Wandering anthropologist captures images of Asia

February 20, 2000

Asian photosBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

When dawn came to the crossroads where they slept, the leper put her hand on Schuyler Fonaroff's shoulder and woke him up.

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The Columbia, Md., resident had walked into a small, remote village in southern India. Night was falling as he arrived, so he made a pillow of his knapsack, lay down and closed his eyes.

The leper, a woman who knew Fonaroff from his work with American Leprosy Missions, had walked by and fallen asleep beside him.


In the morning, he smelled her perfume and knew who it was. Without looking, Fonaroff grabbed his camera, lifted it up and snapped two frames.

One of the resulting images is hanging in the Washington County Arts Council Gallery. The woman's dark, wizened face stares in profile as she holds herself in the half-light with her damaged hands.

The selenium-toned photograph is one of Fonaroff's 34 works included in "Wanderings in South Asia With Camera and Paintbrush." It is the only one without a title and, according to Fonaroff, his favorite.

"I just like the image," he said. "It's not all in focus, but that doesn't matter."

Fonaroff said some of his photographs emphasize negative space. As a photographer, he is interested in the relationship between background and the main subject, whether they clash or compliment each other.

The artist's own background compliments his work. Trained in anthropology, he brought the same personal approach to both art and science.

"If you treat someone as if you know them very well, you'll get to know them a lot better than if you treat them as a museum specimen," he said.

Fonaroff visited India about 30 times, and the works in his exhibit span a period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. They include glimpses of India as well as Nepal, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Fonaroff was graduated from Johns Hopkins University and later attended the Royal College of Art in London. He has held faculty and research positions at Hopkins as well as a professorship at University of Maryland.

American Leprosy Missions, which provides care to people afflicted by the disease, commissioned him to take several of the photographs in his exhibit.

A few photographs in the exhibit focus on leprosy, such as "Leprosy Reconstruction," which shows surgery in progress on a pair of hands. But most of the works are evocative portraits of native people or landscapes in exotic places such as Elephant Island.

Fonaroff said he prefers black and white images, but many of the photographs are hand-painted. The colors produce dramatic effects, such as the gold spreading across foothills in "Tibetan Lamasery at Dawn."

In other pictures the colors are more artificial, as in "Pilgrimage to Sigiriya Rock, Ceylon" in which a throng of people descend a narrow staircase attached to a sheer rock face. The bright clothing of the pilgrims glows with unnatural hues.

The uncolored works contain rich textures, such as the grain of sculpted rock in "Reclining Buddha." In "The Weaver's Hand," gnarled fingers with nails like ebony curl across a loom's strings.

Fonaroff refuses to label himself stylistically. He doesn't give captions to his photographs. "I don't know what style is," he said. But like negative space, his images emphasize it.

Fonaroff said his experience in Asia changed his life. Cultural differences are really just a fraction of human behavior, according to the artist.

"You come to realize all people, no matter their condition - socially, economically, physically or whatever - are essentially the same all over the world," he said.

The exhibit runs through March 11. Call 301-791-3132 for more information.

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