On his travels, the New Yorker has turned his lens to subjects ranging from the Bonda women of Odisha to traditional mud-wrestlers in Pune

Rajasthan, India. Heat seeps from buildings and roads, rising with dust. The streets hum, buzzing with street food vendors, chaiwalas and families jumbled onto motorbikes. On a flight of stone steps, a moustached older gentleman sits alone, perusing his copy of Hindi language newspaper Dainik Navajyoti. Dressed in starchy white shirt and trousers, oxblood socks protruding from ‘jutties’ – traditional Indian shoes – he exudes studious calm. A trio of pens huddle in his chest pocket, perhaps ready to underline some political witticism.

It’s vivid moments like this that spring from the pages of The Sartorialist: India, a collection of images by American fashion photographer Scott Schuman, AKA The Sartorialist. Shot across Delhi, Jaipur, Chennai, Mumbai and beyond, Schuman’s photographs, like the clothes within them, spin a rich visual yarn. From stony-faced officials in sombre uniforms to millennials dressed in bright occasion-wear, his portraits tell of a vast country steeped in contrasts, and ask: what stories do these clothes and their wearer have to tell?

From a blog to Vogue

That very question underpins Schuman’s wider portfolio. He set up his style blog The Sartorialist in 2005, on the side of a fashion sales position that he left soon after. Wanting to document the relationship between fashion and everyday life, he took to the streets of New York with a digital camera, capturing passers-by whose style caught his attention. His naturalistic, observational approach went on to scoop him commissions from major brands and publications, from Burberry and Saks Fifth Avenue to French Vogue.

Schuman, now 51, first visited India in 2011 on commission to cover Delhi fashion week. While there, his attentions repeatedly turned from the catwalk to the bold and idiosyncratic fashion of show-goers, as well as the street life he witnessed through his car window. In the preface to The Sartorialist: India, Schuman writes, “The mash-up of old and new, rich and poor, transient and immobile is stronger in India than almost anywhere in the world. It was love at first sight!”

Travels to India

The photographer went on to travel the country extensively – north to Ladakh, west to Bikaner, eastwards to Sundarbans, and down south to Thiruvananthapuram on India’s lowermost tip. Along the way, he rose at dawn to visit flower markets, ascended snow-capped mountain ranges, and turned his lens to subjects ranging from the Bonda women of Odisha to mud-wrestlers in Pune.

Schuman’s book is beautifully curated, with images inventively grouped and paired so that textures and silhouettes align – or, indeed, juxtapose – with dazzling effect. A woman’s headdress, laden with onions, mirrors the towering form of an industrial structure; a young boy’s cerulean t-shirt is colour-matched with a wall painted the same eye-popping shade.

In her forward, Bandana Tewari, Editor-at-Large of Vogue India, writes: “For a western photographer, the perils of [documenting India] are many. Romanticising and indulging in the “idea” of India are foremost. [Schuman] is merely an observer, working instinctively, unwilling to dramatise a nation that does plenty of that on its own. He doesn’t moralise the fierce contradictions that are India, he doesn’t pretend to understand them either.”

“The images – dramatic and diverse – evoke the variety and immensity of India’s costume history,” continues Tewari, “and the costumes of yore, despite being appropriated or altered by other cultures over time, are still part of India’s dynamic, living culture.”

Exquisite and ordinary, cinematic and naturalistic, Schuman’s work transcends easy categorisation. As Tewari says, “He captures what India is – a storm in our senses.”

India: The Sartorialist is published October 2019 by Taschen. Available to pre-order now, £60.

Select photos from the book