Photography as a technology based representational practice began in Calcutta in 1840, few months after the technology was patented in 1839 in England and in France. The imaging practice was enthusiastically greeted both by the British and the Indians and it proliferated rapidly as a trade and a hobby in the city and beyond. Commercial studios and camera clubs were established providing institutional platforms for Calcutta photographers to nurture their practice. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries these studios and camera clubs exchanged a smooth traffic in photographers, aesthetic ideas, and visual styles. At the same time these institutions and the individuals associated with them were in continuous dialogue with their European counterparts and their practices evolved within globally available discourses and technologies of photo imaging. However, photography during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remained a prerogative of the financial and/or cultural elites in Calcutta - both British and indigenous. Only the elite could mobilize resources to practice photography, and therefore photographers belonged to small and exclusive groups. Comprising of hobbyists as well commercial studio owners, these groups of photographers created vast body of photographs of myriad genres and formats, ranging from carte-de-visité and cabinet card portraits to pictorial sceneries and cityscapes. Besides, they took part in debates and discussions on photography’s aesthetic status and proceedings of their camera clubs were regularly published in journals circulating among the members. Consequently, commercial interests devoid of aesthetic concerns were discouraged by the studios that routinely described themselves as “photographic artists” or “artists and photographers.” Indeed, advertisements for the Calcutta studios testify the ways in which their artistic merits validated by the camera clubs were perceived as a requirement for their commercial success. Some of their artistically made products on offer were photographs of Calcutta.
Featuring digital reproductions of ninety-six gelatin silver photographic prints from the collection of the Victoria Memorial Hall, Frozen in Time provide glimpses of late-ninetieth and early-twentieth century Calcutta and its neighboring areas. Twenty-seven of these prints were made by the largest commercial studio in colonial India Messrs. Bourne & Shepherd, while sixty-nine of them were created by the second largest commercial studio Messrs. Johnston and Hoffmann. Together these two sets of photographs represent iconic buildings, spaces, and landmarks that characterized the city - images of moments passed and of familiar spaces some of which still exist, albeit often transformed, while others survive only in collective memory. The views these photographs offer include among others the Hoogly riverbank, the band strand at Eden Gardens before the canopy was erected, the Government House (present Raj Bhavan), the Old Court House Street with horse drawn carriages and old tram tracks, St. Paul’s Cathedral with its central steeple intact, the High Court, the zoo and the New Market. Besides focusing on the British dominated administrative, financial, and recreational hubs and the colonial architecture of the city, both sets have photographs of spaces beyond the “white town,” including the Indian dominated neighborhoods in the city, in its suburbs, and in villages. Two photographs stand out in this corpus: a photograph of the elephant plough at Phoobarea Tea Estate in Northern Bengal and the location of Lord Mayo’s murder in Port Blair in the Andaman island. In recording these locations in Calcutta and elsewhere, the photographs froze their referents at moments the photosensitive emulsions of negatives were exposed in daylight passing through the camera lens; as if time came to a halt for these photographic subjects as their impressions were created on the negative.
The photographs featured in this exhibition are as much about their referents as they are about historically specific styles of representation and about material histories of photographic technology. In creating their photographs of the city the studios of Bourne & Shepherd and Johnston and Hoffmann were inspired by an already established genre of “views of Calcutta” that were made by numerous artists in a wide range of media, the most popular example of which are the watercolors and sketches by the uncle-nephew duo Thomas and William Daniell. Simultaneously both the studios and especially Samuel Bourne, the founder proprietor of Bourne & Shepherd, were committed to the Victorian genre of the picturesque landscape paintings and many of their photographs in this exhibition demonstrate their inclination towards the “picturesque.” The photographs in this exhibition did not simply freeze Calcutta on the photographic emulsions; they followed consciously chosen visual styles and genre conventions. As they worked with existing conventions, the photographers did more than what the convention dictated, and their styles were often conditioned by their chosen medium. Unlike the picturesque paintings, the picturesque photographs were extremely detailed and image clarity was unprecedented. This was possible primarily because they mostly used large format glass plate negatives and created large contact prints thereby preventing any loss of details in enlargements. Larger prints in this exhibition approximately match the standard size of glass plate negatives commonly used by nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial studios in Calcutta. Likewise, the smaller prints in this exhibition were created from similar size negatives through contact process. Thinking through the materiality of prints will allow beholders to appreciate the history of photography in a pre-digital era - histories of cameras, negatives, chemicals, and their material decay over time. The prints on display embody visible signs of physical and chemical decay over time and their irreversible continuous chemical reactions complicate their urge to freeze time.
- Ranu Roychoudhuri, 2018