Documenting the Indian landscape through the eye of a vintage camera

Documenting the Indian landscape through the eye of a vintage camera

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 28 May, 2016
Darjeeling, the loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Bourne & Shepherd, c. 1880.
He may be largely forgotten today, but Samuel Bourne, a British photographer who made the Indian landscape in the 19th century his central subject, still remains a favourite among photography connoisseurs and visual arts students, writes Bhumika Popli.

On 23 January 1863, when an amateur photographer from England arrived in Kolkata, he had no idea that his work will become an important record of Indian history. The young 29-year-old photographer, Samuel Bourne, who was also a bank clerk, brought with him large quantities of photographic equipment to document India. And he accomplished the task with flying colours. He captured the spirit of the subcontinent with much enthusiasm and love. He eventually teamed with Charles Shepherd, another photographer, and set up a photographic studio named Bourne & Shepherd which exists till date.

The studio was highly prestigious. It was patronised by the royalty, nobility, Europeans, Indians and a mushrooming upper-middle class. While Shepherd overlooked the studio and managed the portraiture, it was Bourne who became the travelling photographer, taking pictures along the length and breadth of the country. Bourne was certainly the more visible of the two, travelling extensively. It won’t be wrong to say that Bourne soon became the photographic expert on India. Known for his architectural and topographical photography (especially mountain and hill views), Bourne’s work immortalised the Indian landscape and was fervently consumed by the British public.

Tasveer, an organisation committed to the art of photography, has put together an exhibition presenting a range of 19th-century vintage photographs by Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd and the Bourne & Shepherd studio, sourced from the rich photographic holdings of MAP (Museum of Art & Photography, Bangalore). The exhibition, Figures in Time: Bourne & Shepherd opened on 28th May at Exhibit 320, and continues till 10 June.

Nathaniel Gaskell, curator and associate director of the Museum of Art & Photography, Bangalore spoke to Guardian 20 about the importance of the exhibition. “One of the highlights of this exhibition is that​ ​Tasveer has enlarged some of the images, and digitally enhanced them, so the audiences are actually seeing select works in a way they’ve never really been seen before. As these photographs were shot on a large plate camera, while the original photographs were quite small, they contained a lot of detail and information. This really lends them to being blown up. By looking at the details, and close-ups of some of the figures who populated Bourne’s photographs, some over 150 years old, we see a whole new side to Bourne, and I think this is what makes this particular show important. There’s something strangely intimate and almost voyeuristic about looking at figures in a landscape, or in a street scene, which up until now had just appeared as small dots or outlines, by enlarging and digitally enhancing the images, we can now see their expressions, and we get sucked into their world. In many ways this is the beauty of 19th-century photography, to peek into scenes that unfolded so long ago, and let our minds drift into these distant moments in time,” Gaskell said. 

An adventurer at heart, Bourne travelled the subcontinent, widely-producing over 2,000 negatives including some of the finest 19th-century travel photography. He took several expeditions in the seven years he spent here and photographed the Imperial India, from the Himalayas down to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). One look at his work and you understand that the pictures he produced represent a kind of visual culture that packaged and represented a specific idea of India.

The photographs are like tourist souvenirs and postcards, which is easily understandable and acceptable as Bourne was a wanderer. There are various photographs one can look at with awe and wonder given that the photographic equipment used during that time was bulky and the technology was not as developed as it is today. Seeing the wonderful train shot in Darjeeling titled, The loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, fills you with awe and wonder as you think about the time when the photograph was taken. Shot in the year 1880 with the large plate camera, the image depicts the genius of Bourne as a photographer. Bourne had abandoned his career as a bank clerk to pursue photography which combined his vocation as a landscape photographer and as a commercial artist.

There was a reason the photographs were not widely used as postcards, book illustrations and views for albums having to do with the limitations of photographic technology. Owing to this the photographs released were of small size. Tasveer presents the juxtaposition of original vintage photographs and modern reprints which reflect the development of photographic technology in the last 150 years. We tend to compare the circumstances present at that time with the ease of producing an image today given the modern facilities available today. The exhibition also makes us think how photography played a part in the larger colonial context. The studio was commissioned for special events such as the Delhi Durbar, some images of which are part of this exhibition.

Though Bourne photographed many cities and monuments during his life, it is the fine Himalayan landscapes captured in his camera on trips he made in the region that he is now known for. His three major expeditions gave him images which are delightful to see. The first journey is the one he began in July 1863, travelling from Simla to explore the valley of the River Sutlej. Then, in 1864 he journeyed extensively through Kangra Valley to Kashmir, and finally in 1866, he travelled from Simla via Kulu and Lahaul to Spiti, Kinnaur and Garhwal.

“Samuel Bourne was not the first photographer in India, nor the most sought-after by collectors, but I think what sets him apart is his sheer dedication to the medium and the breadth of his oeuvre — especially in his studies of the Himalayas,” said Gaskell.  “He was really the first person to create a coherent photographic study of India’s landscape and architecture, and in doing so, has managed to document a country before the tide of modernity and globalisation swept in, and irrevocably changed the Indian aesthetic. As Hugh Rayner mentions in his text, ‘So much of the India that he painstakingly recorded, has now vanished without trace’. I think the photographs on the one hand act as a reminder of how much has changed. If one considers the context in which these photographs were taken (of a colonised country), and the context now (of an independent country), that’s a huge gap — India and the world have changed so much. On the other hand, what’s also interesting is that actually, some of these scenes could still exist today; the views of the ghats in Varanasi, for example. It goes to show how much history does in fact exist in India today, and how despite moving forward, there remain lingering traces of the past.”

Bourne perfected the skill of developing a print in a darkroom as well. It was miraculous of him to produce photographs of superb technical quality in not so favourable conditions during his travels. He was working with two plate cameras producing 10 x 12 inch and 13 x 8 inch negatives and another smaller camera producing 8 x 4.5 inch and 3 x 4 inch negatives. Apart from the Himalayas, his images also comprised views of cities and buildings of India.

Bourne during his lifetime achieved very little recognition for the large body of photographic work he produced in India but the photographs were widely sold even till late 20th century. The photographs were used as book illustrations, wood engravings, postcards and lithographs but unattributed. His other photographs also rarely won any critical acclaim. His name is still largely unknown as no definitive study of his life and work has been done.

Still, one can definitely say that Bourne was the first one to produce such a large, coherent and unique body of work. It is only during the past twenty or thirty years that his photography has finally been recognised. His work on India, in particular, remains of high technical and aesthetic quality. So this is a photographer, while not popular among the masses, still lives on in the hearts of collectors, and especially in the minds of students of photographic history. His work will always be of great importance.



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