New York Indian Film Festival 2015

May 4 - 9, 2015

How a mysterious box of photos sent an Evanston couple halfway around the world
August 27, 2014
Aimee Levitt

For a quarter century, Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller have been trying to figure out the identity of the photographer responsible for a treasure trove of images from 1940s India.


Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller with their 130 found photos
Jeffrey Marini

When Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller first saw the shoebox half-hidden beneath a couch, they had no idea that it would, 25 years later, develop into an obsession that would take over not only their lives, but the lives of dozens of artists, scholars, students, and soldiers, and send them on an epic quest halfway around the world. At the time, it looked like just another estate-sale curiosity: an ordinary shoebox filled with 130 brown envelopes, each containing a four-by-five-inch negative, with a black-and-white print stapled to the front. The photos appeared to have been taken in India. The only clue to their provenance was the notations someone had made on the bottom of each negative that read "10th PTU" with a date, most either 27 April or 3 May, 1945. The box's previous owner, Zbiral and Teller's friend Irving Leiden, had recently passed away. He'd picked it up somewhere, but his widow didn't remember any details.

Zbiral and Teller paid $20 and took the box home. Only then did they take a close look at the pictures. Most of them were of temples and scenes of rural village life: people doing laundry, catching fish in a net, threshing rice, plowing fields with a team of oxen, playing the drums and sitar, stuffing betel nuts with spices to turn it into paan. There was an anthropological quality to the collection, as though the photographer were consciously trying to document the villagers and customs that were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. What struck Teller and Zbiral most of all, though, was the quality of the photos.

"Everything is perfect," Teller says now. "You have big things of sky and portraits and temples, and they're all done beautifully. Every single one is spot-on. They were not snapshots. This was a serious professional."

There were also a few shots of American soldiers, which, along with the fact that the captions used American, not British, spelling, made Zbiral and Teller suspect that the photographer had been an American GI stationed in India at the end of World War II. This suspicion was reinforced by the last few photos in the box, which were labeled "Okinawa," implying he'd been transferred to another army base.

They replaced the old shoebox and envelopes with archival-quality storage materials. They stuck it in a closet for safekeeping, intending to get back to it soon. "That's what we do," Zbiral says. "We have so much shit." And then, as they put it, "life took over": their photography and film projects, their jobs to pay the mortgage on their house in Evanston—she as an art dealer and appraiser, he as a designer of museum exhibits—and the raising of their two children.

Sixteen years later, in 2005, Teller taught a class at Lake Forest College on photography and anthropology. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit the box of photos from India. The collection raised questions about how cultures perceive one another (both the photographer through his camera and the subjects looking back), and it gave the students material to construct their own exhibit. One student in particular, Gwynn Milbeck Stupar, became fascinated and began researching the U.S. Army presence in India during World War II. She learned that the Army Air Corps had maintained several bases in what is now the state of West Bengal in order to fly reconnaissance missions over the Burma hump into China to map out a possible invasion of Japan. "10th PTU" stood for "10th Photographic Technical Unit," the unit assigned to take aerial photographs during those missions. It was likely, she thought, that the photographer had been part of that unit.

Zbiral and Teller began to wonder if the backstory of the photos went deeper than simply a curious American soldier who liked to wander around with his camera. Based on the size of the negatives, they suspected he had probably used a Speed Graphic, an army-issued press camera. It was a heavy and complex piece of equipment with f-stops and manual focus and film holders that needed to be replaced after every shot. Operating one required real skill. Were collections like this one common?

"The Library of Congress told us there's an archive at Maxwell Air Force Base," Zbiral remembers. "We sent them JPEGs and asked, Is there anything like this in the archive? They wrote back, 'This is amazing! We've never seen anything like this.'"

The University of Chicago library has an archive of southeast Asian photography, including a collection of photos of Calcutta street life taken in the 1940s by an American soldier who flew reconnaissance missions with the RAF, but that collection didn't contain any pictures from the outlying Bengali villages.

Teller and Zbiral showed their photos to Jim Nye, the bibliographer of the U. of C.'s south Asia collection, and his colleagues. "They went nuts," Teller says. "They were the first to encourage us to pursue the project."

Ralph and Marta Nicholas, U. of C. scholars who'd done anthropological fieldwork in rural West Bengal in the 1960s, confirmed that the photos were indeed taken in West Bengal—they recognized the landscape and the distinctive way the women draped their saris—but they weren't sure exactly where. Teller and Zbiral wondered if they could pinpoint the villages by identifying the various temples.

Then the class ended, and life took over again. The photos went back into the box.

Another five years passed. Zbiral and Teller's son, Max, a musician, won a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study with a santoor master in Mumbai. Zbiral and Teller decided to go visit. But they didn't want just to be tourists. They wanted to explore with a purpose. They pulled out the box again, made copies of all the photos, and put them into a binder that they could carry with them.

Through the AIIS, they had access to photo archives and scholars and government officials in Mumbai, New Delhi, and Kolkata. They were able to identify one of the temples, the Karanagarh Temple near the Piardoba airfield, the site of one of the former U.S. Army air bases. They were slightly disappointed that it was now bright orange—though it might have been orange back in 1945 too; in black and white, it was hard to tell—but that was less important than the fact that, after so many years, they'd definitively found one place where their photographer had been.

By then, their connection to him, whoever he was, had begun to feel much deeper.

"In one town, we heard music," Teller recalls. "There was a guy in front of a temple playing a harmonium. There were cows in the background. I took a picture. The picture I took was identical to the one our guy took. India is a weird place. Part of it's in the 22nd century and part of it hasn't changed for hundreds of years."


Balaji Temple in 1945 and 2014
Courtesy Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller



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