NEW YORK – Timeless India | 19th century photography of India, an exhibition that delineates how the camera shaped colonial India, is being shown at the Aicon Gallery in New York, from December 6, through February 12, 2019.
These photographs mark the arrival and entail the early phases of photography in India in the 19th century.
The period between 1840-1911 was considered the “golden age” of photography of India, where the ‘professional’ reigned supreme, and the field was dominated by a few individual masters such as Captain Linnaeus Tripe.
The exhibition at Aicon features early documentations by Baron Alexis De La Grange, Dr. John Murray and two unknown photographers, apart from works by Capt. Tripe. These photographers focused on documenting and archiving everyday imageries of the natives, landmarks and monuments, and many scenic pastoral landscapes and heritage sites.
Although this is the first such exhibition at Aicon, an expansive exhibition entitled ‘India through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911’, was held at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, from December 3, 2000 – March 25, 2001.
At that exhibition, the Indian subcontinent was presented in 134 photographs shot between 1840 and 1911. The exhibition highlighted the art of the panoramic photograph; the British passion for architectural and ethnographic documentation; and works by photographers Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne, and Lala Deen Dayal.
The curator of the Smithsonian exhibition, Vidya Dehejia, had said: “the simple ability to produce a photograph was in itself a marvel . . . The early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the pursuit of a dream, an obsession with cajoling nature into a miraculous reflection upon a surface where it could be captured and retained for all time.”
Dehejia explained that the “golden age of photography” on the Indian subcontinent started from its introduction in 1840—less than a year after the invention of the daguerreotype in Europe—until the Kodak camera became commonly available in South Asia, about 1911.
The exhibition was accompanied by a beautifully illustrated book, ‘India Through the Lens’, comprising of essays by among others, Vidya Dehejia, John Falconer, David Harris, Jane Ricketts, Gary D. Sampson, Charles Allen, and Michael Gray, with chapters that focused on the work of particular photographers or genres.
BookVerdict.com had noted that Lala Deen Dayal’s works of architecture and landscapes were “detailed albumen prints that are superior to anything done since”, and Samuel Bourne’s landscape views of isolated Indian villages were the earliest taken of those areas. Apart from delicately hand-colored portraits by Herzog and Higgins, included were also Felice Beato’s 1857-58 photographs of the Lucknow attack and the picturesque 1860s landscapes of Donald Horne Macfarlane, a talented amateur. Some of the maharajas themselves took up photography.
Deborah Hutton, writing in Carereviews.org, had noted of the exhibition at the Smithsonian that in nineteenth-century India, the new technology of photography was accepted as an art form, rather than viewed as a mere mode of documentation as it was in other parts of the world at that time. These artworks commonly were collected and viewed in large, handsome albums.
A chapter in the book on the photographer Samuel Bourne noted that he worked in India between 1863 and 1870, during which time he traveled throughout the subcontinent—with the assistance of thirty to forty porters to carry his bulky photographic equipment—and produced hundreds of images.
Bourne is probably best known for his beautiful depictions of the Himalayas. Yet, as essayist Sampson explains, it is important to recognize the role of colonialism in Bourne’s photos: “The idealism of the picturesque that generally inflected Bourne’s vision of India was complicit in the production of a deceptively benign representation of India as a relatively safe and exotically scenic land for favorable cultural and commercial exploit”.
Another book, ‘India: pioneering photographers: 1850-1900’, was written by John Falconer. It noted that in addition to the artistic achievements of international masters of photography like Dr. John Murray and Bourne, official encouragement of the medium as a documentary tool came from the East India Company.
By the mid-1850s a remarkable visual ‘archive’ had been created, which charted the architectural heritage and ethnic composition of the subcontinent, notes for Falconer’s book. The book traced the development of photography in India from 1850 to 1900, when the ascendency of the large format camera and print began to crumble in the face of the simplified amateur camera.
Drawn from the collections of the British Library, and Howard and Jane Ricketts, the book is illustrated with some of the finest photographs produced in India during the latter half of the nineteenth century, many never previously reproduced.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)