Photo feature

In pictures: 19th-century India through the eyes of Samuel Bourne

An upcoming exhibition of the British photographer's work demonstrates its significance in the history of visual culture.

British photographer Samuel Bourne came to India in 1863 as a young man of 29 who had already received some plaudits for his landscape images. By the time he left seven years later, he had produced over 25,000 photographs and co-founded a photo studio company that still survives.

Bourne’s images are considered some of the finest examples of 19th-century travel photography. Assisted by Indian bearers, the former bank clerk travelled across the subcontinent to create a collection for Kolkata’s Bourne and Shepherd studio.

The studio was set up by Bourne and an associate called William Howard and later joined by Charles Shepherd. When Howard left for Britain in 1866, the studio got its present name. An exhibition of its vintage photos, curated by Tasveer, is going on display at Delhi’s Exhibit320 art gallery.

Darjeeling, The loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway/Bourne & Shepherd, c. 1880. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Darjeeling, The loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway/Bourne & Shepherd, c. 1880. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
A key idea behind Bourne & Shepherd: Figures in Time is to introduce the works of Bourne and Shepherd to a contemporary audience, says curator Nathaniel Gaskell. “Photography is such a ubiquitous medium today," he said. "A few people actually stop to think who the pioneers of the medium were, or its significance in the history of visual culture in the country.”

In Bourne’s India, you can see harsh and splendorous landscapes, royal heritage and the interstices between antiquity and modernity. He wasn’t the first photographer in India, nor the collectors’ favourite – but his dedication to the medium and the breadth of his oeuvre set him apart.

Bourne journeyed from Varanasi and Delhi to Agra and Bombay, among many other places, all the while making a photographic record of the country. As writer-broadcaster Trevor Fishlock wrote in The Telegraph:

“He endured terrible cold in the mountains, his hands aching from pain caused by frost and chemicals. He travelled heavy: 42 coolies carried his cameras, darkroom tent and chests of chemicals and glass plates. He worked with wet plates, mixing chemicals and applying them to glass, ensuring that the emulsion stayed damp throughout long exposures and development. In the Himalayas he once worked for days in sub-zero temperatures to get just four negatives.”

Ooty (formerly Ootacamund), the lake and the new church from near Audrey House c. 1869/Samuel Bourne. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Ooty (formerly Ootacamund), the lake and the new church from near Audrey House c. 1869/Samuel Bourne. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Varanasi (formerly Benares), Vishnu  temples on the Ganges,  Samuel Bourne, 1866. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Varanasi (formerly Benares), Vishnu temples on the Ganges, Samuel Bourne, 1866. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
His original photographs were small, but they contained a lot of information. Tasveer has enlarged some of them so that the viewer can see the details that would be missed in smaller prints.

Gaskell explains the reason for this. “There’s something strangely intimate and almost voyeuristic about looking at figures in a landscape, or in a street scene, who up until now had just appeared as small dots or outlines, by enlarging and digitally enhancing the images, we can now see their expressions, and we get sucked into their world," he said. "In many ways this is the beauty of 19th century photography, to peek into a scenes that unfolded so long ago, and let our minds drift into these distant moments in time.”

Bourne’s celebrity left his associate Shepherd in the shadows in their lives, but later research reveals Shepherd to be a master painter and the toiler who managed the Bourne & Shepherd studio.

Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Esplanade Road c. 1880. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Esplanade Road c. 1880. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Jodhpur, His Highness, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, G.C.S.I./Bourne & Shepherd, c. 1877. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Jodhpur, His Highness, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, G.C.S.I./Bourne & Shepherd, c. 1877. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
“The focus of the exhibition is centred around the success of the studio and their value to the history of photography and India,” said Gaskell. “The current studio is pretty irrelevant in terms of photography today, as their real legacy and contribution is in its early days when the business was owned and operated by the two themselves, who were also the photographers.”

In an essay, British photographer Hugh Ashley Rayner notes that so much of the India that Bourne recorded has now vanished. “Even the photographs he made in the remotest reaches of the Himalayas pictured a landscape that has since been irrevocably altered, both by man and nature, with mountain sides deforested, tarmac roads built along the valleys, and the traditional Tibetan style timber and jhula bridges now replaced with soulless modern constructions of steel and concrete,” he wrote.

The images at the exhibition are a reminder of that change and the niches where the past survives. “The views of the ghats in Varanasi, for example," said Gaskell. "It shows how much history does exist in the present in India, and how despite moving forward, there remain lingering traces of the past.”

Lucknow, ruins of the Residency, c. 1860. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Lucknow, ruins of the Residency, c. 1860. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Delhi, The Great Arch and the Iron Pillar at Qutub Minar/Samuel Bourne, c. 1860. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer
Delhi, The Great Arch and the Iron Pillar at Qutub Minar/Samuel Bourne, c. 1860. Courtesy: MAP/Tasveer

Bourne & Shepherd: Figures in Time will be on display at Exhibit320 in New Delhi from May 30 to June 10.

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