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Koch, Lewis, 1949- / Lewis Koch, notes from the stone-paved path : meditations on north India

Elder, Joseph W.
A brief meditation on Notes from the stone-paved path,   pp. 8 and 9-10 and 11

Page 8 and 9

Joseph W. Elder
Professor of Sociology and
of Languages and Cultures of Asia
University of Wisconsin-Madison
July 2003
A Brief Meditation on Notes from the Stone-Paved Path
Any representations of India are, in an ultimate sense, reflections of the
representor.  India
is so complex, ancient, unitary, variegated, assimilating, reinterpreting,
and innovating that
anyone attempting to depict it understands it only through tiny, episodic,
ultimately sub-
jective glimpses.  As Lewis Koch himself states, "Each impression, each
image, each page of
text is, by definition, a highly edited, subjective view of a real place
or idea."  So there is
nothing especially unusual about the subjectivity of Koch's photography and
the project as
a whole.  What is impressive, however, are the form and contents of his subjectivity.
The subjectivity of this work takes its form in brilliantly printed black-and-white
photographs, in the passages he has selected from a wide range of written
sources dealing
with India, and in the essential and subtle process of pairing these two
All of the images in the exhibition were made by Koch in northern India.
 Several of
them are from Dharamsala and vicinity in the foothills of the Himalayas where
he lived
and worked for nearly a year in the Tibetan Buddhist community there.  The
subjects of his
photographs are often strikingly common: soda bottles hanging in a refreshment
roadside advertisements, a pan of boiled milk in a sweets stand, scraps of
posters on a
many-layered signboard, the carcass of an animal behind protective netting
in a butcher
shop, a painted '7th Up' soda sign, a string draped over a nearly-invisible
wire, a concrete
drainage pipe in an open field, a room in a medical clinic featuring a portrait
of Gandhi.
A few of the subjects are at familiar India tourist sites: the iron pillar
at New Delhi's
Qtab Minar, the famous temples at Khajuraho (with a man sleeping in the foreground),
the giant astronomical structures at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar outdoor observatory,
Taj Mahal in Agra (so shrouded in mist as to be almost invisible), Tibetan
prayer flags,
and a monk in Dharamsala.
After returning to the United States from his sojourn, Koch selected, rather
yet deliberately, the passages he paired with his photographs from a wide
variety of texts:
using for instance, a 19th-century travelers' guide, contemporary poetry
and translations
of Sanskrit poems, Tibetan Buddhist and sacred Indian teachings, Indian erotica,
short stories, a passage written by Mahatma Gandhi, esoteric Hindu astronomy,
works by
contemporary India scholars, a page from E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful,
scripts, autobiography.
The contents of Lewis Koch's representations of India come from the juxtapositions
of his photographs and his texts.  A luminous photograph of small frogs floating
in the
clear water of a stone tank is accompanied by a page from The Secret Oral
Teachings in
Tibetan Buddhist Sects describing the co-existence of two worlds: reality
(the world we con-
tact but cannot adequately describe) and mental formations set in motion
by our assump-
tions (but never identical with them).  A photograph of a boy-worker with
protective glasses is adjacent to a text by Mahatma Gandhi praising the spirituality
India's ancient villages and regretting the fact that today's workers have
become automa-
tons unable to feel the simple joy of their labor.  Similarly, an arcane
nighttime photo-
graph of a city street with a four-wheel cart hauling a generator linked
to lighted
fluorescent tubes is paired with a passage from Cradle of the Clouds; in
the novel, village
elder conclude that since Buddha did not require gas and electricity, they
do no require
gas and electricity.
Further along in this nuanced sequence, a photograph of a string draped around
nearly-invisible wire is placed beside an excerpt from Walt Whitmans's Leaves
of Grass in
which the American poet asserts that "all things seen are real,"
and independent of any
knowing individual.  A passage in which the Dalai Lama suggests that if everyone
perfect, our existence would have no justification is paired with a photograph
of a con-
crete drainage pipe (on which is scrawled, in English,"I Love you").
 Then there is an inti-
mate photograph of a man sleeping on the steps of a temple at Khajuraho accompanied
by a page from an encyclopedia of Indian erotica indexing "unions,"
"vagina," "wives" and
"women."  A final example, the photograph of a stone path (from
which the exhibition
gets its name) traversing a Himalayan hillside is aligned with a discussion
of quantum
mechanics and its relation to Eastern and Western notions of ultimate, irreducible
cal and conceptual patterns.
As an outsider who has specialized in studying India, I might be able to
add tidbits
of information for the benefit of others viewing this work.  For example,
the reason the
man in the photograph at the Qtab Minar is trying to touch the tips of his
fingers as his
arms encircle the iron pillar is because that will bring him good luck (so
he, and I, have

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