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As any bibliophile knows, art books can be both purveyors of information about objects and objects of beauty themselves. This is certainly the case with the exquisite catalogue created for the recent exhibition on early photographs of India held at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC. India through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911, edited by Vidya Dehejia, has a carefully coordinated aesthetic appeal—from the fold-out pages revealing the protracted splendor of panoramic photographs to the sepia-colored frontispieces of each section designed to match the sepia-toned photographs that follow. Eleven essays, written by seven contributors and varying from three to twenty-two pages, comprise the body of the book. For each essay, the text is provided first, followed by a separate block of full-page reproductions of pertinent photographs in the exhibition. This format allows the reader to focus on the photographs without the “distraction” of any text (beyond a simple identification of each image), thus furthering the impression of the book as an objet d’art.
In fact, the catalogue was designed to recall a specific object. As Dehejia states in the first essay, the intent was to “recapture the experience of browsing through a photo album” (26). She explains 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. Thus, the catalogue’s layout presents the images in the spirit of their original context.
To present works in their original context is a noble pursuit, but when the objects are from the colonial period, particularly photographs of the conquered land (in this case, British-ruled India), concerns inevitably arise. Will we be so seduced by Samuel Bourne’s silvery images of the Himalayan peaks that we neglect to register the imperialist motivations behind them? When we look at the textually divorced, full-page reproductions of ethnographic photographs, such as the 1890s images of the “native” Andamanese people, are we scholars or voyeurs? In other words, does this book critique the colonial gaze framing these images or merely replicate it? While these photographs are artworks, they are also documents recording and reproducing, among other things, colonial modes of constructing knowledge about India.
As is always the case, it is up to the text to contextualize the art. In this particular case, because of the physical separation between text and image, the burden upon the text is heavier than normal. Does it bear the weight? The answer is, for the most part, yes. At best, the essays present the reader with both the necessary, basic factual information pertaining to the photographs and insightful, in-depth analyses. At worst, they retell exotic tales of the Raj (British rule in India) and leave the photographs to (mis)speak for themselves. Overall, however, the book provides an excellent introduction to early photography in India—outlining its history, prominent photographers, main subjects, technical processes, and, yes, the role of photography in the colonial enterprise.
Serving as an introduction to the rest of the book, “Fixing a Shadow” by Vidya Dehejia gives an excellent overview of photography’s history in India. Dehejia explains that the exhibition and catalogue focus on “the golden age of photography on the Indian subcontinent” (20) 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 second essay, “The Appeal of the Panorama” by John Falconer, highlights the panoramic photograph’s ability to impart a narrative quality to images of cities such as Calcutta and Bombay as well as its necessity for technical skill. The most common mode of producing a panorama was to take overlapping images and paste them together, a process more complicated than it may seem. Not only did the photographer have to align the images precisely, he had to match the tonal qualities.
The third essay, “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography,” also by Falconer, discusses how photography quickly gained “implicit acknowledgment as another tool for accumulating knowledge that would reinforce ideas of imperial legitimacy” in British India (74). Specifically, Falconer examines two documentary trends—that of architecture and ethnography. This includes such things as the massive, eight-volume ethnographic project, The People of India, carried out between 1868 and 1875 using nearly five hundred photographs to “capture” various types of Indians.
One of the best essays is David Harris’s “Topography and Memory: Felice Beato’s Photographs of India, 1858-1859.” The essay focuses on Beato’s images taken in the city of Lucknow several months after the Indian uprising in July of 1857, an event that loomed large on the minds of the British. Specifically, Harris describes how Beato consciously crafted his photographs to suit people’s memories of the event. The most disturbing photograph in the entire catalogue is undoubtedly Beato’’s Interior of the Secundra Bagh after the Slaughter of 2000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment, 1857, Lucknow (146). The photograph depicts four Indians and a horse positioned against the remains of a two-story, European-style pavilion with human skeletons (representing the 2000 Indians slaughtered on the site) and other debris on the ground. The image becomes even more disturbing when one learns that Beato literally composed the scene. The photographer not only hired Indians to pose at the very place of the event but also “arranged for disinterred bones to be scattered in the foreground” (126). Harris ends his essay by asking the reader to consider how this knowledge affects our reading of the work.
Another highlight is “Undiscovered Amateur: Macfarlane and the Picturesque” by Jane Ricketts. Between 1859 and 1862, the Scot Macfarlane—hitherto overlooked in scholarship—took beautiful, haunting images of the countryside around his Calcutta residence. If Beato’s aforementioned photograph is the most disturbing image in the catalogue, then Macfarlane’s Rocks, Darjeeling, with its almost abstract rock forms and waterfall, is the most innovative. An interesting comparison can be made between Macfarlane’s attempts to create “picturesque” photographs and the efforts of perhaps the best-known professional photographer working in India, Samuel Bourne. Bourne is in fact the subject of the next essay, “Photographer of the Picturesque: Samuel Bourne,” by Gary D. Sampson. Bourne 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. He is probably best known for his beautiful depictions of the Himalayas. Yet, as 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” (174).
These essays are followed by “India of the Princes and Maharajas,” in which Charles Allen recounts tales of the princes as an accompaniment to portrait photographs of the Indian rulers. This in turn is followed by a three-page piece on “Maharajas as Photographers” by Dehejia and a second essay by Allen, “Imperial Image: The Grand Durbars of 1903 and 1911.” The next essay stands out because it is the only one that discusses a professional Indian photographer; “Lala Deen Dayal: Between Two Worlds,” by Sampson, provides an overview of the work and career of the prolific Deen Dayal, active between 1874 and 1910. Finally, Michael Gray adds a brief essay, “Shades of Sepia: Photographic Processes,” to provide the reader with technological aspects of early photography.
Ultimately, India through the Lens is an excellent overview of early photography in India. Despite some negative implications of the text-image separation, the care with which the images were reproduced surely will highlight these photographs as works of art worthy of study. Moreover, the various essays provide a fertile, introductory groundwork from which to understand them. Exhibitions and catalogues such as this one should encourage more people to consider the fascinating and rich field of India’s early photography.