Art History Photography in South Asia
by
Christopher Pinney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0037

Introduction

A century and half on, the study of photography in South Asia remains in its infancy. Photography reached India in 1840, just a few months after its announcement in Europe, and by the 1850s, there were thriving photographic societies in Calcutta and Bombay. The 19th century generated a host of significant practitioners, Indian and British, who generated significant primary documentation. Most of this would remain undisturbed until the mid-1970s, when a slew of text-lite and picture-heavy anthologies started to appear. The colonial specificity of these images and practitioners has, for the most part, been the source of neutrality or even nostalgia rather than critical engagement, and the ongoing project of basic documentation has often been difficult to reconcile with theoretical ambition. The bulk of early documentation has been notable for its focus on the contents of official archives and for its Orientalism and “ornamentalism” (i.e., its fascination with the baubles of empire). Colonial landscape photography and broadly ethnographic images, together with portraits of Indian kings have, until recently, tended to crowd out other dimensions of photographic practice such as vernacular studio practice (of the kind which has come to dominate the critical response to West African photography, for instance). Photography in South Asia has largely been approached with a view to understanding what is “Indian” about it, and this has entailed a marginalization of historical complexity and process in order to make the cultural category of India more visible. One consequence of this is that the majority of writing on photography in India follows a one-way trajectory from the general case of photography to its specific (belated) iteration in India. A reverse movement then becomes difficult, and very little work on photography in India has contributed to broader discussions about photography as a world system. Given the intensity and scale of early photography in India, this is surprising. The earliest publications have been closely tied to their image sources and archives in which they are held. Initially, archives such as the India Office Collection played a strategically central role, supplemented by certain private collections. The entry of the largest private collection, Alkazi Collection of Photography in Delhi, into academic publishing has transformed the nature of critical engagement with early photography. The post-1970s literature was largely focused on documentary images from the previous century. Although a new literature (largely gallery commissioned catalogue texts) that engages art-practice photography is emerging, work by Indian documentary photographers in independent India has been very neglected, with several major global figures almost invisible in current literature. India’s sub-continental identity has recently become the site of productive debate. Partitioned into the Republic of India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (subsequently Bangladesh), British India has had a complex afterlife, both culturally and conceptually. While for some Indian art-photographers the colonial archive has been important as a citational reservoir, for others (such as documentary photographers associated with DRIK in Dhaka) “India” as a historical category has little resonance when compared to the global circuits and aesthetics within which they develop their practices.

General Overviews

The appearance of Worswick and Embree 1976 marks the (re-)emergence of 19th century Indian photography as an area of interest to both academics and connoisseurs. It reflects, in large part, the importance of an official archive of colonial photography in the Indian Office Library in London and research by its deputy librarian (and subsequent director) Ray Desmond, who published his own introduction a few years later in Desmond 1982. Thomas 1981 marks the emergence of a parallel scholarly engagement within India, but reflects limited access to key archives. Falconer 2001 fuses images from the India Office Collection with ones from the Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection and continues the tradition established by Desmond of fine archival research, mixing key Indian photographers among already established colonial practitioners. Another private collection (Ehrenfeld Collection) is exclusively foregrounded in Johnson 2003. Dehejia 2000 advances the discussion through essays engaging political and cultural aspects of individual photographers. Although the pioneer volume Worswick and Embree 1976 included a few vernacular images (i.e., created by local studio or amateur photographers), later overviews ignored this huge field, choosing to circle around an increasingly stable canon of photographers whose work was deposited in institutional archives. Pinney 2008 attempts to approach photography as a disruptive and protean technique. Sinha 2004, an overview of photographic practice in a diversity of genres in Independent India, highlights the absence of other similar works.

  • Dehejia, Vidya, ed. India Through the Lens: Photography 1840–1911. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2000.

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    Seven contributors provide a better relation of text to image than its predecessors. Useful essays by Falconer on ethnographic photography and by Gary D. Sampson on Samuel Bourne and Lala Deen Dayal, which engage more overtly political questions about colonial visuality and the manner in which different visual and cultural traditions might leave photographic traces. Exceptional image quality.

  • Desmond, Ray. Photography in Victorian India. London: HMSO, 1982.

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    A pioneering selection of images from the India Office Library (British Library) collection. The work helped consolidate what has become the canon of 19th century Indian photography and defines the parameters of much of which has since followed. The text is learned, distilling a great deal of research, but devoid of political alertness, and hence appears to echo the Raj-nostalgia of early Thatcherite Britain. Reprographic quality is notably poor.

  • Falconer, John. India: Pioneering Photographers 1850–1900. London: British Library, 2001.

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    A beautifully printed updating of Desmond’s project. Falconer is the most rigorous archival scholar working in the field, and a short introductory essay outlines an essential narrative of how colonial and commercial photographic interests intersected in 19th century India. Presents British Library images together with those from the Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection. Useful biographical notes on photographers.

  • Johnson, Robert Flynn. Reverie and Reality: Nineteenth-Century Photographs of India From the Ehrenfeld Collection. San Francisco: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2003.

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    Reputable scholars contributed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s promotion of Ehrenfeld’s private collection (which lacked coherence or any real discoveries, and was subsequently sold at Sotheby’s London in 2005). John Falconer, Sophie Gordon, and Omar Khan provide brief essays with useful material on figures such as William Brooke O’Shaughnessy and Hurrichund Chintamon.

  • Pinney, Christopher. The Coming of Photography in India: The 2006 Panizzi Lectures. London: British Library, 2008.

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    Chiefly focused on the British Library collection, this surveys debates and photographic output from 1840 through to 1920, relating them to book history debates. Focusing on the changing material and technical conditions of photography it rejects Foucauldian approaches and foregrounds a protean but clearly identifiable photographic practice.

  • Sinha, Gayatri. Middle Aged Spread: Imagining India 1947–2004. Delhi: Anant Art Gallery, 2004

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    Exhibition-related publication covering Cartier-Bresson and ten India photographers. Mixes photojournalism (such as S. Paul and Kishor Parekh) with art-practice (eg. Dayanita Singh) and provides a unique overview of photography in independent India. Sinha’s text does a good job of positioning these images within global circuits of apprenticeship and exhibition.

  • Thomas, G. A History of Photography in India 1840–1980. Hyderabad, India: Andhra Pradesh State Akademi of Photography, 1981.

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    A pioneering work making the best of scant resources and limited access to archives. Thomas’ work established the framework for much future work. However, largely superseded by subsequent work that it helped to stimulate.

  • Worswick, Clark, and Aisnlie Embree. The Last Empire: Photography in British India, 1855–1911. New York: Aperture, 1976.

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    Returned many key images and photographers to public consciousness after decades of neglect. The image selection largely reflects advice from Ray Desmond at the India Office Library, and Worswick’s text is indebted to Desmond’s research. Reprographic quality is excellent.

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