• RSS

The Waterhouse Albums is one of those richly illustrated volumes worthy of one's coffee table and at the same time contains meticulously researched essays that demand a place on a university bookshelf. It tells the story of a young British soldier in India at the nexus of certain historical circumstances in the second half of the nineteenth century that facilitated his training in photography and propelled him toward major advancements in photochemistry and photomechanical reproduction. The life and work of this photographer and scientist, James Waterhouse (1842-1921), is an example of how the colonial context provided a stage as well as the impetus for the development of technologies that came to be markers of modernity for much of the European world. His position later in life as the head of the photography section of the Survey of India, by the 1890s the largest organization of its kind in the world, contributed to the growth of the fields of surveying and modern cartography by supplying copies of maps to various branches of government. His work with photo-mechanical printing processes more broadly facilitated the dissemination of knowledge through the empire and beyond. Despite the accolades received during his lifetime, Waterhouse has been largely overlooked by modern-day historians. This publication goes a long way in correcting this omission and makes a convincing argument about James Waterhouse’s central position in the long history of photography.

James Waterhouse began his career as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal (Bengal) Artillery in India, initially stationed at Meerut. In the 1860s, he received the longest secondment from military service up to that time for an ethnographic photo-documentation project in Central India on behalf of the government. While Waterhouse was initially prompted by a circular soliciting photographic likeness of the tribes of India for the 1862 London International Exhibition, the majority of his photographs, along with his copious notes on each of the sitters, were later published in Watson and Kayes’s eight-volume series, People of India (1868-1875). It was the single largest contribution of any photographer to that historic (albeit flawed) ethnographic project. The year-long tour through Central India served as the pinnacle of Waterhouse’s career as a photographer and, while he continued to photograph during time off from his military service, it was his experimentation with the technological side of photography that has made a lasting impact. In addition to a long and successful career as the head of the Photography section of the Survey of India in Calcutta, Waterhouse also served as president of the Photographic Society of India and, after his retirement to England, as the President of the Royal Photographic Society.

The Waterhouse Albums is the third in a publication series based on material in the Alkazi Collection of Photography (ACP) that includes Lucknow: City of Illusion (2006, edited by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones), Vijayagara, Splendour in Ruins (2008, edited by George Michell), and The Marshall Albums: Photography and Archaeology (2010, edited by Sudeshna Guha). Indeed the combination of beautiful illustrations and scholarship characterizes all the volumes in the series, which are welcome contributions in a publishing climate that has seen the decline of richly illustrated art history books. And in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am an author in the ACP series, co-authoring with Deborah Hutton a forthcoming volume on Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905), who started his photographic career in Central India about a decade after Waterhouse.

The ACP is a private collection containing around 90,000 images of the Indian subcontinent spanning the nineteenth and first half of the 20th centuries. Over the years, the ACP has gone from mounting exhibitions in its New York City location (as SEPIA International) to consolidating its NYC, London and Delhi branches in Delhi where a new building was built for the purpose of housing the collection and facilitating its study (see www.acparchives.com). Despite the digitization and cataloguing of much of ACP’s collection, there are photographic gems that are still to be found. For example, historian Partha Chatterjee identified in the ACP the very photographs used as evidence in a trial during the 1930s and published them in his 2002 study, A Princely Impostor?: The Strange and Universal History o f the Kumar of Bhawal (Princeton University Press). The significance of the ACP as a collection cannot be stressed enough. It was amassed over a period of 30 years by Ebrahim Alkazi—Chairman and Director of The Alkazi Foundation of the Arts that oversees The Alkazi Collection of Photography—when few others were interested in Indian photographic material, particularly the kind not popular on the art market. Alkazi was in the right place at the right time, intercepting photographic material in its various patterns of circulation out of family collections, royal or otherwise, through middlemen in the bazaar areas or those that came directly to the house. In this way, the ACP is an archive that constitutes an alternate body of knowledge to those archives of early Indian photography, such the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were put together at a different time and under different circumstances (although all three have been acquired from auction houses in recent years). While one is not more important than the another, together they give us a more robust view of the history of photography in India.

It is then perhaps ironic and suitable that John Falconer, the Jerwood Curator of Photography in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library, is the editor of The Waterhouse Albums: Central Indian Provinces. Arguably among the earliest and most prolific contributors to the study of early Indian photography, a field that can still be considered fairly young, Falconer is in the ideal location, with daily access to a large archive concerning British officers and their activities in India, to make important contributions to our understanding of the role played by European photographers or photography for the colonial administration during the early decades after photography's invention. His India: Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900 (2002) is a seminal publication and his contributions towards understanding the technical aspects of photography's practice in India are particularly valuable by being based on a close reading of archival documents. The impetus for the Waterhouse book, and what forms its very basis, are two albums in the ACP that constitute "in terms of condition and comprehensiveness, the finest single group of images from [Waterhouse's] work documenting the ethnic variety of Central India in 1862" (7). The book contains five chapters by various authors from different disciplinary backgrounds, four appendices, and a catalogue of the photographs in the albums in order of appearance.

John Falconer contributed the first two chapters. The first, and also the longest in the book, traces the career of James Waterhouse from his training at the East India Company's military seminary at Addiscombe in 1857-59 to his retirement from the Photographic Section of the Survey of India in Calcutta in 1897. Through Waterhouse's own writing and supplemented by what must have been painstaking searches through documents in the British Library, Falconer provides us with a detailed chronological account of Waterhouse's years in India. Falconer’s second chapter is shorter and is on the work of Clarence Comyn Taylor (1830-1879), a photographer responsible for 15 of the 94 prints in the two albums. Although he died young at the age of 49, Taylor can be credited with the earliest views of Udaipur, dating to 1862, and seems to have been part of a circle of photographers who exchanged images and contributed to the People of India project. The third chapter is by Shaharyar M. Khan, a historian and direct descendent of the Bhopal royal family, and describes the complex history of the Bhopal court with a focus on its succession of female rulers—from Sikander Begum to Sultana Jahan—based in large part on their writings published between 1867 and 1910.

The fourth chapter, by Rosemary Crill, Senior Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, details the dress and textiles seen in Waterhouse’s 1862 Central India photographs, suggesting that they offer insight into the cross-section of dress, particularly of female attire, at this particular time and in this particular region of India. The fifth chapter is by photo-historian Michael Gray, former curator of the Fox Talbot Museum, and focuses on Waterhouse’s later career at the Survey of India and his immense contribution to photo-mechanical reproduction that replaced the laborious craft-centered processes, thus making illustrated texts and reproductions more cheaply and widely available than previously. The appendices, which constitute a significant component, include a transcript of Waterhouse’s report of his 1862 secondment, a reprint of a series of articles by Waterhouse detailing his Indian career that appeared in the Amsterdam journal Camera Obscura from 1900-1901, a chronological biography of Waterhouse, and a lengthy bibliography of his published works. A catalogue of the photographs that appear in the two ACP albums, in order of their appearance, forms a separate section at the end of the volume.

The various essays and appendices work together throughout the volume to present an analysis of Waterhouse’s photographs from a variety of perspectives. By far the strongest contributions are the chapters on Waterhouse by John Falconer and Michael Gray. Both follow closely Waterhouse’s own writings, supplemented by primary research largely from documents in the British Library, much of which is presented in lengthy quotations. One of the most interesting aspects of Falconer’s chapter is an emphasis on the technical details regarding the difficulties of photographing in Northern India. For example, during Waterhouse’s 1862 tour, "...only one out of five photographs was successful," "...daytime temperatures...led...to negatives cracking," "...the heat and dust made it impossible to use large plates..." (19), and "strenuous traveling had taken a toll on the equipment" (25). After the tour, official duties prevented Waterhouse from taking time off for photography expeditions except in the hottest of months when temperatures were 104 degrees F in the shade. Thus, photographic activity had to be carried out between 6 and 9 am and the rest of the day was spent printing up negatives, varnishing plates, and preparing chemicals for the next day's photography (17). Further, Falconer recounts Waterhouse’s interaction with his sitters: many arrived late after it had gotten too hot for taking photographs, or not at all, and the specimens of the "agricultural and mercantile tribes" were difficult due to "their fear of the camera" (40). In striking contrast, the Begum of Bhopal, on whom Falconer focuses a fascinating section of his chapter, participated in her sitting with Waterhouse with enthusiasm and performative energy, dressing herself and those in her court in various regional styles for each photograph. Sections on Waterhouse’s early training and his photographs of the Sanchi stupa in ruins prior to its restoration, more that twenty images of which are reproduced in the chapter, also provide important context.

In his chapter, Michael Gray makes a convincing argument that Waterhouse’s contribution to the science of photography and its applications in printing surpasses the significance of his photographic work. Through a discussion of the various photo-mechanical reproduction processes advanced by Waterhouse and his team at the Survey of India, Gray provides invaluable details about the central role played by photography in the expansion of the colonial administration and the dissemination of knowledge. In addition to printing maps for military purposes, the Photography and Lithographic Offices of the Survey of India printed illustrative materials for books and journals. In this way, it played a central role in the distribution of illustrated publications which provided the basis for the development of modern disciplines such as art history. Gray provides the necessary detailed technical information, that, despite bordering on being at times too obtuse for the non-expert reader, is a much-needed addition to the scholarship on photographic history. The very same technical details that make the eyes of historians glaze over are the ones that get to the heart of photography’s significance, impact, and reach in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Further, Gray’s essay is illustrated with fascinating images from of the new 1889 Photographic offices at the Survey of India and its state-of-the-art facilities, with its rows of lithographic machines, photo-engravers dressed in white, and large format cameras.

In general, the copious images in the volume are some of its noteworthy strengths, along with the lengthy captions that reprint verbatim Waterhouse’s notes on his sitters from the People of India. In this way, this volume, along with its appendices, functions as a source of primary data, providing the scholar of photo history and South Asia alike with primary visual and textual material that can be then taken and reinterpreted in other contexts. Yet, some of the volume’s strengths also constitute its shortfalls. The many images (and occasional lack of sharp print quality) with their lengthy captions break the flow of the narrative and make it cumbersome for the reader to follow along. Further, the emphasis on primary data does not leave room for analyzing Waterhouse’s work in larger discursive frameworks. For example, the essays do not address how Waterhouse’s work and career impact our understanding of colonialism in India, the relationships between colonizer and colonized, and how photography could have been used as a source of resistance. The only hint at this kind of analysis is in the foreword by historian Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, who suggests that Waterhouse’s copious notes revealing the sitters as individuals rather than types demonstrate that Waterhouse was not a puppet of the colonial project and that the Begum of Bhopal’s performative images undermine the purely documentary nature of the project (6).

Further, the most important omission is the lack of a more extensive discussion about the two albums that serve as the basis of the volume as albums, that is, their physical structure and characteristics. Indeed, nowhere are the albums described in detail in terms of how they are bound, their size, how and why they were put together, or if they even should be considered together as a set. John Falconer provides a brief mention of their possible provenance in his chapter on Clarence Comyn Taylor, suggesting that Taylor’s views of Mount Abu in one album “suggest the possibility that the albums may have been compiled for presentation to the Viceroy, Lord Lawrence, in furtherance of Waterhouse’s application for more permanent photographic employment under government” (103). But other than this very interesting suggestion, the photographs are dealt with largely as individual images with the discussion centering on the photographic portraits. This treatment doesn’t quite reconcile with the catalogue of photographs at end the publication, one of the most important sections of the book showing them in order of their appearance. The flow of images in the catalogue section reflects an uneven placement of architectural and figural imagery that is somewhat interspersed, but is not quite explained in any of the essays. Further, the catalogue section reveals that the second volume ends with views of the Nepal royal family, the Nepal Residency, and Resident Colonel Ramsay at Kathmandu in 1863, suggesting perhaps this album may have at one point been meant for the royal family, Colonel Ramsay, or someone else in the Nepal court or colonial administration. This catalogue section is important and opens other ways of understanding Waterhouse’s photographs beyond their initial production in 1862 and later publication in Peoples of India. It points to the non-linear and often multiple “lives” that photographic images can have, where meaning is often contingent on context rather than something inherent in the image itself. Nonetheless, none of these issues takes away from the importance of this publication. Rather, The Waterhouse Albums: Central Indian Provinces provides a starting point for various avenues of exploration.

One such avenue of exploration constitutes the intersection of Waterhouse with the figure of Raja Deen Dayal, the focus of my research for the last decade. Dayal was born in Sardana, very near Meerut, and would have been an adolescent when Waterhouse was stationed as a young soldier there. Dayal went on to work as a surveyor in the Department of Public Works in Central India, stationed at Indore a few years after Waterhouse would have passed through there in 1862. While it seems these two did not likely cross paths, it is likely that local memory of Waterhouse would have been present during Dayal’s own travels around Central India and it is productive to think through ways that this may have impacted Dayal’s work. It is striking that both photographers engaged with mapping and surveying as a link to their photographic practice—-Dayal starting with surveying and Waterhouse ending his career at the Survey of India. In many ways, Dayal followed in Waterhouse's footsteps but also went farther than Waterhouse was able to do during his limited one-year secondment. Unlike Waterhouse, Dayal eventually left government service and went on to build a thriving commercial practice. Nonetheless, it is through the work of Waterhouse and Dayal that we can form a better picture of the history of early photography in Central India, an area defined by a cluster of smaller princely territories outside the control and surveillance of the emerging colonial urban centres. Indeed, their work provides a window into a region where a number of photographers circulated but whose movements and interactions are still not fully understood. In the context of the larger history of photography, Central India demonstrates how photography and its many applications were developed through experimentation that took place in what would have been considered the hinterlands, away from the metropolitan centres of the photo-practicing world.


Deepali Dewan studies South Asian Visual Culture, with a focus on photography in India. She is a Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, teaches in the Department of Art, University of Toronto, and is a member of the Toronto Photography Seminar.