2nd November 2015
6 min read

The New Medium: Photography in India 1855-85

Alexandra Cooper


The miraculous ability to fix light upon a surface, capturing reflections of the natural world and preserving moments in time, heralded a revolution in image making. India was at the forefront of this process; as early as January 1940, Thacker and Co. of Calcutta advertised the sale of daguerreotype cameras, just one year after their invention in France. Amateur photographers raced to experiment with the new medium, inspired by the abundance of India’s wild landscapes, majestic architecture and diverse people. These ‘endless objects of attraction or of curiosity’ were extolled by Captain Harry Barr at the inaugural meeting of the Photographic Society of Bombay in 1854: ‘where I would ask, can that art be more advantageously studied than under the sunny skies of Ind?’

While little is known of the earliest practitioners of photography in India, from the 1850s we have clear evidence of its increasingly widespread use. Photographic societies appeared in the Presidency cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. With these societies developed communities that organised events, exhibitions and the publication of journals, fostering an active culture of experimentation and exchange. Photography’s potential was recognised by the colonial government early on, who foresaw its use in the archeological, military, scientific and ethnographic domains.

One of the most talented early amateurs was Dr. John Murray (Images. 21, 22 & 24,25). A teacher and Principal of the Medical School in Agra, Murray took up photography around 1849. He is known for his images of the sublime Mughal monuments of Delhi, Agra and Fatephur Sikri. A selection of his prints was published in 1857 by Hogarth, London, under the title ‘Photographic Views of Agra and Its Vicinity’. Image 21 is likely to be from this series, taken prior to his trip to England that year. In this view of the Taj, Murray’s vision is less documentary and more pictorial, presenting the surrounding gardens as a plentiful and tranquil idyll. Early photographs of India were often influenced with the idealised romanticism of the Picturesque, a movement that had characterised British painting of the late 18th century and found particular expression in India through the paintings of William Hodges and Thomas and William Daniell.

Responding to a sense of responsibility for the preservation of India’s great monuments, the colonial administration began to fund photographic surveys. The works by Captain Linnaeus Tripe, a gentleman-officer-scholar, are among the most inspired and artistic (image 23). He visited and recorded the sites of Mysore, and the Madras Presidency in the years 1856-58.

The desire to document and record also extended to sites of military interest. Photography had come to India at a time of renewed colonial expansion, particularly following the uprising of 1857. Returning to India in November of that year, John Murray was asked by the Governor-General Lord Canning to photograph locations associated with the uprising, including Benares, Kanpur and Delhi. A large and impressive image in this exhibition depicting pyramids of canon balls in front of the Pearl mosque at Agra was taken during this period, presenting a striking juxtaposition of two symbols of faith and war (Image 22).

As the 1850s progressed, increasing numbers of amateur photographers opened commercial studios. William Johnson, a founding member of the Bombay Photographic Society, went into collaboration with William Henderson in the mid 1850s. Together they produced a monthly journal illustrated with albumen prints called the Indian Amateurs Photographic Album from 1856-58. Another amateur turned professional was Henry Hinton, a teacher based in Bombay. His work was included in the Indian Amateurs Photographic Album in 1857 and he ran a photographic studio in Bombay until 1872.

The sites of South India were captured masterfully in the work of John and James Nicholas, who collaborated as ‘Nicholas Brothers, Photographers of Madras’. Their studio was established in 1863 and they focused predominately on South Indian landscape, architecture and ethnographic subjects, demonstrating a nuanced engagement with Hindu, as well as Muslim, sites. Some of their finest work was done in Mysore, an example of which is the majestic image of the tomb of Tipu Sultan, the ‘Mysore Tiger’, and his father Haider Ali. Sites associated with Tipu were of particular interest to the British, who viewed him as a formidable and worthy opponent in the Mysore wars of the late 18th century.

Indians also played an important role as pioneers in the early decades of photography. Undoubtedly the most widely known and celebrated example is Raja Deen Dayal. Born in Sardhana near Meerut in 1844, Dayal studied surveying at the Thomson Civil Engineering College at Roorkee before getting a job at the Public Works Department of the Central India Agency. He took up photography around 1874 and his work soon attracted the attention of the establishment, notably Sir Lepel Griffin, with whom he toured Bundelkhand in 1882.

A remarkably gifted photographer and astute businessman, Dayal climbed the ranks from aspiring amateur to become official photographer to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, the wealthiest princely state in India. He navigated 19th century society with great skill, operating amongst the British and Indian elites and crossing class, race and social divides. Having established a successful business with studios in Indore, Hyderabad and Bombay, he was granted the Royal Warrant from the Queen Victoria in 1887. His work is known for its sophisticated gradation of tone, often achieved by using different lengths of exposure for selective areas of the print. In addition to his technical skill, the artistic merit of his photographs was recognised by his contemporaries; on his death in 1905, the Bombay Gazette described him as ‘the first great photographer and artist’.

Another significant result of the arrival of photography in India was the evolution of the photographic portrait, rivaling miniature painting as the primary medium for historical documentation and the presentation of power and prestige. Early portraiture was predominately ethnographic or focused on courtly elites. A fine example is Dayal’s image of the Maharaja of Bijawar, Central India (Image 26) Its negative number confirms a date of 1882, during his tour in Bundelkhand. The camera frame extends beyond the temporary studio, which has been crafted from a dark fabric backdrop and layered carpets, revealing the architecture behind. Direct and formal, this image draws on a long tradition of court painting in India in which the ruler is pictured surrounded by his court and defined by markers of princely wealth and status.

From the 1890s onwards portraits were influenced by an increasing trend towards pictorialism, coupled with a Victorian regard for high ceremony. This was inspired in part by trends in European painting, contributing a greater degree of lyricism and emotional sentiment to portrait photography. A significant factor in this process was the development of the photographer’s studio. Portraits acquired props such as European furniture, elaborate backdrops, flowers and rich drapery. The studio became a place of transformation, where identities could be created and status proclaimed.

Join Our Mailing List

If you would like to stay up to date with exhibitions and everything else here at Prahlad Bubbar, enter your email below to join our mailing list