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April 16 - May 21, 2005 at White Room Gallery, West Hollywood

by Judith Christensen

The “Bejalai” is a journey. Not just a visit, the “Bejalai” also involves searching. The journey James Whitlow Delano refers to in the exhibition’s title is his own. From an apprenticeship in New York, he moved west incrementally. After a stint in fashion photography in Los Angeles, he settled in Tokyo. For the last twelve years Japan has served as his base for expeditions into China, Nepal, Tibet, India, and Russia, where he slipped in and out of the back streets of cities and rural villages and explored the countryside. He traveled with his Leica camera and a single 35 mm lens in an effort to remain as unobtrusive as possible. The twenty-six gelatin silver prints in this exhibit also lead the viewer on an expedition, not just to another place, but also another time.

Delano achieves this other-worldly affect by making the images consistently black-and-white, using a soft focus, printing on warm paper and toning the photograph “a little bit.” Another factor in the China images is the ever-present coal smoke in the air, which tends to mute the light. The result is a series of haunting images tinged with nostalgia. Although the sensibility in the images is a constant, the mood is not. The image of an arched bridge over the motionless water of a canal, surrounded by age-old buildings, with their rooflines, rows of windows and towers reflected in the still waters, evokes a feeling of serenity. By contrast, the mood in “Kite Flying in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal” (1995), is playful. We can imagine the boy’s feeling of triumphant celebration as he watches his kite soar into the skies. “Tibet Girls Running, Labrang Monastery, Amdo, Tibet” (1996) has a furtive quality to it. It’s not just that the girls are running, they are running away from the viewer’s vantage point. We see only their backs, the contours of which are distorted by thick jackets and bulging bags tied around their waists.

In another image, crowds of peasants line the railings, three levels high, as the river steamer they travel on makes it way through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. They lean on and over the railing, some looking out, some up, anticipating the next segment of their journey. Delano captures their expectant frame of mind so well it appears as if they are attempting to divine the future. And, perhaps they are. We can imagine that constructing the steel structure in “Massive Arch is Erected to Span the Gateway to Wuxia Gorge, Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, China” (2003) will change forever the previously pristine steep slopes of the gorge and the lives of the people who inhabit the towns and villages nearby.

“Woman Walking Between Carriages
to Gather Water, Old Delhi Terminal,
India”, 1999, gelatin silver print.

"Kite Flying in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur,
Nepal," 1995, gelatin silver print.

"Tibet Girls Running, Labrang Monastery,
Amdo, Tibet," 1996, gelatin silver print.

"Massive Arch is Erected to Span
the Gateway to Wuxia Gorge, Three
Gorges of the Yangtze River,
China," 2003, gelatin silver print.

There is a sense here that no matter how many times we hear or say that we live in a global society, no matter how often a technician in India helps us solve a software problem, no matter how often we read “Made in China” on our children’s toys, our experience of those worlds and the picture we create out of those experiences is limited, at best, or, perhaps, simply false. The results of Delano’s search, i.e. the photographs in this exhibition, reveal for us a world in which “peasant” still has a context and where children still plow the soil using a hand till. And if the images themselves were not enough, his richly atmospheric presentation convinces us that it is a world very different from the one we inhabit. The “Bejalai” represented in these photographs could also be that of the places and the people in the photographs, as they search for their own identity in the twenty-first century.