Twenty years ago, Jerri Zbiral and I bought a shoebox at the estate sale of a photographica collector. There were no markings on the box and his widow had no information at all about what it contained. Inside the box were 130 brown envelopes, each containing a 4×5” negative with a vintage contact print stapled to the outside. The images were all from India. The negatives had ink notations indicating they were taken in 1945 by the “10th P.T.U.” There was no information about what that was. All we knew was that the images—temples, portraits, village life, ethnographic studies and occasional military scenes—were remarkable. It seemed likely that the photographs were made by a skilled U. S. Army photographer, but who it was or why the pictures were made remained a mystery.
That was how I started my ‘Following the Box’ blog two years ago. Here is a link to those posts, outlining a month-long foray into India in January 2011, trying to answer some questions, and, of course, mostly succeedng in raising new ones. http://tinyurl.com/lslhokt.
For the past two years, we have been tracking down information and answering at least some of the questions. We found that the photos were made by an unknown U.S. soldier apparently assigned to the 10th Photographic Technical Unit of the XX Bomber Command, which operated in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II. The unit operated from 1942-1945 and was engaged in reconnaissance work in anticipation of a land invasion of Japan. With the end of the war in Europe, and the abandonment of that approach, the unit was dissolved. May 1945 was a transitional period, while the men were waiting to be reassigned to Okinawa. It seems likely that this collection of images was made during this time as a personal project by one or more of the unit’s photographers. But we don’t know who, and we don’t know why.
Fortunately, the Fulbright Commission was also intrigued by the mystery and awarded us a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research grant to return to India. We’ll do our own creative work and also collaborate with Indian artists—a cross-cultural approach to historical photos. What Indians see in the 1945 photos and what we see may not be the same. It’s not nostalgia and it’s not a “re-photograhic” project (where you set up your camera in the same place and see how different it all is.) It’s sharing our love of this imagery, feeding off the energy the photographer put into his work 68 years ago and hoping we all can make something meaningful.
This blog ‘Following the Box – Part II’ will chronicle our adventures during the 4 months that we will be in India. Four months! We arrived 2 days ago. Today, we got phones and rented an apartment in the Lake Market district in the heart of Kolkata.
Eventually, we will have on-line and physical exhibits both in India and America. We’re also hoping to do a book. For right now, it’s the beginning of an adventure.
Here is a link to a slideshow of the 10t P.T.U. collection, as well as photos from the 2011 trip: http://tinyurl.com/mqxbove. And here are some sample images, including a photo sculpture Jerri and I did that was featured at the Schneider Gallery in Chicago in 2011.