussy hats and the poster that read “grab this.” It was a very spur of the moment street capture that I sent you, and then your response was hilarious! You actually sent me a pussy trapped between a pair of legs. I remember Mia saying that she saw that photo and felt the shifting context and spontaneity was exactly what the use of a camera phone allows. And that's how we ended up getting chosen as the poster kids for the show.
Rozovsky: A little backstory... that photo I sent back was of a kitten I found trapped inside the engine of my rental car during a road trip in Eastern Europe. The legs belong to a girl who helped me pull it out. I was struggling on the side of a highway, and she was driving by, pulled over, kicked off those high heels, and together we “rescued” the cat and dropped it off at this outdoor cafe. As I was leaving, I saw the kitten approach another car, seemingly eyeing a way to get into its engine. But in terms of the conversation, I liked the literal pussy cat, the sexy but dangerous high heels, and the triangular shape the legs make. It’s kind of a provocative but innocent photo that to me had in it the power struggle that the sign in your photo alluded to, and the social situation at the time in general.
Sharma: Let's talk about a string of four shots I really enjoy, starting at your shot of the eye in the mirror with red drop and ending at the squiggly leg in the water. Could you tell me what your thoughts were when sent me your shots? Also I would love to hear what you thought of the responses.
Rozovsky: By this point, we had moved into a visceral part of the conversation where everything circled back to the idea and sensation of giving birth and being born. I took that hand mirror photograph very soon after coming home from the hospital, feeling profoundly and forever changed, and in physical agony, leaving blood drops behind me when I walked. In the mirror I’m seeing double, like having been split or duplicated, the blood drop like a tear. Then you took the red, yellow, and green from my photo and echoed it in the floral patern of the curtain, your belly vaguely seen but still obscured, waiting in the wings, showing and hiding. Then my picture of the half eaten fruits on the hotel bed, something tropical and sweet but sanitized and hospital feeling. The squiggly legs that followed flow nicely. Clearly they are a little child but in my mind you were referencing sperm, amnio fluids, the fetus. I think in this entire string there is something unsaid, unshown, secretive, and covert.
How did you feel about photographing yourself in this project? I don’t think I’ve seen any other self-portrait work before. Can you talk in particular about the last self-portrait in the conversation in particular, where you’re holding your newborn daughter?
Sharma: I felt terrified, like I was coming out of the closet. This project, from the onset, was us opening ourselves up to a certain amount of vulnerability and the camera phone is such a perfect tool to address self portraiture with. One of things that I find particularly fascinating is what the body does during pregnancy, how it becomes a vessel, how the shapes become primordial and so much is flung into question…. identity, sexuality and the future of this life you are harboring.
With regards to the last picture, it’s a captionless moment that obviously stirs up some intense and unparalleled emotion for me. A still image of a very turbulent moment. Instead of photographing myself, in this photo, I am the subject of the image and that is quite different than being in control of the camera. I thought it was a fitting to end to our conversation because after the birth, a whole new chapter would begin. The commission for the Met and the birth of this baby were like conjoined twins, connected by destiny. The crescendo that builds up as you physically grow reaches its peak at the moment when that child exits your body and is handed into your arms. Nora is probably no more than six seconds old in that photograph, and I'm lucky to get to hold her and have an image that can bring me back there in a glance.
When I look back the our final set of images, I really feel like I relive the adventure we were having. Your little one was out and breathing, and I was going through the holding pattern of last few moments until labor. Can you tell me about your favorite exchange in this conversation?
Rozovsky: I think we really tapped into a certain momentum towardsthe last third of the conversation, as the anticipation of labor began to escalate. Pictures started adding up so fluidly and the visual thought process was sparking a lot of excitement for me. We were both stuck at home, desperate for the pregnancy to be over and to bring these babes into the world and the photos were a way to communicate and deal with an excruciating wait to meet the new humans on the inside.
What about you? What’s your favorite string of pictures?
Sharma: It's hard to pick a string out, though I can say there are particular sets of diptychs that I most enjoy. Ones where I feel we were somehow, while living miles apart, thinking on the same plane and truly feeling each other's pulse as collaborators below: