By Shilpa Vijayakrishnan / Curated by Madhu Kapparath
Since the advent of photography in the nineteenth century, India has played subject to the lenses of a host of travellers making their way through the subcontinent. With the intensification of colonial presence in the country, British photographers were at the forefront, producing a consumable image of India for those back home. These early representations were largely constructed with a certain formal compulsion for the ‘picturesque’—an aesthetic tradition prevalent at the time in Europe.
One of the most famous of the early European commercial photographers-cum-adventurers, and the most prolific photographer of the picturesque, Samuel Bourne arrived in India in 1863. Undertaking several expeditions in the seven years he spent here, Bourne photographed the expanse of Imperial India, from the Himalayas down to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka).
Also in 1863, Bourne, in partnership with William Howard, established the photographic studio Howard & Bourne, which then expanded to include Charles Shepherd. Just over two years later, Howard left the studio and his name was dropped; and in 1866, the Bourne & Shepherd establishment set up a studio in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
In June 2016, this studio—the oldest running in the world—closed its doors. The four-storeyed gothic structure had become a pale shadow of its legacy; the digital revolution that made photography so easily accessible gradually made studio photography obsolete. To compound its woes, a fire in the establishment 25 years ago destroyed its archives. Even as the building disintegrated, the owners languished hoping for its recognition as a heritage establishment. The news that the studio had to shut down, therefore, came as no surprise to photography aficionados. The good news: The works of Bourne & Shepherd, scattered in museums and collections across the globe, will keep the legacy alive.
Figures in Time, organised by Tasveer, is a curated selection of 19th century vintage photographs and modern enlarged reproductions, sourced from the Bourne & Shepherd archives of MAP (Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru). A limited edition collector’s portfolio can be purchased from Tasveer and a book on the collection can be ordered at www.tasveerbookstore.com.
[Image: Samuel Bourne. Vishnu temples on the Ganges, Varanasi (formerly Benares), 1866]