The first half of the 19th-century was a tipping point for British imperial presence in the Indian subcontinent. No longer preoccupied with the chase of conquest, the focus had moved to colonial rule.
This led to the opportunity for increased geographical and cultural exploration, and with it scope for understanding the diverse landscapes, languages, buildings and religions of India in greater depth.
It is this context that Tripe, Murray, Bourne: Photographic Journeys in India 1855-1870, an exhibition of rare prints on display at Prahlad Bubbar’s Mayfair gallery, brings to life.
“The journey is what ties these photographers together,” Bubbar says. “Tripe, Murray and Bourne…the greatest British photographers working out of India in the 19th century.”
The significance of this period in photographic history is difficult to overstate. With the camera arriving in India in 1839, shortly after its invention, the sheer technical ability required – aeons away from the simple touch of a smartphone screen – made travel photography a grueling practice.
“Can you imagine? It’s forty degrees, it’s raining, you’re up in the mountains. You would be carrying chemicals, tents, papers, bulky cameras. Paper negatives had to be processed on the spot,” Bubbar says.
This practical difficulty underlies some of the images featured in the series. The blur of moving bodies and turning heads hints at the perennial challenge of the 19th-century photographer abroad: capturing dynamic Indian life whilst grappling with the painfully slow shutter-speed of original camera models.
Linnaeus Tripe, having trained in the military, became the official photographer of the British authorities from 1854-1860, achieving a short yet productive career in a decade stained by the blood of suppressed political uprisings. He was commissioned to document the unrest as the colonial grip tightened, and the establishment felt a creeping responsibility to study and preserve the ancient civilisation they controlled.
With financial backing from the East India Company, Tripe was able to travel far and wide, learning several local languages to properly immerse himself in Indian society. From Mysore and Madras in the South, up to Burma in the North-East, he made use of his formal training to produce a range of meticulously edited images, usually printing them himself.
In a different vein, building a humble artistic profile that remained under the photography-world’s radar until fairly recently, Dr John Murray initially spent years living with his family as a surgeon in Bengal. He began travelling in Northern India as an amateur photographer, between 1849-1865.
Murray was especially fascinated with Mughal architecture, often taking shots from different angles to explore the effects of light and shadow, and build a cumulative picture of grand Indian structures.
The best example of this professional quirk can be seen in his carefully positioned images of the Taj Mahal, two of which are featured in the exhibition. These would have been among the first taken of the now world-famous site.
Finally, in stark contrast to Murray’s private demeanour, ex-banker Samuel Bourne established commercial studios in Simla, Calcutta and Bombay, dispersing his work across Europe and the USA. We might understand him in modern terms as a photographer-cum-businessman: seeking a pretty picture to sell to the monied Western intelligentsia.
Of course, this shrewdness took nothing away from Bourne’s artistic vision. Having spent the early years of his career in rural Wales and the Peak District, his eye conditioned by the picturesque low hills of the British countryside, he set-off on a trip to Kashmir in 1863, armed with donkeys, assistants and equipment.
Writing in the British Journal of Photography in that same year, 153 years ago, Bourne described his intention as: “To see what elements of beauty and grandeur lay concealed in some of the higher and little known regions of the Himalayas.”
His serene landscape images would have been inspired by British watercolour painters, who had travelled to the very same vantage points decades before, setting the pictorial tone for the rest of 19th-century visual art across the Empire.
Looking retrospectively, each photographer on show is undoubtedly motivated by the same Orientalist fascination with the exotic beauty of India – a feeling that, to a large extent, still persists today in the minds of European travellers. All three also possessed a mutual determination to communicate their discoveries to their countrymen back home.
But it is clear from a close viewing of the images, delicately ordered around the two clean rooms of Bubbar’s gallery, that each artist had their own personal relationship with their craft – as well as the sights and people they were so patiently trying to capture.
‘Tripe, Murray, Bourne: Photographic Journeys in India 1855-1870’ is on display until 22nd May 2016, at Prahlad Bubbar’s gallery: 33 Cork Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 3NQ.