Christine Chitnis Photographs India Through Color and Texture

For over a decade, photographer Christine Chitnis has been making regular trips to India to photograph the region’s people, food, culture and diversity of daily life. After amassing an archive of thousands of hyper-saturated images – largely in the northwestern region of Rajasthan – the Rhode Island-based photographer published Patterns of India. This new book is a collection of some of the most striking and personally impactful images from these trips. 

Chitnis organizes the 200+ photographs into chapters that correspond to the region’s 5 dominant colors: royal blue, sandstone, marigold, ivory and rose. Paired with eloquent, contextual prose, Patterns of India provides a steady thread exploring the relationship between color and pattern, while paying homage to her husband’s heritage. 

The Luupe spoke with Chitnis about her process, her deep and personal connection to India, and her process of turning thousands of images into an expertly curated story and book.

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: We love the cover design – not just the photo and color scheme, but your balance of paper and canvas and the metallic-embossed font. Can you tell us about your collaboration with designer Mia Johnson? 

Christine Chitnis: Thank you so much. I often hear from other authors that the most fraught part of the bookmaking process is deciding on the cover. However, this was the first and only cover design I saw, and right from the beginning, everyone absolutely loved it. 

I am overwhelmingly grateful for Mia’s design and vision. She was such a joy to work with and I can’t speak highly enough of her talent. My editors, Amanda Englander and Gabrielle Van Tassel pushed for the extra touches like the linen spine and metallic-embossed font, which added expense to the printing. But they really made the cover pop. Can you tell I love my Clarkson Potter team!?

© Christine Chitnis from Patterns of India

The Luupe: Yes! We’ve heard similar stories about the challenges of deciding on the perfect cover. Any advice for those with a book in the works? 

Chitnis: I have a great piece of advice for aspiring authors of photo-heavy books, and this comes from my incredible agent, Alison Fargis of Stonesong: Invest in a graphic designer to lay out your book proposal so it clearly illustrates your vision for your book. My proposal for Patterns of India was about 40 pages, and I hired Toni Tajima for the design work.

The sample chapter pages from my proposal have a very similar feel to the final layout of the book. I knew I wanted a clean aesthetic, where the pictures were given space and breathing room. The pictures themselves are so vibrant that I didn’t want a lot of design flourishes taking away from their beauty. 

I think that my proposal helped articulate my vision for the book, and so from day one, the design team and I were on the same page. It sounds unreal, but there weren’t any bumps in the road, no disagreements. Just smooth sailing and amazing collaborative energy.

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: Color is so important to this work and your eye for it is super smart. Did you set out to organize the project by the region’s five dominant colors (royal blue, sandstone, marigold, ivory, and rose) from day one?  

Chitnis: From my very first trip to Rajasthan these color stories presented themselves with absolute clarity. I certainly wasn’t looking for a project or traveling with a “story” in mind, but the colors revealed themselves in this way immediately. I would ask our friends: “don’t you love the way the same colors echo throughout every facet of life here?” And they would remark that they had never thought of it in that way. That’s when I knew I had hit on an interesting and unique idea. 

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: With 200+ images in the book, editing must have been interesting to say the least. Can you tell us a bit about your process?

Chitnis: I had over ten years of archives to sort through when choosing the initial 300 pictures that I sent to my publisher. I thought for sure that my early work wouldn’t make the cut because of how I’ve grown in my skill and how my equipment has gotten better over time, but many of my earliest images remain my favorite. There’s nothing quite like your first trip to India.

I was so excited and so open to every experience, and that really comes through in those early images. As I continued to travel there, I began to hone my eye and really focus on the details and patterns.

I managed to schedule a final trip once the proposal had been accepted by Clarkson Potter. We changed the focus of the book a bit from my proposal- really zeroing in on the stories and histories of the patterns of the region, instead of just color. So that final trip was invaluable because it helped me fill the gaps in my archive. 

The trip was a challenge to fit in because I was very pregnant with my third child, but my parents took our boys for ten days while my husband and I traveled to Rajasthan (I was 7 1/2 months pregnant!).

The Luupe: That’s amazing. Can you talk more about the role your family played in this work?

Chitnis: Our family enjoys sightseeing during our travels, visiting palaces, forts, and museums, but we spend the majority of our time experiencing everyday life in markets, temples, and friends’ homes. This intimate perspective is what I hope to reflect in this collection. To be a traveler is to pay heightened attention to the ordinary, and that is what I strive to celebrate in my photography: the ordinary moments that feel extraordinary. India is indeed an extraordinary place, with grandeur, opulence and beauty galore.

But it is also a place where people go about their daily lives and as tourists, it is our job to visit India with respect and knowledge of their culture. I hope this book makes learning about the history and visuals of Rajasthan into an enjoyable and beautiful experience so that travelers can visit with a deep respect.

Christine Chitnis in India with her family

The Luupe: What role does your family heritage play into all of this?

Chitnis: My travels through India have been deeply influenced by my husband Vijay’s familial connection to the country. Mangalore, a port city in the southwestern state of Karnataka, was home to Vijay’s mother’s family; his father’s family was from Kolhapur on the banks of the Panchganga River in the western state of Maharashtra. 

Both of his parents were raised in Bombay (Mumbai), but they spoke different languages and were raised in different religions: his Hindu father spoke Marathi, and his Catholic mother spoke Konkani. Their common language was English. Soon after their marriage in 1964, they immigrated to England and then to Canada, where my husband was born and raised. 

 

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: One of our favorite images is the photo of the motorcycle covered in flowers. What’s the story behind this image? 

Chitnis: I love that image too! It is actually a very common sight around the markets to see motorcycles, rickshaws, and bicycles loaded up with produce, or serving as a stand for flower garlands. The trick was trying to find a moment to grab the shot without a lot of background noise. That’s often the hardest part about photographing in Rajasthan’s cities- between the crowds and the traffic it can be really hard to get the shot. 

The Luupe: The way you shot it looks effortless + the light is perfect. How’d you do it? 

Chitnis: My trick is to wake up very early, around 4 am and be out capturing images by sunrise. The golden light of the morning is magical, and things are a bit more calm on the streets and in the markets, so I can take my time getting the shot. I also try to be the very first to arrive at the various landmarks (palaces, forts, museums, etc.) so that I can capture landscape shots before it is overcrowded.

This also gives me space to really focus on the details- the way the light hits a golden engraved doorway, or the brushstrokes of a painted fresco. I typically head back to our hotel or homestay when the sun is directly overhead and the crowds are at their height, and then head back out again in the beautiful early evening light.

The Luupe: It’s fascinating to look at these pictures in the context of your commercial work – especially your work for Floret Flower. Your vision is distinct, yet seamless across everything you shoot. Are clients hiring you largely based on your personal vision? 

Chitnis: Thank you- that is reassuring to hear. I sometimes feel like my work is all over the place. I’m known in New England as “that photographer that shoots flowers” because so much of my work focuses on my passion for the local, seasonal flower movement, and that tends to be what I show on Instagram. I have to tell people about my travel portfolio! 

With three small children at home, I don’t travel now as much as I used to, and so I had to find my inspiration closer to home. I think that is why I am so drawn to flowers. They fill me with the same immense joy that I get from exploring a new place. Hopefully the book will help spread the message that I do in fact shoot more than just flowers! I’d certainly love to be shooting more travel for editorial clients, whether it be around New England, or destinations farther from home.

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: There’s an age-old concern around Western photographers in developing countries making images that feel “othering.” Your photos consistently feel empathetic and empowering. Was this on your mind as you were working on this series? 

Chitnis: This is something that I think about constantly. I am very aware of how my white privilege influences the ways in which I move through the world. 

The Luupe: What do you think helps your images break away from this problem? 

Chitnis: When I’m in India I’m especially aware of how I engage with portraiture, and I want to make sure that whoever I am approaching feels that they have the agency to decide if they want to be photographed, and how they wish to be seen through their photo.

This can be challenging when language is a barrier, but I’m very fortunate to travel throughout India with my husband, who is Indian and speaks Hindi and Bengali. Although he is not a writer or photographer himself, he loves assisting in my photography work, mainly by acting as a translator, making sure that for every portrait, the person feels informed, respected and seen in their true light.

As a team, my husband and I feel very strongly that we need to be respectful and always ask for permission, and recognize our privilege in every situation. 

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: How does your interaction with the people you photograph generally transpire? 

Chitnis: I think that for me, investing in each and every subject, learning their story, spending the time to get to know them is of the utmost importance. Of course, this isn’t possible in every situation. Sometimes portraiture moves very quickly. But when there is time, I strive to make a connection. I really connect with other women, specifically mothers, because often I am traveling with my children and there are so many universal truths shared by those of us who are mothers. 

The Luupe: How did you decide this series – which you worked on for a decade, was ready to become a book? 

Chitnis: It was a confluence of events: My archive felt really robust, and I thought that maybe the time had come to explore the project. I was worried because the idea felt like it might be a hard sell to a publisher. It is a unique concept for a book- it’s not really a travel guide, but it is also not just a photography book. It falls somewhere in the middle of travel/ photography/ home decor/ textiles. 

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: How did the process of series-to-book unfold?  

Chitnis: I asked a friend if he would be willing to introduce me to his agent, Alison, and when I ran my idea by her she was really excited by my vision. She encouraged me to use a graphic designer to layout the proposal, and when we saw it all come together, both of us were so excited by the possibility of this becoming a book. That’s when I first thought, “this could really happen!” 

I signed with Clarkson Potter in November of 2017, traveled to India for the final shoot in December 2017/ January 2018, and my daughter was born on March 1, 2018. I was working full time in school admissions, and parenting my other two kids during that whole time, and throughout the writing of the book. 

But as a mother who loves her work, I’ve realized there is no perfect time to pursue a big project. There will always be a million reasons not to take the leap. Sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet and hope for the best. I am pretty type-A and very organized, so I looked at the timeline, divided up the work so that I would be able to manage it and promised myself I would never miss a deadline (and I didn’t!) I’m really proud of that, and very thankful for my support team, mainly my husband and our amazing sitter, who helped care for my daughter as I worked.

© Christine Chitnis

The Luupe: What was your biggest learning, revelation, etc from making this work? 

Chitnis: Through the research and writing of Patterns of India, I learned how color and pattern have a symbiotic relationship, and together through art, architecture, textiles, dress and surface design, they bring to life the history and culture of the region. I’m taking that with me as I continue to grow in my travel photography practice. 

I also learned what an immense undertaking a book like this is, and I can say with all honestly that I have been working on this tirelessly for two years now, and that doesn’t count any of the travel or photography. That’s just the writing, design, marketing, and publicity. If you are going to write a book, you better absolutely love the subject and be endlessly passionate about it, because you are going to live and breathe it for years!

All photos © Christine Chitnis. Reprinted with permission from Patterns of India, by Christine Chitnis, copyright © 2020. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.