In Conversation With American Photographer Karen Knorr

London-based and German-born American photographer Karen Knorr tells us about her work "India Song," her trips to India, and why she loves Rajasthan
Karen Knorr
Karen KnorrKaren Knorr/Official Website

In the bustling realm of contemporary photography, London-based artist Karen Knorr stands out as a luminary whose lens paints narratives. Born in Germany and adorned with American heritage, Knorr's eclectic background is the perfect tapestry for her unique perspective on the world. Through her lens, she beckons us into India's landscapes and cultural tapestries, as showcased in her series, "India Song." In this exclusive interview, Knorr invites us to traverse the lens of her experiences, recounting her transformative journeys to India and sharing her profound affection for the state of Rajasthan.


What made you think of juxtaposing palaces with wildlife in your work?


When I first visited India in 2008, I was struck by its abundant wildlife and heritage. Over the past 15 years, my return trips to Rajasthan have revealed the vastness I've yet to explore. My goal was to fuse India's contrasts—its culture and nature—through photography. Animals in my work embody myths or symbolise marginalised communities, highlighting unequal access. I used India's palace interiors and referencing miniature paintings to celebrate its visual culture. Drawn from Mahabharata and Ramayana, my photos like "Arjuna’s Arrow" capture timeless narratives. The ruins of Vijayanagar also intrigued me.

The Lovesick Prince, Juna Maha
The Lovesick Prince, Juna MahaCourtesy of Karen Knorr

Your images exhibit a dose of fantasy with the real. How do you balance this?


The essence of my approach lies in a nuanced strategy. Directness isn't always my aim; I intend to expand the audience's perspectives. My work often employs one story to convey another, cultivating depth. "The Lovesick Prince" references a lovesick princess miniature, intertwining narratives with a playful touch. Achieving equilibrium between tales is pivotal. "Sita’s Wish," captured within Dungarpur Palace, portrays a moment from the Ramayana—Sita deceived by Ravana's golden deer. This strategy has evolved from my four-decade-long journey in documentary work.

The Sound of Rain, Badal Mahal, Junagarh Fort
The Sound of Rain, Badal Mahal, Junagarh FortCourtesy of Karen Knorr

How difficult is it to photograph animals and where all have you photographed them?


Certain animals within my work were captured within Indian zoos, such as the Delhi Zoo. Over the years, my visits there have unveiled notable improvements while retaining an endearing chaos. Witnessing families enjoying picnics on the ground adds a charming layer to the environment.

To depict tigers, I've ventured to Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh, with Bandhavgarh leaving an indelible impression. Lions found their way into my compositions after I visited Bannerghatta National Park on Bengaluru's outskirts.

Photographing wildlife demands unwavering dedication, with multiple returns to attain perfection. Patience is paramount in this challenging process.


How did you zero in on Rajasthan for "India Song"?


India's diverse cultural heritage, blending sacred and secular architecture like Ranakpur Tirkha to Shekhawati's havelis, fascinated me with its amalgamation of styles—zanana, mardana spaces, Islamic, Hindu, Greek, and Rajasthani elements. Amidst the wildlife richness of leopards, black bucks, and cranes, rampant development imperils their existence. "India Song," my series, harmonises culture and nature amidst economic expansion. Returning to Deogarh unveiled mining's erosion, while Rajasthan's farmers battle climate shifts and locusts. "The Locust Eater" artwork symbolises this, referencing Indian miniatures and Jataka tales. Deogarh, Nawalgarh, and Dungarpur landscapes complement this narrative. "India Song" weaves a heritage celebration, from architectural syncretism to women's space, avoiding stereotypes through humour and magical realism. India's enchanting essence lies in its syncretic soul.

Sita’s Wish, Juna Mahal, Dungarpur 2012
Sita’s Wish, Juna Mahal, Dungarpur 2012Courtesy of Karen Knorr
The Locust Eater, Udaipur City Palace, Udaipur 2020
The Locust Eater, Udaipur City Palace, Udaipur 2020Courtesy of Karen Knorr

Tell us about your travels through the state. 


Our Rajasthan expedition spanned 2,000 kilometres, navigating the landscape in a compact Maruti Suzuki, driven by Annu from Shimla. Accompanied by dear friend Juliette Wilson, we meticulously planned our journey, cost-sharing and tailoring our route through Rajasthan. Commencing in Delhi and culminating at the Imperial Hotel, this venture was a testament to customization.

Our path led us to Samode Palace, Jaipur, Ramgarh, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Bikaner, Phalodi, Jodhpur, Osian, Jojawar, Udaipur, Deogarh, Bharatpur, Agra, before returning to Delhi. Despite brief stays, I captured essential shots and savoured the essence of Rajasthan.

Friends in Need, Juna Mahal, 2020
Friends in Need, Juna Mahal, 2020Courtesy of Karen Knorr

Where all have you stayed during your trips?


Mostly in wildlife reserves such as Satpura National Park (Reni Pani Lodge), Bandhavgarh (Samode Safai Lodge), and Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur (The Bagh). We stayed in the Lutyens Bungalow in Delhi and with friends in Bangalore. I loved staying in Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur.

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