David Mordecai, Photographer
A Brief Biography by Anita Blackman (née Mordecai)
1909 – 1973
David Mordecai (or “D. Mordecai”, as he chose to copyright his photographs) was born in Calcutta, India in 1909, to Isaac and Esther Mordecai, also born in India, but of Bagdadi (and possibly Portuguese) ancestry. Although the family business was the flourishing line of condiments under the name of Daw Sen & Company, David’s interests were to lie elsewhere.
At the age of 13, he contracted a life-threatening malarial virus, which necessitated his going to Java for treatment. (One of his brothers had succumbed to the disease, and his father contracted it as well, though he recovered.) David, too, recovered and his trip home through the Far East and Burma seemed to have spurred his interest in photography. David’s mother presented him with his first camera – a Kodak box – and it was then that his family discovered the irrepressible photography streak in their youngest member. He clicked away constantly – at classmates, family gatherings and birthdays – and paid scant attention to his studies. By the time he dropped out of the Intermediate Arts course at St. Xavier’s College, he had begun accepting small assignments from friends and relatives for festive occasions and gatherings, voraciously reading photographic journals and following international developments in the field.
Though his family did not take his photography very seriously, when he was inducted into the pickle business, he requested and received a “sophisticated” camera from his older brothers – an 800-rupee Rolleiflex. However, he felt cramped in the family business and in 1935 he broke away and established the Deluxe Art Studio with a couple of friends to finance it. In an age when most studio proprietors stuck to passport pictures, David’s interest lay in portraits. His efforts attracted notice, and the business thrived. However, by then David had his wife Trixie and child (Esthére) to support, and due to a disagreement with his partners over profit-sharing, he withdrew from the studio.
Seeing his despair over these developments, the family allowed him space for his own studio on the premises of the condiment factory. With meager funds and his faithful Rolleiflex, David started out anew on the lonely road of a man with unconventional ideas. However, his portrait clients remembered him and a glazing machine and enlarger soon found their place in his studio. He was a perfectionist, and acquired the expertise for developing negatives himself, also using the services of Kodak’s processing department in Calcutta.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, he won his first major assignment: a large portrait of Thomas Bata (of the Bata Shoe Company), who was travelling through Calcutta at the time. In addition, there was an order for 400 enlargements which were circulated to all the Bata Shoe outlets worldwide. However, as the war broke out, David fell critically ill again, with a liver abscess.
Ironically, this misfortune was again a turning point in David’s life. The German doctor, Hans Handel, who successfully treated his near-fatal condition, was very impressed by his photographic talents, and had developed a parental affection for David. Handel introduced him to a close friend, John Clark of the Bengal Nagpur Railways. At that time, railway posters were mainly hand-drawn prints. David mentioned his rate for a set of 10 pictures, and ended up with a commission for a thousand! By the time the Americans landed in Calcutta in 1942, David had plunged into his countrywide photographic expeditions. He had not only secured the Bengal Nagpur Railways’ entire network, but had given the railways some of their early photo-imprinted posters.
Around 1942 to 1945, by which time he had a second daughter (Anita), David’s life took a new turn: he began to shoot India in all her multiple aspects. The Americans were insatiable in their appetite for photographic impressions of the Indian people and culture. The studio (named "The Anna Art Press") was flooded with orders and he and his brothers-in-law (not to mention his wife Trixie who contributed as well) worked 20 hours a day, every day, to meet the demand. David would return to hand over the exposed rolls of film, leaving explicit instructions before he was off again to an unexplored destination.
With his beloved wife as his constant travel companion and patient assistant, a camera kit consisting of two Rolleiflexes, a Hasselblad and a Speed Graphic, David tirelessly criss-crossed the country, memorializing on film the myriad faces and fantastic range of Indian temple carvings and architecture, and landscapes both urban and rural. Little escaped his lens – the Khyber Pass, the Himalayas, a street in Peshawar, the lined face of a pipe-smoking Bhutia and other wildly exotic and colorful tribespeople, a Mizo tribal dance, Khajurao, or fisherman on the shimmering Hooghly river. It was a daunting prospect, and Trixie and David sometimes spent nights on trolley cars at obscure railway stations.
David was Calcutta’s only still photographer to be awarded an official accreditation to the American Departmental Exchange, then housed in Calcutta. Around this time, he published his travel memoirs, a 52-print album titled, “India Through the Camera’s Eye”.
The Americans left, and activities waned at the studio. But David’s creative instincts were not to be dampened. Adding a printing press to the laboratory, and tying up with the National Tobacco Company’s photo offset wing, he reached into his treasure trove of 5,000 negatives and started producing Calcutta’s first photographic corporate calendars and wall posters, catering to major corporations such as Karamchand Thapar, Titagurh Paper Mills, India Paper & Pulp, Dunlop, Chloride, India Foils, and numerous others. In the mid-1940s, David covered Martin Burn’s World Bank projects, and Sir Biren Mukherjee personally thanked him at a company dinner in honor of Eugene Black, World Bank president.
Eventually, seven automatic printing machines and 100 employees serviced David’s designing, retouching, hand-tinting (black-and-white then being in vogue), line-drawing and lettering departments, and he had a clientele of 62 companies. One of his successful creative experiments during this phase was to impress photographic images on bone china crockery.
He shot for posterity the Nehrus and Tenzing Norgay (who became a personal friend) at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in the wake of the Everest triumph, Sir Edmund Hillary, the official portrait of King Mahendra and Queen Ratna of Nepal (these portraits graced their palace), and many prominent Indian film stars. David and Trixie moved gracefully and without affectation in all circles – from royalty and celebrity to the common people. He contributed either by compiling, printing, publishing, editorially, or photographically to such books as “The Jews of Calcutta” by Flower Elias and Judith Elias Cooper, The Himalayas: An Illustrated Summary of the World’s Highest Mountain Ranges (1966); (even I, as Mrs. M. Morris, receive an acknowledgement in that one, for my assistance!), “King Mahendra, The Poet” by Y.G. Krishnamurti, and Rebel, King & Statesman – King Mahendra of Nepal, also by Y.G. Krishnamurti (in which the author gives David and Trixie too, a most generous acknowledgement).
However, the traveler in him persisted, and in 1957-58 while his children were in school, (including his third daughter, Cheryl, born in 1947), he and Trixie sailed out on their last marathon journey to the Far East, North America, Europe and Scandinavia, and into distant Lapland. He kept shooting – the surging Niagara Falls, an isolated church in the Swiss Alps, the Matterhorn looming over a gushing stream, a serene Japanese pagoda, desolate Grecian ruins, a Belgian home reflected in a town canal, and countless other images. Some, though unfortunately not all, of David’s photographs and negatives, have been saved and are stored by his daughters in London and Los Angeles; others – particularly those of Europe – had to be left behind in India and are no longer available.
After that memorable and productive trip, David was struck down with spondilitis and other spinal problems, which sadly proved to be the beginning of the end, and until his passing in 1973, he suffered greatly – a sad contrast to the “Superman” photography award he won from London as a 19-year-old for his frames on physical culture.
So, here ends a tale of perseverance and determination and great talent. He leaves a legacy of important photographs and personal relationships, and his name will be remembered with respect and admiration for his achievements and the man he was . . . all having started with a kid and a box camera.
A selection of his photographs, portraits and landmarks, may be seen in http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/exhibits/show/business/david-mordecai--a-selection-of and http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/exhibits/show/business/david-mordecai--photographs-of . The photo collection is courtesy Anita Blackman.