Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2010
Christopher Pinney The Coming of Photography in India London: British Library, 2008. 160 pp.; 120 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780712349727)

For more than a decade, Christopher Pinney has dominated the visual anthropology of photography. His first major book, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), argued that, despite its long imbrication in projects of colonial documentation and moral education, photography in India is a discourse, an institution, and a set of practices that enabled self-idealization, social masquerade, and a creative destabilization of the very identities that photography, in its colonial mode, had attempted to establish. He analyzed the staging of profilmic moments and the techniques of overpainting, collage, and double exposure by which photographs were resignified in order to demonstrate that the indexicality of the photograph guaranteed little at the level of meaning. For this reason, Camera Indica was known less for its Barthesian affinities signaled by the book’s title than for its association with a historicist social constructivism, heralded by its subtitle’s implicit citation of Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

The Coming of Photography in India originated as a series of lectures delivered at the British Library. It is a dazzling piece of scholarship, typical of Pinney’s oeuvre in its capacious erudition. Handsomely illustrated with reproductions of both photographs and other imagery, it is written in a lucid, accessible prose. But the mellifluousness of Pinney’s style is not an alibi for theoretical elementariness. This is an ambitious book that seeks to reshape our understanding of the relationship between technical possibility, aesthetic convention, and social form. By its end, Pinney would have us understand the camera as an anticipatory dream-machine whose effects would include nothing less than the technics of electoral democracy!

The book takes readers back to the early days of photography in India (its arrival in 1840 makes clear that geopolitical difference entailed little time lag, despite the evolutionism of British imperial policy) and back to Camera Indica. Almost immediately, Pinney dissociates himself from the readings to which the latter was subject, and restates (or reinvents) his position, noting that a “category error” has afflicted visual anthropology of the constructivist sort. Because the profilmic moment is staged does not mean that its recording is a falsification, he reminds us. Pinney argues that photography is indeed a (chemical) tracing of the real, but that the photograph is not evidence of social reality, understood in statistical or normative terms. Moreover, because the camera records an “ineradicable surfeit,” being incapable—as Siegfried Kracauer reminded us so many years ago—of the constitutive exclusions that socially mediated memory images enact, it is a reservoir for possible counter-readings. According to Pinney, this latter fact makes the camera capable of “disturbing” the social order, however constituted. Like Pinney’s first book, this one is stretched between two apparently dissimilar commitments: to understand the eventful arrival of photography in India as a contingent “conjunction of apparatus with photographers and subjects,” and to evade the temptation of “too much specificity” (7). For those who endorsed Camera Indica as a manifesto for cultural freedom, The Coming of Photography will come as a surprise, though it is important to recognize that Pinney’s turn to concepts like Friedrich Kittler’s “data ratio” is not an attempt to disavow interpretive flexibility; it is, rather, to ground it in technology.

The book is organized into three sections: “Photography as Cure,” “Photography as Poison,” and “Photography as Prophecy.” The first two titles owe a debt to Jacques Derrida’s concept of the pharmakon, in which therapeutic and morbid powers are seen to be internal to a single structure. The “cure,” here, is something of a misnomer, and Pinney would have done well to retain his first word of choice, namely “remedy” (17), insofar as “cure” implies a termination of the ambivalent relation, which, for Derrida, remains unresolvable. Nonetheless, the desired cure is directed at a deficit in representation, and refers to photography’s presumptive capacity (from the perspective of its early practitioners) to supplement and indeed substitute for modes of depiction that were vulnerable to weaknesses in observational method, technical skill, and other biases of the artist or documentarist.

Like John Tagg, in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), Pinney charts a history in which photography is allied to governmentality, made an instrument of policing, and interlaced with other practices of surveillance. Reading the accounts of colonial bureaucrats and photographers when the camera was still a heavy and awkward apparatus, Pinney shows that photography was deeply dependent on other infrastructures, including not only transport routes but also protocols of authority and labor enabling the timely movement of cumbersome supplies. In the petulant asides of the narratives written by James Waterhouse of the Royal Artillery, for example, Pinney discerns a tension between the temporality of the technology and that of the subjects (to whit: after elaborate preparations in the anticipation of imagery that would document social type, Waterhouse was confronted by individuals who arrived after sundown and thus the possibility of being photographed). As Pinney reads it, Waterhouse’s narratives disclose both the condition of possibility of photography and the limits of its singular deployment in the service of power.

However, if something like an “elective affinity” is initially observable between photography and the colonizing habitus (cultural codes of intelligibility), this is soon mirrored by another set of affinities, made possible by the miniaturization of the apparatus and the incorporation of photography into other circuits of recognition and meaning-making, such as the networks of prestation between Indian royals for which portrait photography seemed to offer such an appropriate medium. Yet even here, the technology is both remedy and poison, and if the portraiture produced by Indian photographers seemed to offer the medium for cultivating national consciousness, the aesthetic standardization, what Pinney calls the “aesthetic of the same” that came to define portraiture, also undermined the principles of social difference and hierarchy that had sustained the habitus of the pre-colonial world. As Pinney shows, Indians like Syed Ahmad linked this standardization with bureaucratic abstraction. They also attributed to it a doubled tendency to “invisibilize” Indian sources of power even as they made visible previously powerless figures. Pinney corroborates this claim, and, in a particularly Benjaminian gesture, argues that this twofold development depended on the subjection of all to the de-auraticizing power of the camera, and not on the failure to photograph royalty. It was thus not the disappearance of the powerful, but the picturing of them in a manner identical to that by which herdsmen and courtesans were also portrayed, that sounded the death-knell for India’s old regime.

And yet, as Pinney shows us, the colonial fantasies of a power anchored in photographic indexicality were also quickly called into question. Not because indexicality was repudiated, but, to the contrary, because people grasped that the testimonial capacity of photographs applied only to the fact of something having been there, as Barthes would say. But what was there remained elusive. Thus, the hopes that photography would enable nationally unified police and detection operations ran into what the colonial authorities referred to as an Indian incapacity to read the image, and what in the hands of anticolonial agitators became a refusal to accede to the interpretive claims of the colonial authorities as inscribed in the captions accompanying images. These captions became necessary as the photographs became increasingly suspect for not showing the criminal events they were supposed to document.

Benjamin praised Eugène Atget for photographing Paris as the scene of a crime, and Pinney reinflects this observation by remarking on the exteriority of the crime to the photographic mise-en-scène. So, images that supposedly depict the “Chhehart Railway Station, where train was looted” [sic] (86) are revealed to be simply the pictures of an absented transport hub. Meanwhile, survivors of the Jallianwallabagh massacre could point to the bullet holes in the Amritsar fort’s walls as evidence of colonial brutality, undermining other images whose captions sought to legitimate the massacre/colonial suppression as a response to native unruliness. The “data ratio” of the photograph, says Pinney, ensured this possibility. On this basis, he refuses to read photography as a mere “epiphenomenon” of discourse and power. It is rather photography that enables the kind of political conflict that can take the form of a war of images (93).

Up to this point, I find Pinney’s book to be enormously convincing. It is in the last chapter that his claims begin to lose some of their persuasiveness. The first of these is that “photography constitutes an increasingly confined space in which its technology seems best suited to the capturing of individuals rather than collectivities” (103). In other words, according to Pinney, photography seeks the individual (“or at a pinch the couple”) as the ideal object of its representation, and this pursuit defines the history of photography in India. Here, then, is the technological prophecy of democracy in the mode of individualism. The camera wanted and produced that kind of subject who sought her or his mirror image in portraiture, and who used portraiture to escape the shackles of prescribed identity.

The last chapter is haunted by Pinney’s own earlier argument, namely that the surfeit of information in photographs remains available as a resource for reading against the interpretive grain. In the album pages that he adduces to show that the individual became the default setting of photography in India there are images of groups, and when confronted by these, Pinney can only assert that those who appear there “form a line almost as though they were waiting to be split one from the other in a process of redemptive individuation” (116). Acknowledging that prior modes of representation were not entirely abolished by new ones, Pinney nonetheless claims that, “Photography invented the face, rather than the profile as everyone’s right. . . . In India prior to photography only the gods and kings had faces” (137). This is surely true, and in this way one can speak of a democratizing access to representation. But the question of right is rather irreducible to the argument that individuals are the technically most felicitous objects for the camera.

The exquisite, tightly focused portraits of half-naked men (136–37) that accompany Pinney’s argument certainly underwrite an aesthetic claim to the accomplishment of portrait photography in India. And when Pinney draws on his earlier work in Camera Indica to suggest that the performance of ideal selves in front of the camera, coupled with photography’s inability to distinguish between existing and subjunctive identities, he makes a strong case that the history of India’s democratization was dependent on this doubled movement by which individuation and the fantasy of self-transformation were linked. But what of crowd photography? The crowd can, of course, be read differently (contrast, for example, images of bodies in the bathing ghats of the Ganges, which so constantly adorn the tourist brochures distributed by the Indian government, with those of the serially seated, spectacled sunbathers photographed by Weegee at Coney Island). Nonetheless, recent history (whether in Thailand in 1992 or Iran in 2009) has shown that it is precisely in the moment that the crowd apprehends its image and grasps its objective status as a collectivity that the ephemeral gathering becomes a more perduring social movement and a self-conscious, objectively existing political force. The camera plays a crucial role in such processes. Perhaps Pinney would agree, remarking only that these latter images can do their work because they are digital and hence circulable in a global network, where passage through the space of the foreign, and beneath the eyes of the international guardians of rights, conditions the force of collective images as oppositional. It is also possible that the “enthusiasm for the sentimental realism of portraiture” (145) described by Pinney is constantly being sought in the imagery of the collective (we tend to forget all but Neda in Iran, and recall best the lone man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square).

While I am not entirely convinced of the final turn in Pinney’s argument, for which the counter-examples seem so numerous, The Coming of Photography to India is nonetheless a welcome provocation to think anew about the persisting disturbance that is photography—long desired, belatedly invented, and exuberantly received at home and abroad, and most certainly in India.

Rosalind C. Morris
Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

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