a photoessay on India by Brian Brake (1927-1988)
11 September 1999 – 9 January 2000


Brian Brake, From Monsoon a 1960 photoessay on India, Reproduction courtesy of Wai-man Lau

The National Gallery of Australia recently acquired 23 colour photographs which form the core of a famous photoessay, Monsoon, shot in India in 1960 by the New Zealand-born photojournalist, Brian Brake (1927–1988).

Monsoon first appeared in LIFE magazine on 8 September 1961 and subsequently in Paris-Match, Epoca and Queen. LIFE at the time was crowded with dramatic and interesting pictures, but large colour essays were not common and, in this case, a heavy reliance on the sequencing of the images alone — supported largely by Indian poetry and minimal captions rather than text as such — was new. This single story established Brake's reputation as a master of the colour photoessay. He went on to a successful international career as a photojournalist with many stories published in LIFE and National Geographic magazine. He specialised in stories from Asia and became known for his versatility in colour and black and white reportage.

Brake, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, moved to Europe in 1953 to seek a career as a photojournalist — after World War II, many young photographers dreamed of becoming photojournalists for the great picture magazines. In Europe, Brake met Ernst Haas and Henri Cartier-Bresson, members of the prestigious and elite international freelance photojournalists' agency, Magnum. Brake was invited to join Magnum in 1954. In the late 1960s he could see the close of the era of the picture magazines under the impact of television and increased competition, so he established himself in Hong Kong and diversified into documentary film making. Returning to New Zealand in the mid 1970s, he was a driving force behind the foundation, in 1985, of the New Zealand Centre for Photography. He died prematurely in 1988.

Brake first developed the idea of a story on the monsoon with his Magnum colleagues. He convinced LIFE to support the project and thoroughly researched the climate and culture of India as well as making exploratory visits to the sub-continent. From mid-1960 Brake spent nine months shooting the images that make up Monsoon.

By careful selection of the images, Brake and the magazine's editor succeeded in imparting a sense of the physical and spiritual experience of the monsoon season. Most spectacular and memorable, perhaps, were the close-ups: of an old villager in the Punjab, Gandhi-like in his acceptance of the mix of suffering and celebration to come; and of a beautiful young woman, her face lifted to a shower of rain drops. Her image became a signature for the essay as a whole and was widely reproduced. Monsoon was shot in different locations, but the image of the 'monsoon girl', as she became known, was actually staged in a studio. The model was Aparna Sen, a 14-year old actress who went on to a career as a film maker in her own right and is famous in the huge film industry in India.

The exhibition will include the original magazine spreads in which the Monsoon essay appeared and Indian miniatures from the National Gallery's collection similar to those which accompanied the original essay in LIFE.

For further information please contact Gael Newton, Senior Curator of Photography on telephone (02) 6240 6412 or Public Affairs on telephone (02) 6240 6431, or fax (02) 6240 6561.