Reverie And Reality: Nineteenth Century Photographs Of India; And, Traces Of India: Photography, Architecture And The Politics Of Representation

by Matt Damsker


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Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth Century Photographs of India from the Ehrenfeld Collection BY Robert Flynn Johnson, John Falconer, Sophie Gordon, Omar Khan. San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2004. 190 pages, 118 ill. (color). ISBN 0-88401-109-7 (paperback); ISBN 0-88402-220-0 (hardback). Library of Congress no. 2003-108457. List price $50; typical price $35-40.

Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900 Pelizzari, Maria Antonella, ed. Montréal, CCA; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 2003. 344 pages, 183 ill. (110 in color). ISBN 0-920785-74-3 (paperback); ISBN 0-300-09896-0 (hardcover). Library of Congress no. 2003-100508. List price $49.95 Canadian, $50 U.S.; typical price $40-46 U.S. (Available in English and French.)

If photography had been invented solely to document the visual richness of the Indian subcontinent, it might have been enough of a purpose for the medium. From the soaring Hindu architecture of its cities to the seemingly eternal sprawl of its impoverished humanity, from the lushness of its river valleys to the haunted desolation of its mountain passes, and from the vigorousness of its merchant castes to the bejeweled and turbaned imperiousness of its maharajas, India is the sort of locale that cameras feast upon, inexhaustibly.

It is no surprise then that we now have two richly plated photography books that chronicle a good deal of India's 19th-century magnificence and mystique. "Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth-Century Photographs from the Ehrenfeld Collection" has been published on the occasion of the recent exhibition of San Francisco vascular surgeon Dr. William K. Ehrenfeld's superb Indian images at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. At 188 pages and with 118 exemplary prints by the likes of Linnaeus Tripe, Samuel Bourne, John Murray, and Lala Deen Dayal, the book is a sheer visual pleasure, offering a truly dreamlike photo-parade of high and low India--monuments and landscapes, daily life and formally posed dignitaries. If these photos cannot induce reverie, nothing can.

On the other hand, "Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900" is a far more scholarly exploration, co-published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven to accompany the exhibition of the same name (it opened at CCA in the fall and then traveled to Yale). At 343 pages and with 110 color and 73 black-and-white photos, the book is arguably a classic addition not only to the record of Indian photography, but also to the intellectual debate about photography's ultimate impact on our world. Through 12 essays by a remarkable panel of Anglo, American and, Indian scholars, everything from "The Compulsions of Visual Representation in Colonial India" to "Colonial Amnesia and the Old Regime" to "The Ethics of Representation" are intensely deconstructed.

Thus, John Falconer details Joseph Lawton's photographic survey of Ceylon, while Janet Dewan studies closely Linnaeus Tripe's panoramic shots of the Thanjavur Inscription. And Narayani Gupti's essay on photography's important role in pictorializing the culture-shifting "Mutiny" of 1857 locates the ultimate irony of the whole affair: "Official India saw it as an honorable duty to keep the memory of 1857 alive; 1957 was celebrated in post-Independence India with commemorative functions, a ritual issue of stamps, the renaming of roads for Indian heroes, and the publication of official accounts of the rebellion. In these most of the illustrations used were British photographs, though the narrative had changed--brave Indians fighting the cruel British."

To the photography collector, of course, the images themselves will speak more potently than the intellectualism that seeks to place them in such politically charged contexts. Ultimately, the sheer evocativeness and sense-of-place delivered by these photos speaks volumes, as in an 1856 albumen print by Dr. William Henry Pigou of the columns of intricately carved columns of the Hoysalesvara Temple, with its seemingly infinite repetitions of Hindu symbology. As for Linnaeus Tripe's remarkable panorama of the immense Thanjavur inscription around the basement of the Great Pagoda at Tanjore, it is a legitimate wonder of the photographic world, composed of individually trimmed prints made from 21 negatives. Seeing it, it's hard to imagine that, as Janet Dewan writes, "Like the rest of Tripe's work, which was largely undervalued or forgotten between the 1870s and 1970s when it was rediscovered, the Thanjavur inscription panorama was apparently mislaid or discarded by many of the institutions to which it had been given in 1861; only five copies can now be located."

"Reverie and Reality," of course, locates further examples of Tripe's work in doing justice to Dr. Ehrenfeld's collection. It also takes a much breezier and less cerebral tack than "Traces of India," with a concise essay by John Falconer on the early years of photography in India and not much more in the way of postmodern philosophy than a couple of quotes from Susan Sontag's influential 1997 essay, "On Photography." With the air of a discoverer, Sontag declaimed what poets from Philip Larkin to James Merrill had already intuited, to wit: "A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs--especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past--are incitements to reverie."

Nothing renders Sontag's assertion more convincing than these absolutely dreamlike photos, with their astonishing crispness of detail. Again and again, the intricacies not only of Indian architecture but of everything from the thatched roofs of Bengali villages to the textures of ceremonial clothing seem to shimmer in our gaze, as if in the noon heat of the subcontinental sun, through the power of these exposures. Samuel Bourne's serenely composed 1865 images of massive stone fortresses in Bharatpur, for example, convey a sense of monumentality without slighting the finely grained delicacy of the crafted pillars. And there are dozens of shots by unknown photographers that display the harmonies and imbalances of daily life--from the Taj Mahal to sharp-eyed spice merchants seemingly exalted by the richness of their surrounding delicacies, to expressive images of British colonial ladies being drawn in their rickshaws by untouchables. And a hand-colored tribal photo of the Council of the Jaipur State is an almost epic, near-cinematic document.

As for sheer mood and a native sense of India's great spaces, the subtle compositions of India's most esteemed early photographer, Lala Deen Dayal, convey an understanding of India's spirit and its situation--ancient and indomitable, yet shadowed by colonialism--that results in photography as haunting as any you will see. Indeed, where Tripe, Bourne, and the other early Western masters of the medium were documenting the architecture and attitude of a civilization that was, inevitably, as alien to them as another planet, Dayal and other, often unknown, Indian photographers came at their world from the inside out, locating a timeless reality that incites us not merely to reverie but also to respect.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.