Brian Brake’s photoessay Monsoon had the honor of appearing in four major news weeklies over the period of a month, a rare distinction. It appeared first in LIFE (September 8, 1961), then in Paris-Match (September 23), in Italy’s Epoca (October 1), and in UK’s Queen (October 11). Eventually, it appeared in various formats in as many as 12 magazines. It would establish Brake’s reputation as a master of the colour photoessay.
In 1980, Brake said that, out of all of his work, ‘If “Monsoon” lasts, I’ll be happy.’
Brake, a New Zealand-born photographer, became a member of Magnum Agency and worked as freelance photographer until joining LIFE in 1958. He first developed the idea of documenting the monsoon in India with his Magnum colleagues, and convinced LIFE to support the project. He embarked on a detailed research of the climate and culture of India and spent nine months shooting. When the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw the photos, he raved that Brake “got to know India so well.”
The most memorable photos were that of an old villager in the Punjab and of a young woman, her face lifted to a shower of rain drops. The latter image, which was on the cover of LIFE magazine and was widely reproduced, was ironically the only photo Brake shot staged in a studio.
In 1961, famous director Satyajit Ray was making Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), based on the stories of Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (to celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s birth). One of the lead actresses was Aparna Sen, a 14-year old daughter of filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta, a friend of Ray and a fellow founder member with him at the Calcutta Film Society. Brake was present at the Calcutta movie set and asked her to pose for her. Sen remembered:
Sen went on to a career as a filmmaker in her own right.
Large color essays were not common at the time, even for LIFE magazine, but Brake prevailed. It reproduced eighteen of the approximately 110 images submitted by Brake. Other picture magazines used between eight and 34 shots. Of the eighteen used by LIFE and seventeen used by Paris-Match, nine were used by both.
Because of the thematic plan made by Brake, which started out with pictures of a drought and people waiting for rain and ending with the deluge, there was no significant variation in photo-arrangements done by the magazines (below). Sen’s picture would often appear in the middle section (first rains) and Epoca, Life, and Paris-Match all ended their essays with similar photos of praying Indians in the ghats.
(More of Brake’s Monsoon photos, including contact sheets here.)
LIFE reversed Sen’s photo on its cover to accommodate the magazine’s logo in the top left corner. Inside, the images were supported largely by Indian poetry of Tagore and other poets and there were only minimal captions. LIFE designer Bernard Quint said he was expecting images of floods and dead bodies floating in the river. Instead, he saw “…the wrinkled old man, stunned by resignation, waiting for the rain. I…realised that “quiet Brian” was making me feel the sense of time; unending powerlessness and the cycle of mortality and rebirth.”