Malde’s penchant for extreme close-ups has produced some truly unorthodox portraits. Rarely will his prints show an entire face. We may see an eye and a forehead, or perhaps half a face. Backgrounds are almost always fuzzy or obscured.
“It’s not important in my photography for the viewer to see all of someone’s face, or to know all the stories behind the people in the photographs,” says Malde, a professor of fine arts at the University of the South at Sewanee. “What I want is for the viewer to feel the emotional connection I have with my subjects.”
You’ll feel one other thing when you walk into Looking at God, a series of 20 Malde portraits on display at Cheekwood’s Temporary Contemporary gallery through Sept. 28.
“I think people are going to feel some discomfort,” Malde says. “You can’t help but feel a little uneasy with all those eyes staring back at you.”
Fortunately, the first pair of eyes you’re likely to see when you walk into the gallery’s small 28-by-14-foot exhibition space belong to Jacquelun.
We see only her eyes, nose and mouth in the tightly cropped photo. But we can instantly tell two things about her: she’s an older woman; and she looks, well, kindly.
“I met Jacquelun during a recent trip to Haiti,” Malde says. “She was working as a volunteer for this organization called Partners in Health, and at the time I met her she was in the process of permanently relocating from her home in Kentucky to Haiti.
“Her heart was really into helping all those people, and it’s no accident that her portrait ended up being in the center of the exhibit. She’s the kind of person we can all aspire to be. And in that respect she clarified my thinking about my project.”
Malde’s project suggests that there’s a similarity between how people perceive photographs and how they understand God. At first blush, a photograph may appear to be an accurate recording of reality.
“But what if the photograph is actually the shadow of a reality that is beyond human awareness?” Malde asks in the exhibit’s artist statement.
To suggest the limitations of human understanding, Malde severely crops his portraits, providing at best an incomplete glimpse of his subjects. Backgrounds are obscured or blocked, so we always see people in an ambiguous context.
“On a technical level, Pradip has done a wonderful job of showing us the perceptual limitations of photography,” says Adam McCoy, assistant curator of contemporary art at Cheekwood. “On an existential level, he’s also showing us that it’s impossible to ever see the whole person.”
Malde, 49, has long had an interest in existential questions. Born the son of Indian parents living in Tanzania, Malde grew up in a deeply spiritual household.
“My father belonged to a religion called Jainism, which is not at all dogmatic,” Malde says. “He believed it was never right to proselytize and encouraged me and my brothers to explore many different religions. Because of that experience, we all grew up to be both amazingly devout and amazingly inclusive.”
A portrait of Malde’s father, Moti, is included in Looking at God, and it perhaps comes as no surprise that the clan’s paterfamilias looks both wise and content with life. Mayur, one of Malde’s brothers, is also in the exhibit, looking thoughtful, while wife Rachel (seen in a photo called “Rachel III”) seems worried. (Hmmm?)
Arguably the most expressive face in this show belongs to an old man named Cidan. His tired, weathered visage suggests a long and difficult life. “I met Cidan in Haiti, where he was working as a security guard at Partners in Health,” Malde says. “I only met him for a few minutes so I don’t really know anything about him.”
And yet Malde makes an emotional connection with the ancient Haitian that’s palpable. How did he do it? The answer may rest with another portrait in the exhibit, one called “Fred.”
“That’s the photographer Fred Clarke,” Malde says. “Fred taught me the importance of having some kind of physical contact with the person you’re photographing. So at some point during a session, I might do something like put my hand on a person’s shoulder. You can’t help having an emotional connection with someone when you do that.”
Cheekwood currently has two other worthy summer exhibits.Music City Picks: Choices From Cheekwood’s Collection features 46 paintings, sculptures and photographs from the gallery’s extensive permanent holdings. Prominent Nashvillians served as guest curators for this show. All found works that matched their personalities and interests. What’s journalist, author and Tennessee historian John Seigenthaler’s favorite work of art at Cheekwood? Why, it’s a portrait of Andrew Jackson, of course, painted around 1825 by an unknown artist. And what’s Hee Haw comedian George Lindsey’s pick? Edgar Bissell’s “The Humorist—Whiskey and Soda (1885),” what else? Also on display at Cheekwood is the seventh annual Once Upon a Garden. This outdoor exhibit features 10 crafty creations based on familiar fairy tales, such as Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and Hansel and Gretel. The hands-on displays allow children to try out the beds from Goldilocks while getting a close look at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. And the outdoor location provides an extra bonus for parents. “The exhibit is spread out across the grounds,” says Cheekwood’s Claire Brick Corby, “so it’s guaranteed to tire the kids out.”
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…
I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…