Notes on a Painting of a Painted Photograph
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This is not a painted photograph. It is an opaque watercolor painting on paper that resembles a painted photograph. Conventions of a painted photograph are closely followed. A heavy green curtain on the left introduces us to the seated figure next to a table, as in a studio photograph. The painter also embellishes this basic setup. On the table, the blue chinoiserie vase painted like wallpaper, the sacred book with metal clasps, and the clock are picked out and made legible against the bright pink Victorian table cover. The chair, sculpted in sharp chiaroscuro, flares out unusually to accommodate the sitter’s outstretched left elbow. The spotted scarf on the sitter’s lap looks creaturely. On the floor, the carpet pops out at us in bold relief, flattening the pictorial space, while more than necessary potted plants, graded from bright to dull green, dramatize perspective and depth.
Unusual among these standard features of a painted photograph, however, is the background. It is neither a backdrop of fantastic locales rendered in atmospheric perspective nor a glowing, opaque ground against which figures magically levitate. A closed wooden door set on a marble threshold returns us instead to the banal setting of the original black-and-white photograph, which may have been taken not in a studio but rather in a room belonging, presumably, to the royal sitter’s mansion. Oddest is the sitter’s defiant look away from the camera, this in spite of the chance artists usually take for adjusting it toward a frontal gaze, as is conventional in painted photographs. The look is an anomaly. It recalls not the painted photograph of which this is a copy, but instead the very first, unpainted photograph from which this painting is twice removed.
In the history of world photography, the interaction of photography and opaque paint is unique to India and quite unlike tinting the surface of the photographic emulsion found generally in the 19th and 20th centuries. For scholars of Indian photography, opaque paint covering the gray photographic emulsion using techniques of Indian miniature painting marks the local ways of socializing the modern technology. In such a hybrid image, clashing interests in flat, bright colors as well as exaggerated depth and perspective also indicate a painterly resistance to the scopic regimes of British colonial photography in India. In this image, however, paint is used not only to reproduce bright colors but also to paint in the surface grayness and indexical details that might have been left untouched in the original painted photograph, thus reversing the inquiry. Instead of asking about painterly inventiveness operating on photography, the question to be posed, somewhat counterintuitively, is: What motivates a painter to use his miniature painting style to underscore, not obscure, the shady presence of the photographic emulsion?
This essay offers five loosely connected thoughts regarding possible motivations for this choice as a way of suggesting the web of visual and cultural relations in which this image was involved.
1. It is possible that the image is simply a copy of a preexisting photograph of a deceased ancestor. The painting is in the Jaya Appasamy collection at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, where the sitter is identified as an unknown, late-19th-century tribal prince from central India. The figure and his Victorian setting certainly capture the 19th-century conventions of painted photography, but the copy could also belong to the early 20th century, when an old, fading image required renewal. The NGMA has no documentation of the provenance of the image, and the artist is unknown. Unmistakable, nevertheless, is the impulse to imitate, not embellish, the original photograph. The painter maintains its appearance exactly, without alteration. A conspicuous indicator of this choice is the sitter’s skin, in which shades of gray are visible through the brownish tint, pointing to the natural chemical layer of a photographic image. Whereas artists usually try to tint and inflect the deathly gray of the photographic image or cover it with opaque paint, here the painter mixes chalk white and soot black to match the combination of gray and brown of the sitter’s skin in the photograph. The observation leads me to suggest that the intention here is simply to preserve in an exact pictorial form a photographic image that is possibly beyond repair. At the same time, it leads me also to ask why the artist, or the patron, subjected the revered ancestor to such a museological impulse and not a painterly one that could have transformed the fraying photograph into a living presence, as is common in pictorial practices.
2. It is possible that the patron prefers a painting even while desiring photographic effects in the image. Exploring mechanically reproducing images of Indian gods and other social individuals, Christopher Pinney makes an argument for a preference for chromolithography over photography on the grounds that Indian consumers of images usually looked beyond mere appearance for signs of “extra-mundane” qualities of the subject, for which “photography was deemed a phenomenological failure.” I suggest that the NGMA image is reaching for the “extra-mundane” qualities of the sitter by converting the photograph into a painted copy. Miniature paintings have performed the function of bestowing power and status to royal patrons within India’s courtly culture since the 16th century. Painters invented elaborate iconographic frames for their sitters, giving them sacred attributes and exquisite halos, and located them in settings designed to convey their importance in a hierarchy of power relations. It is this traditional role and value of painting that extends to the NGMA image.
One could even propose that the NGMA image returns the painted photograph to the cultural valence of painting. When court painters picked up photography, in the mid-19th century, photography certainly took over some of the concerns of traditional painting. The genre of painted photograph is one result, but painted photographs were also used for making other kinds of images instead of being an end in themselves, as is usually assumed. Tryna Lyons documents a large mural portrait of the Maharaja Rana Zalim Singh II of Jhalawar, dated to about 1918–1920, in Garh-Mahal in Jhalawar, Rajasthan, and calls it the “ ‘photo studio’ type” because it resembles a painted photograph except for its large scale. The young Maharaja sits on a chair in three-quarter view, resting his right elbow against the marble-top table, while details of the carpet and the fine muslin tunic, as well as the blurred, romanticized backdrop with a classical column, are painted to closely imitate a painted photograph. The difference between the mural and the NGMA painting is the latter’s small size—made to be framed, displayed, and handled exactly like a photograph, not stretched on a wall from floor to ceiling.
3. The NGMA image differs from the Jhalawar mural discussed above in one more significant way. The mural filters out the chemical grayness of the painted photograph and retains, in fresco secco, only the warm orange and brown tints of the sitter’s skin. By contrast, the NGMA image reproduces both the gray photographic emulsion and the brown tint the original painter might have introduced in the painted photograph. Thus, the use of a photograph as a model, to be reworked into an adequate image of the sanguine sitter, is understandable in the mural but not in the miniature painting. Surely the painter of miniatures demonstrates his ability to observe and emulate, but he applies that ability to reproduce the original model exactly, not to transform it according to the sitter’s sense of himself. In other words, this is a case not of realism but of photorealism, the almost mechanical reproduction of a photographic image. The painting accurately documents what is being encountered in the original painted photograph, including a somewhat irregular mixture of both depth and flatness and photogenic facts such as residual indexical details and chemical grayness. To put it another way, the copy merely declares the painted photograph as a material object in itself.
4. Like gold, or lapis lazuli in an earlier era of miniature painting, the gray chemical underlayer of the photographic emulsion in this copy now gains a material presence. It is neither to be removed, as in the mural, nor inflected or covered up, as in a painted photograph, nor overlooked in order to get to the “real” photographic referent, as in black-and-white photography. Instead, gray becomes one among several layers of paint to be burnished, reworked, and brought to a shiny finish as in the tradition of miniature painting. Furthermore, the grayness of the image is highlighted when seen against the pink table, the colorful vase, and the gold embroidery on the sitter’s black jacket. One could argue from this treatment that brightly painted details were considered standard, conventional features of a painted photograph by the early 20th century, but what is added in this image is a sensuous response to the photographic emulsion. Our awareness of grayness is heightened when we realize that we are looking at a painting, not a photograph, in which grayness is unavoidable and normalized. The material presence of grayness is especially worked out in the back wall, which was probably left unpainted in the original image. In the copy, crosshatching and lightly variegated white spots give the wall a “physical substantiality” employing techniques previously used to depict fleshy, erotic figures by early-19th-century Rajasthani artists such as Chokha.
5. How should we approach and evaluate the “substantiality” of photogenic grayness in the NGMA image? One could suggest at least two possibilities:
First, in bringing attention to the grayness of the image, the painter could be looking at photography with the same fascination late-18th- and early-19th-century Rajasthani artists, Chokha among them, showed toward other modern visual effects, such as linear perspective, light and shade, and panoramic view, disregarding scholarly arguments on the subject of Indian painting’s, and by extension Indian photography’s, preoccupation with a flat pictorial surface. In other words, the photogenic grayness of the NGMA image relates better to the broader historical context of visual exchanges in early-modern India. In addition, although the Indian viewers may have preferred brightly colored chromolithographs against the “phenomenological failure” of three-dimensional space and chemical grayness of colonial photography, as Pinney suggests, the NGMA image may be elevating the gray surface of the photographic emulsion itself to an “extra-mundane” level.
Second, the photogenic qualities of the image could have seemed to the painter to be an integral part of the sitter’s appearance, even perhaps his “extra-mundane” personality. This strange fact can be explained by what could be called the linguistic or iconographic approach in Indian miniature painting. Artists of the traditions of courtly miniature painting rendered painted portraits from models preserved in sketchbooks, not directly from real life. Thus, painting became a matter of giving a visual syntax to dispersed visual elements and attributes taken from those sketchbooks. The practice also means that the likeness of a sitter was a renewal, or reornamentation, of an earlier model. That a portrait was a collection of well-practiced iconographic motifs is especially true for venerable figures, whose “extra-mundane” qualities the finished design was meant to incorporate. Within this traditional framework, to which the NGMA image belongs, the original painted photograph could have appeared as a visual model for describing the venerable attributes of the sitter. In this view, the photogenic grayness of the image could have appeared as one more attribute, the newest one, to be included in the finished portrait along with the sitter’s pose in the chair, the curtain, and the table containing a vase, a clock, a writing quill, and a sacred book.
What kind of “attribute” is this photogenic grayness? I suggest it marks the individual in the image with an immanent sense of “nowness,” a connotation relating to the modern technology of photography itself. This grayness is a product of alchemy—a combination of sunlight, the not readily available silver nitrate, camera lens, and darkroom—as well as investment of clients in the power of this alchemy to absorb the world. The alchemy is what attracts clients to the camera and to photo studios, and holds their enchanted presence in an image, throughout the global history of photography. Grayness, with a hint of silver underlying the shiny surface of the chemical image, is also what relates photography to the moving image in the early 20th century. If photography lends an aura to an individual sitter’s social presence, the moving image, tinted or not, makes palpable to viewers myths, dreams, and spectacles of faraway worlds. It is this grayness of the technological image that is incorporated in this painting.
The photogenic grayness of the NGMA image goes unnoticed in the current discussion of Indian painted photographs, in which it is connected only with the colonial technology to be resisted through opaque paint. Gray, however, spreads across image practices in early-20th-century India, and is seen in secular as well as religious images. Tryna Lyons reproduces a remarkable image of the Hindu god Krishna, datable to 1900–1910, painted by Ghasiram, a well-known artist and photographer practicing in the religious town of Nathadwara, in Rajasthan. In that image, Krishna’s body is painted blue, as is usual, except for his face. Krishna’s face is treated with the gray tonal shades of a black-and-white photograph, made vivid also by surrounding details, such as his yellow turban, gold ornaments, a peacock feather, and the pink lotus blossoms he holds. The Nathadwara image documents the disappearance of photography into the sacred shimmer of a god, and it is this shimmer that is rekindled within the secular portraiture in the NGMA image.
Ajay Sinha is the author of Imagining Architects: Creativity in the Religious Monuments of India (University of Delaware Press, 2000), and editor, with Raminder Kaur, of Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (New Delhi: Thousand Oaks; London, Sage Publications, 2005). He is Professor of Art History at Mt. Holyoke College.
For backdrops, see Christopher Pinney, “Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Postcolonialism, and Vernacular Modernism,” in Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Peterson (eds.), Photography’s Other Histories (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 202–20.
Even in memorial portraits made from a photograph taken of a person after death, the artist paints in bright, open eyes looking straight at the viewer. Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 139–140 and fig. 122.
Judith Mara Gutman, Through Indian Eyes (New York: Oxford University Press, International Center of Photography, 1982), 103–32; Ebrahim Alkazi, Rahaab Allana, and Pramod Kumar, Painted Photographs: Coloured Portraiture in India (Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing, in association with the Alkazi Collection of Photography, 2008); Deepali Dewan, Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs: Towards a Transcultural History of Photography (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum Press, 2012).
Pinney, “Notes from the Surface.” E. Alkazi draws a sharp contrast between the colonial technology and the Indian taste for colors in his foreword, “Photography: Art and Ritual,” in Painted Photographs, 7.
Assigning a date to the moment of painting as opposed to the moment when the photograph was taken can be tricky. See Rahaab Allana, “A Bold Fusion: Realism and the Artist in Photography,” in Painted Photographs, for the artist Pannalal Gaur (c. 1880–1950), whose earliest-known work is on a photograph of the Maharana Swarup Singh of Udaipur by an unknown photographer, datable to c. 1861, when the Maharaja presumably died (fig. 7). Based on the artist’s own dates, Allana concludes that the painting could have been done years only after the photograph was taken (20). From Gaur’s very long career, the last work reproduced in the catalog, a portrait of the Maharaja Kumar Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur, dates from c. 1940.
Christopher Pinney, “Mechanical Reproduction in India,” in Art and Visual Culture in India, edited by Gayatri Sinha (Mumbai: Marg Publications, January 2009), 79. The phrase suggests a certain quality that exceeds, but is also indicated in, the visual image and the network of exchanges in which it participates.
For the “conflation of Krishna with Rajasthan’s rulers” as a “common trope” in Rajasthani paintings, see Molly Emma Aitken, The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 249 and passim.
For photographer-painters in the Mewar court of Rajasthan, in western India, see Tryna Lyons, The Artists of Nathadwara: The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, and Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2004), 170.
For flatness in photography, see Gutman, Through Indian Eyes, and Pinney “Notes from the Surface.” Beach and Nahar Singh II, in Bagta and Chokha, relate techniques such as crosshatching and stippling in Chokha’s work to European prints (81). See also B. N. Goswamy and A. L. Dallapiccola, A Place Apart: Painting in Kutch, 1720–1820 (Bombay and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Lyons, Nathadwara, 26–27; and Aitken, Intelligence of Tradition, chapter 5, “Chokha’s Shringara (Amorous) Style: The Painter as Interpreter of His Tradition,” 211–86.
See Shanane Davis, The Bikaner School: Usta Artisans and Their Heritage (Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India: RMG Exports, 2008); Lyons, Nathadwara; and Aitken, Intelligence of Tradition, for detailed documentation of sketchbooks and their usage in Rajasthani painting.
On the iconography of one such feature, the profile, in imperial Mughal portraiture, see Ebba Koch, “The Hierarchical Principles of Shah-Jahani Painting,” in King of the World: The Padshahnama (London: Azimuth Editions, 1997), 130–43. On “eye as an iconographic form” in Rajasthani portraits, see Aitken, Intelligence of Tradition, 260–65.