Archives and Origins: The Material and Vernacular Cultures of Photography in India
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This reflection considers the origins of photography in India by reconceptualizing what constitutes its archives. It also seeks to trace the early conditions that enabled established archives, held in research institutions and private collections, to serve as prominent sources for India’s photographic history, while at the same time being products of that history.
Two tendencies have characterized the historical scholarship on photography in India. Pioneering work by G. Thomas, Ray Desmond, and others on the earliest decades of its history in India, much of it published in the journal History of Photography in the 1980s, had fixed chronologies, dates, and broad transformations and trends. Chronicling, record-keeping, and listing: these were descriptive histories of photography’s earliest years. Origins are important to these first-generation accounts. For example, Thomas writes:
As early as January 1840, Thacker and Company of Calcutta were importing daguerreotype cameras and advertising them in the daily paper, Friend of India, but the first-known commercial photographer was F. Schranhofer, who had a calotype studio at 2 Kyd Street, Calcutta (1849). In 1850 Augustus G. Roussac opened a daguerreotype studio in Bombay. Two years later, J. B. Newland opened a studio for daguerreotype studio at 6 London Buildings, Calcutta. Though daguerreotype studios persisted as late as 1868, they gave way to calotype establishments in India as everywhere else. Fred Fiebig, who was an experienced lithographer (1847), turned to calotypes and took a large number of studies of Calcutta, Madras, and Ceylon.
The emphasis on chronology and a descriptive history leaves some questions unanswered: What was Thacker and Company, the firm that first imported daguerreotype cameras? What was its line of business? Who purchased these cameras? How much did cameras cost and how were they advertised? Why should cameras have come to Calcutta in the first place, or what in what context were cameras of interest?
In the 1990s, scholars turned their attention to the discursive parameters that, under British rule, regularized photography as a source of knowledge and as an instrument of governance. What authority did photographs possess to be used for colonial surveillance and detection? How did Indians utilize the dominant conventions of portrait photography to fashion “a self” at variance with their status as subjects of the British Empire?
An attention to the politics of representation (and counter-representations) has since informed not only studies of the photographic projects of the colonial state (in short, official photography), but also of famous European studios, iconic European and Indian photographers, and Indian studio photography, including the fascinating genre of painted photographs. Nevertheless, some elementary questions still remain. After all, cameras arrived in 1840. A sustained official engagement with photography began only in the mid-1850s. The first fifteen-or-so years are still obscure.
Here, a history of the material, consumer, and retail cultures of photography, perhaps a historical sociology of photography, has much to tell us of these early years. Reminiscences of European life paint a vivid picture of confectioners and pharmacists, shoemakers and tailors, cheek by jowl with Indian competitors, vying for the business of the European. New commodities, such as cameras, provided an advantage for some retailers over others. Thacker, Spink and Company, the company that first imported daguerreotype cameras, began operation in India as an “agency house,” soon acquired renown as a bookseller, and then diversified into other goods. Likewise, Smith Stanistreet and Company started as an apothecary that supplied fine chemicals, a necessity for photography before the advent of the dry plate in the 1870s. Among others who supplied photographic materials were a wide variety of artisan retailers (watch-makers, opticians, even furniture makers), and general provisioners who supplied to Europeans both the necessities and the luxuries of everyday life.
Conspicuous consumption characterized the world of things purchased by Europeans.
Notices in newspapers such as the Bengal Hurkaru and the Friend of India are rich sources of information, as importers such as Thacker, Spink and Company listed the latest consignment of goods now available in their “Europe shops” for purchase by resident Europeans. Photography arrived originally as a novelty, a “toy,” or a scientific amusement. It also came to Calcutta as part of a crowded consumer culture that supplied imported cheese, cutlery, underwear, wine, pocketknives, books, and magic lanterns. A Thacker notice from January 25, 1841, in the Bengal Hurkaru lists books and periodicals, printed images, watercolors and maps, optical toys (including views of the Egyptian pyramids, touted as an “interesting toy for children”), Mordan’s Pistol Pencil Cases, and, of course, the daguerreotype, the camera obscura, and “photogenic boxes. ”The announcement describes the daguerreotype cameras as “the new art of sun drawing,” and photogenic boxes, the announcement notes, are “for copying objects by means of the sun.” The incongruity of the locations and circumstances in which cameras became available should alert us to the labile nature of photography in its earliest years.
The newspapers also enable us to track photography’s transformation from an intriguing novelty to a transparently comprehensible tool of mediated perception. For example, cameras, lenses, and slides were initially sold as a complete “kit,” a “toy” that came with all its parts to put together. Cameras of different photographic methods came in one package. The maturation of the trade can be measured by the increasing detail and separation of parts: cameras (and varying sizes), fine chemicals, glass plates, and so on. Prices illuminate the relative worth of photographic images. Daguerreotype images cost less than a painted portrait but more than a dozen bottles of imported champagne! Railway transportation and postal records classified goods according to the imperatives of running an empire: photographic equipment, plates, and images occupied the most expensive—and least important—rung of goods in the hierarchy of those transported by rail. Amateur-photography handbooks tell us of a practice reliant on materials both cumbersome and ephemeral, in the sense of being prone to breakage.
The origins of photography, therefore, lie in the material, retail, and consumer cultures of Calcutta, not in the colonial administration’s utilization of it as a mode of knowledge production and surveillance. Photographic cameras became available because they could be easily incorporated into existing orders of material and consumer culture. The “birth” of photography in India was a result not of the desire to produce a body of knowledge, but instead of the desire of resident Europeans to keep up with the latest trends and novelties of the Continent, and the need of local retailers to stay ahead of the competition by offering new items.
By the time official photography came along, in the mid-1850s, Calcutta already enjoyed a robust trade that supplied the requisite materials for the scale of image-production commissioned by the government. By the mid-1850s, the commerce in photography and the traffic in photo materials had put in place the infrastructure for officially commissioned projects. Newly formed amateur photographic societies in these same years also relied on this infrastructure. Official photography, guided by powerful commercial imperatives,  emerges as a viable project at this point of a three-prong relationship among the private photo society, the government, and commercial photography (the latter comprising the photo-materials trade as well as commercial photographers).
Official photography’s prominence in histories may be explained as an outcome of the success of its archival preservation. Ann Stoler has observed that state-produced archives are forms of factual storytelling: moralizing fictions the state affirms to itself, confirming its own narratives and their worth to it. Following Stoler, official photography in the colonies, I would submit, was especially vulnerable to the archival mode, one in which the archive was cause, effect, and the enabling condition for the actual production of photographic images.
First, photographs produced by the British administrations in India, taken as a group, are, in retrospect, archives (metaphorically speaking) of the colonial state’s epistemological master plan for India. At the same time, like much of the documentation engendered by the business of governance, the British must have thought photography to be archive-worthy. Many of the officially commissioned photographic projects in British India have survived and are in institutions such as the India Office Library, itself a product of considerable record-keeping zeal. The sheer scale of these commissioned projects at the time, involving hundreds of images in each, carried, to return to Stoler, a predictive promise of their keep-worthiness, projects that would, going forward, serve as moralizing fictions that confirmed the state’s narratives to itself. The colonial state’s belief in the archival value of photographs enabled the production and institutional preservation of the images we study. As such, it also demarcates the scope of what gets studied and researched, at the expense, perhaps, of a fuller account of photography’s early years.
I want to move now to an “archive” of a different kind, one residing in contemporary practices. David McDougall’s 1991 documentary, Photowallahs, depicts a roadside photographer who uses what is clearly a manual exposure camera from the 1870s, paper negatives, and printing-out paper, all of which had fallen out of use in the West in a previous century. The photographer fixes, develops, tints, and produces a positive print the size of a passport photo in a matter of minutes. Here, a different archive opens up, one that is not yet closed, a living archive of everyday practices that serve as mnemonic devices leading us to an earlier century. Such an “archive,” or this particular assemblage of human and instrument, deserves a research agenda that attends to the technical specificity of photography in India.
My research indicates that the survival of older methods and instruments is not as exceptional as we might assume it to be, and that, in fact, it is a feature going back to the nineteenth century. From Bengali-language accounts of photography from the early twentieth century, as well as accounts by European amateur photographers of the time, we learn that cheaper alternatives to the daguerreotype process, such as Ambrotypes and Ferrotypes, were available in the early twentieth century in the bazaars of Calcutta, for to poor Indians and Europeans; they lasted a lot longer in India than they did in Europe or North America. Bourne and Shepherd catalogs, as well as advertisements by Bengali studios catering to the Calcutta elite, show the studios utilizing methods that were more time-consuming, more expensive, and more artisanal well into the early twentieth century. The hand camera did not catch on even in the form of the spectacularly successful Kodak, which constituted a paradigm shift in photographic practice. Records of seaborne trade do not list cameras from year to year and offer no evidence of the minuscule numbers of Kodaks imported into India. The prices for Kodaks, however, when juxtaposed to income levels in India relative to the United States and the United Kingdom, indicate that the Kodak would have been unaffordable to most Indians. In its place, the photo studio remained the dominant institution in popular photography through much of the twentieth century, only recently supplanted by the paraphernalia of a media urbanism that includes cell phones, webcams, and digital cameras. India has leapfrogged, to put it somewhat hyperbolically, from the 1870s to the 1990s; the photo studio occupied the intervening period as most people’s access to photography.
How had this come about?
We can make some educated guesses. The absence of local mass production of photo materials meant, at least in part, the absence of pressure on existing methods and materials to recede into obsolescence. Given the small size of India’s market and the ease with which materials could be brought in from the United Kingdom, the import-based trade in photo- materials became the norm. The arrival of design-standardized and mass-manufactured materials, such as the dry-gelatin plate in the 1870s, strengthened the preference for imported materials. Furthermore, a highly variegated colonial society of elite Indians and Europeans, poor Europeans and “bazaar” Indians, serious amateur photographers and commercial ones, sustained niche markets for niche preferences. Considered together, these factors ensured that photographic practices in India took a shape markedly different from those of the West. In India, the photo studio was the dominant institution of photography.
The fact that the dominance of the photo studio itself is not demonstrable through conventional historical methods returns us to the question of archives. The city directories that listed European photo studios did not include Indian ones, and then only the elite ones, until the late nineteenth century. Yet for anyone who is of a generation that came of age before the 1990s, as I am, the dominance of studios and studio portraiture is “anecdotally” evident easily enough, much the way “cybercafés” were until just a few years ago but are now barely visible as personal PCs have become affordable and thus ubiquitous. Here, history encounters the value of ethnography.
Of course, there isn’t an unbroken line from the 1870s to the 1990s. An “archaeological” intent, rather than a linear historical narrative, seems necessary. Clearly, MacDougall’s roadside photographer is not an artist engaging in an artisanal impulse, insofar as this is for him a vocation. His particular utilization of the 1870s camera can hardly have remained unchanged in more than a century. His practice can also be seen as a contemporary variant of the rapid-access photography that Polaroid satisfied only fitfully.
The dominance of the photo studio at the center of a patron-client, service-oriented photographic culture, and for so many decades, must inform our understanding of what it means to collect the output of studio photography, and what it means for scholars to have access to such collections. A collection, as Susan Stewart puts it, is a form of antiquarianism, a raiding of the past that produces new taxonomic principles and an entirely new context for the collected object. It is guided, Stewart contends, more by a mercantilist disposition than by a desire to delve into the origins of the various objects in it.  In India, however, the dominance of the photo studio justifies the collector’s antiquarianism, and supplies an a priori institutional source and logic to collections of studio portraiture.
My aim is to historicize the rich collections of portrait photography that are with us today by linking them as archival objects to a history that is at once technical, cultural, and commercial. That studios have become coveted archives attests to their historical importance. I wonder if photography’s “industrialization of portraiture” in India could have been accomplished if the hand camera had had its way. Asking why and how the photo studio became dominant takes us afield, into aspects of photography’s history in India—the obviation of obsolescence, the fate of the hand camera, the geography of colonialism, varied niches of preferences—that have received little attention.
In conclusion, the history of nineteenth-century photography in India has been a function of the conditions that made it, be it ethnographic or archaeological photography or studio portraiture photography, available and archive-worthy. Colonialism was, after all, about the traffic in objects, producing material and sensory orders that in turn shaped social ones. Moreover, particularly in India, an inventive media archaeology that looks closely at the present can raise questions regarding the past and its relation to the present.
Practices can also be considered forms of storage, performed expressions of the configuration of a camera that give us a window into past configurations. Asking why the fairground photographer utilizes antique cameras, or how these cameras might have survived, enables us to encounter idiosyncratic technological outcomes (the obviation of obsolescence) that have shaped the history of photography in India.
Along the same lines, crucial details of photography’s history may reside not in the images but rather in the material cultures of those images. We need, then, to attend to pricing, breakage, transportation costs, locations of sale, and forms of advertisement. It may be worthwhile to set aside the beautiful and evocative image once in a while and look around it.
Sudhir Mahadevan teaches film studies in the Comparative Literature department at the University of Washington in Seattle. His manuscript on film and media history in India, titled A Very Old Machine: the Many Origins of the Cinema in India, is currently under consideration.
See R. Desmond, “Photography in India during the Nineteenth Century.” In the report India Office Library and Records. (1974): 5–38; G. Thomas, “The First Four Decades of Photography in India.” In History of Photography 3, no. 3 (1979): 215–26; G. Thomas, “The Madras Photographic Society 1854–61.” In History of Photography 16, no. 4 (1992): 299–301; G. Thomas, “Photography and the Elphinstone Institution of Bombay.” In History of Photography 5, no. 3 (1981): 245–47; John Falconer, “Ethnographical Photography in India, 1850–1900.” In The Photographic Collector 5, no. 1 (1984–85): 16–46; R. Desmond and the Great Britain India Office Library, Victorian India in Focus: A Selection of Early Photographs from the Collection in the India Office Library and Records. London: H.M.S.O., 1982; John Falconer, A Shifting Focus: Photography in India, 1850–1900. London: The British Council, 1995.
The literature here is far too voluminous to note. For a sampling, however, see Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997; Pelizzari, Maria Antonella, ed. Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850–1900. Montreal, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003; Carotenuto, Gianna Michele. Power, Patronage, and Portraiture: The Photographs of the Nizam of Hyderabad by Raja Lala Deen Dayal. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003; M. Karlekar, Re-visioning the Past: Early Photography in Bengal 1875–1915. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
We would have to move beyond close textual analysis and interpretation and search for material that is contextually relevant. This is not easily accomplished, unlike in France, for example, where detailed records of every photographic studio and business were kept by municipal-level administrations. City directories of Calcutta yielded only patchy lists of importers of photo materials, commercial photographers, and photo studios. Company records from the firms that imported photo materials and those of early photo studios are extremely rare, and for good reason. Most businesses in the “general trades” were partnerships that dissolved or were reconstituted when one or more partners died or moved back to Europe, and therefore lacked institutional stability. See Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848–1871. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Agency houses supplied banking services to Europeans in India, acting as agents for payments by London firms to those in India as well as remitting funds from India to Europe. As the East India Company’s grip over private trade and the subcontinent loosened, these agency houses diversified into other areas of business.
For a detailed account of the consumer and retail cultures of nineteenth-century Calcutta, including a closer look at two firms importing or supplying photo materials, Thacker, Spink and Company, and Smith, Stanistreet and Company, see S. Mahadevan, The Traffic in Technologies: Early Cinema and Visual Culture in South Asia. Dissertation. New York University, 2009, 41–74.
For an account of the perils of photography by Samuel Bourne, see Arthur Ollman, Samuel Bourne: Images of India. Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1983; and John Blees, Photography in Hindostan; Or Reminiscences of a Travelling Photographer. Bombay: Education Society’s Press, 1877.
“Officially” commissioned photographic projects were official in name but not in execution. Massive in scale, the projects relied on photographic societies, commercial photographers, Indian assistants, individual British subscribers, and plenty of haggling over rights for negatives and the recouping of costs. See Janet Dewan, “Captain Biggs and Doctor Pigou: Photographers to the Bombay Government 1855–1858.” In Photoresearcher, December, no. 5 (1993): 6–13; J. Dewan, “Delineating Antiquities and Remarkable Tribes: Photography for the Bombay and Madras Governments, 1855–70.” In History of Photography 16, no. 4 (1992): 302–17. See also Mahadevan, The Traffic in Technologies, 105–14.
For a brief discussion of the limited number of collections on which the history of photography in India seems to depend, see also S. Gordon, “Photography in India.” In IIAS Newsletter 44 (2007): 10–11.
David MacDougall, et al., Photo Wallahs: an Encounter with Photography in Mussoorie, a North Indian Hill Station. Berkeley:University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, 1991. DVD (59 min.). See also MacDougall’s description and discussion of this photographer in “Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography”. In The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006, 157–58.
Seen historically, Ambrotypes and Ferrotypes were intermediate processes between the daguerreotype process and the glass wet-collodion process, and cheaper than the daguerreotype. In the Ambrotype process, the glass plate with the collodion-based emulsion was backed with black varnish so that the negative image on the plate would appear as a positive image when held up to reflected light (the daguerreotype process too yielded direct positive images). Ferrotypes (also known as tintypes) also relied on wet-collodion negatives, but instead of glass they depended on thin, black lacquered or japanned iron sheets. See Reese Jenkins, Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry, 1839 to 1925. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, 41–42.
See G. Ewing, A Handbook of Photography for Amateurs in India. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Company, 1895; and S. Ghosh, Chobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Charcha. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited, 1998.
The Imperial Gaze: The Photographs of Samuel Bourne, 1863–70. New York: Sepia International and the Alkazi Collection of Photography, 2000. See also Re-Orientations: Photography from South Asia 1845–1920. New York: Sepia International and the Alkazi Collection of Photography, 1999.
For a discussion of the dense media ecologies of urban India, see R. Sundaram, Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism. London, New York: Routledge, 2010. Nishta Jain’s City of Photos (Bangalore: India Foundation for the Arts, 2005; DVD: 59 minutes) offers a glimpse into studio practices updated for the digital age with digital hand cameras, computers, and printers.
The photographic society in Bombay did discuss the possibility of local manufacture of materials but rejected the idea on the grounds that the lack of much of a market would make it difficult for them to compete with British ones. Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay, 6 (1855): 103–104.
Pinney’s account of contemporary photography in two towns in central India stands as a superb example. In Camera Indica, Pinney provides an ethnography that reads vernacular photography (wedding albums, portraits of loved and departed ones) against the history of the representational conventions of the nineteenth century described in the preceding chapters of the book and in the context of affiliated media (television, the cinema, the VCR) Pinney shows that photography is enmeshed in a network of technologies and infrastructures (the transportation by the studio photographer of his rolls of film by train to a lab in a larger town that would do the developing of the role; the function of the cable TV operator in broadcasting wedding “videos” of still image montages; and so on). In method, therefore, Pinney’s work attends to the discursive preconditions of photography in India as well as to a close study of the semiotics of particular images. To these he adds extraordinary ethnographic detail to the habitus of photography in 1990s India, acknowledging the material cultures essential to the production of images.
One reputed and long-running studio owner in Bombay refused to let me see his collection because, he explained, there was a chance a museum was interested in purchasing it.. Another longstanding famous Bombay (Mumbai) studio, B. B. Vartak and Company, which sold cameras and repaired them as well, lost all its records in the flooding that paralyzed the city subsequent to the rains in June 2005, the very month during which I visited the firm in the hope of learning more about its history. Calcutta’s Bourne and Shepherd, established in 1864 and the longest running photo studio in the world, suffered a devastating—and mysterious—fire in the 1980s that destroyed much of its property (rumor has it that the fire “pertained” to the studio’s insurance). In fact, the relative ease with which one can still happen upon portraits of historical interest, including at antique stores alert to the presence of foreign tourists, seems a historical rebuttal to the mortality and transience of brick-and-mortar establishments.
Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth Phillips, “Introduction.” In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture (Wenner-Gren International Symposium), Edwards, Gosden, and Phillips, eds. Berg, 2006: 1–-34.