Between its professional beginnings in the middle 1800s and the late years of the century photography was a laborious business, protected by heavy equipment, long exposures and messy chemistry from all but serious amateur incursions. This is the period from which the engrossing images in India: Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900 come. It explains their technical competence, a certain stiffness and a high degree of conventionality. Things changed fast, though. Samuel Bourne, who was among the most prolific of the professionals, complained as early as 1870 - after his return to England - of the increasing use of equipment which produced small things 'fit only for the scrap book'. He also said at one point (but later changed his mind) that India would never provide such good landscape photographs as England because 'the scenery is not so suitable or well-adapted for the camera.' The firm of Bourne and Shepherd still exists, in reduced state - the catalogue includes a 1996 photograph of the Calcutta studio (they set up there in 1867). Stucco peels from the brickwork, while a modern sign for Kodak film on the gatepost points to our own photographic culture, which aims to record things - colour, movement, accidents of gesture and composition - beyond the desires as well as the means of the infant craft.
LRB 1 November 2001 | PDF Download