- India: Pioneering Photographers 1850–1900
This book is the catalogue of an exhibit that was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Brunei Gallery in late 2001. The exhibit consisted of approximately 150 photographs drawn from the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections and a private collection. The catalogue contains 62 full-page plates of photographs, an informative essay by John Falconer, Curator of Photographs at the Oriental and India Office Collections, and thumbnail reproductions of every photograph that appeared in the exhibit. It is a somewhat truncated version of a 2000 show and catalogue at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., titled “India Under the Lens.” That exhibition included most of the photographs in the book under review as well as various others from additional collections, notably some of Felice Beato’s iconic photographs of the aftermath of the 1857 Rebellion. The resulting catalogue was also more substantial than the one under review, with 11 essays by seven authors, including two by Falconer, and more plates of better quality, including several impressive fold-out pages of panoramic photographs. These differences aside, the two exhibit catalogues share the same objectives. Both seek above all to honor the technical and aesthetic accomplishments of the photographers, an intent that is made evident in the title “India: Pioneering Photographers.” Both also are sensitive to the fact that the images often served imperial purposes and carried colonial meanings, and the photographs selected have been grouped in categories that highlight this fact.
This catalogue is reflective of a renewed interest in photographic representations of empire. As I write, a remarkable exhibit of photographs taken in Central Africa during the colonial era is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. James Ryan, Christopher Pinney, and others have recently probed colonial photography’s ideological and social purposes. Falconer makes it clear in his introduction that the photographs in the exhibition should not be seen as unmediated reflections of reality, but rather as carefully crafted images that carried messages supportive of the British Raj. The colonial state sponsored large-scale photographic projects on India’s architectural heritage, which stressed its “political decay and economic stagnation” (19) under Mughal rule, and ethnographic surveys that sought to expose the exoticism and backwardness of Indian peoples, most notoriously in the case of Maurice Portman’s portraits of Andaman islanders. The British also established a visual record of their own achievements in India with photographs of newly built harbors and railways, prosperous cities captured in panoramic views, and the grand durbars that celebrated their rule. A very different India was represented in the exquisite landscape photographs of Samuel Bourne and Donald Macfarlane, whose picturesque images of mountains, streams, and forests were invariably empty of peoples and evocative of Europe. Although passing attention is given in the exhibit to Indian photographers, the most famous being Lala Deen Dayal, the catalogue gives little indication that they pursued a distinct aesthetic agenda. (Vidya Dehejia, curator of the Sackler exhibit and editor of its accompanying catalogue, is quite explicit on this point, dismissing Judith Gutman’s arguments in favor of an Indian photographic aesthetic in her 1982 book, Through Indian Eyes: 19th and Early 20th Century Photography from India). This points to an unspoken tension that runs through both exhibits: on the one hand they present the aesthetic achievements of the photographers as existing outside culture and ideology, while on the other they insist that the images they produced cannot be understood and evaluated within acknowledging their complicity in the colonial project.
Moreover, for all the wealth of images in this catalogue, its choice of subject matter is disappointingly narrow and predictable. The photographs for the most part represent the India that was intended for public view-picturesque vistas, productive enterprises, exotic peoples. Where is the India that most of its inhabitants experienced? We see plenty of princes and tribal peoples, but no peasants, no merchants, no sepoys, no servants (with one exception). Nor do we see the famine victims in late nineteenth century Madras whose emaciated bodies were the...