In light of her involvement with the feminist collective Worldwidewomen and their exhibition ‘A Wanderer’s Eyes’ in September last year, Claudia Legge was described by one critic as ‘the photographic answer to Monet’. Such esteemed comparisons encapsulate the growing air of expectation surrounding her work. While she is by no means restricted to the photographic medium – other areas of expertise include fashion and costume design – her current exhibition India/Underwater is made up entirely of images and incorporates a number of overlapping themes that compliment and comment upon one another. Around half of photographs depict an urban Rajhastani streetscape that is somehow both prosaic and remarkable in its limitlessly colourful functionality. On other walls the hovering form of the underwater elephant hangs alongside the curling limbs of a vibrant red head, scantily clad in illuminated bubbles and moves the focus from the human to the subterranean.
During a project in India Claudia was given access to swim with the world’s last remaining salt-water elephant, and – armed with her waterproof camera – she managed to produce a dramatic sequence of shots which produce a multifarious impression of this giant mammal. For Legge these shots were not merely an opportunity to capture and interact with a rare animal, but a mode through which to explore and develop her own creative perspective aided by the singular conditions created by water. ‘With India/Underwater I am trying to expose the subtlety of movement using the way that light is refracted through water to create a tension between image and impression.’
By taking her perspective underwater and predominantly shooting upwards, Legge’s backgrounds become either reflections of the scene or a single depth of turquoise colour, and the viewer’s gaze is steered towards the perpetually smiling elephant and his guiding companion. The outcome is an eerie aqueous landscape inhabited by an animal whose dangerous strength is entirely subsumed by a kind of juvenile freedom which Legge manages to capture so exquisitely. As she says herself: ‘All I hear is the fluid motion of silence’. Her underwater nudes continue this fixation with the ethereal and also examine her aptitude for the heavily staged photograph. In the captions mounted amongst the exhibition she emphasises the calming and therapeutic influence of water but through clever manipulation of bubbles and light, the underwater realm she creates here is an erotically charged phantasmagoria of movement, shade, light, darkness and shadow.
Despite being somewhat more conventional than her breathtaking underwater landscape, Legge’s evocation of the Indian street is no less impressive for that fact, and upholds the undeniable undercurrent of what can only be called fun, that pervades the entire exhibition. But visual humour, like its verbal counterpart, relies on timing and an awareness of the moment, both of which are demonstrable in the pick of her collection. A casual yet concerned looking goat perches precariously atop a rusty moped while a rope connected to the pedal prevents any attempted escape. Whether this well balanced livestock was there for a moment or an hour is beyond our knowledge and beside the point – its immortalisation as a humorous image of Indian parking, however, is unquestionable. Elsewhere a father watches the family washing dry in the scorching Rajhastan heat while his sons unwittingly reinvent the infamous Calvin Klein advert with a sub-continental twist by stripping off completely – presumably because their entire wardrobe is laid out in front of them. The colours are once more unerringly crisp, with their dazzling white clothing off-setting the worn terracotta of the slope, but it is the supremely oblivious youngster scratching his head like a wise sage who forms the natural centre of this image. In this section of the exhibition Legge embraces spontaneity and shows us an India that is wholly unconscious of observation – an encomium which must be the aim for any travel photographer. She manages to instil significance into the quotidian without ever stumbling into sentimentality – a skill not easily mastered.
The exhibition hangs together admirably as a cohesive whole, with each section a relevant and informative window into the underlying creative process that is guiding Legge’s work. And with little red stickers popping up all over the place as the evening drew on, I am quietly confident that my enthusiasm was shared.