At first glance, "Namesake/Inspiration," the current exhibition at Sepia International, seems to be much of a jumble. At second glance, too. There are 45 works in the exhibition, some in color, some in black and white, some toned sepia, which range in size between 2 1/4 inches square and 40 inches by 5 inches. They were taken between 1931 and 2007, by 13 photographers, of several nationalities, in different countries, on continents half a world apart. The subjects include goddesses, toes, landscapes, cityscapes, and an escalator. But, it turns out, there is a narrative that connects them.
Sepia's executive director, Esa Epstein, explained to me that Mira Nair, the director of the recent film "The Namesake," approached the gallery with a proposal for an exhibition based on stills from her movie. That seemed a somewhat limited prospect so, since the film itself was based not only on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, but also on Ms. Nair's response to works by certain photographers, Ms. Epstein decided to structure the exhibition around pictures by those photographers. These images gave Ms. Nair a visual style — or, rather, several visual styles — that set the tone for her movie. The gallery show includes many of those pictures, and others that are related thematically.
The book and the movie tell the story of an Indian family that migrates to the East Coast of America from Calcutta. "Namesake/Inspiration" includes photographs of both the city where their journey begins and the area they come to, as well as images emblematic of travel and the anxiety of arrival. The nostalgia of immigrants for what they left behind is represented, as well as their cultural confusion in dealing with their new environment, and the inevitable toll on personal relationships. This somewhat paradigmatic American story is universalized by including pictures from countries other than India and America.
Once you get the setup, you can see there are many very interesting photographs on display. If you are familiar with the book or movie, you may experience them as illustrations of a coherent whole; but you could also approach them as a discrete works of art. But even familiar pictures, and there are several here, change meaning in new contexts, and that sense of transvaluation is the core of "Namesake/Inspiration."
There are six pictures by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, four in a cluster early on in the show. One of them, "Retrato de lo Eterno" (Picture of the Eternal) (1935), is a wellknown image of a woman in profile looking at herself in a handheld mirror as she combs her extravagantly long black hair; much of the woman and the background is hidden in dramatic dark shadows. I had always understood this picture as a study of vanity, a slightly misogynistic take on the abiding absorption of a woman with her own beauty. In that case, it was female vanity that was eternal.
But there is another possibility: Eternity, after all, runs both ways, back to the past as well as forward to the future. Maybe what she is seeking in the mirror is not to know how she looks now — in the present — but a lost, prior view of herself, along with a glimpse of what she is to become. In that case we are all more or less looking over her shoulder, trying to recall what we were, and to fathom what we are to be — in other words, travelers with her through time.
Bravo's "El Umbral" (The Threshold) (1947) is clearly symbolic, but it is not clear of what. Two naked feet are all we see of someone in a doorway; puddled water is on both sides of the portal, so we cannot tell if the person is coming in or going out. The light comes from behind and the person seems to be stepping into darkness: night, death, the unknown? The two big toes of this anonymous Mexican in transit are turned up in a way that is exactly replicated by one of the anonymous Indian people in Raghu Rai's "Sleeping in the Street, Kolkata" (1989); is that upturned toe a universal marker for something?
Someone is also sleeping in William Gedney's picture "Benares" (1970). Seen from the waist up, the person is in the left foreground amid a row of columns; because the arms are folded over the chest, it is not clear if it is a male or female, and although the face is handsome, it could be either. The columns proceed a long way down a deserted arcade or covered alleyway. Sleep is a form of transition, and the passageway must lead someplace but, as elsewhere in "Namesake/Inspiration," seemingly clear facts are ambiguous. "Benares" and another picture by Mr. Gedney remind us what a superb photographer he was.
Mitch Epstein is represented by three very different, large-format color pictures of New York. Adam Bartos has two medium-format color pictures from India, and three from California. Dayanita Singh has three mournful blackand-white images of Connecticut, and 60 small photos of Calcutta mounted in one long accordion fold. Derry Moore and Raghubir Singh each have several pictures of Calcutta, the Englishman's somewhat romantic in black and white, the Indian's in brutal color.
Alison Bradley's "Suitcase (Voyage)" (2004), a stylish large-format toned gelatin silver print of a somewhat old-fashioned, slightly battered piece of luggage, is as representative of "Namesake/Inspiration" as any other single picture: There is something nostalgic about it, for the places it's been, and something anticipatory, for where it may yet be bound — but in any case, it can only hold so much.
Until April 28 (148 W. 24th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-645-9444).