The Bourne legacy

Last Updated : 13 October 2012, 19:10 IST

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Besides photographic skills, Samuel Bourne was known for his appetite for hard work and an amazing stamina for travel, writes Giridhar khasnis.

In his book, Traveling Light: Photography, Travel and Visual Culture, Peter Osborne evocatively sets out the context of photography in colonial India. According to him, photography’s first function in colonial India was as an apparatus of control; and most of the early European photographers were British army officers or employees of the East India Company or the British colonial administration itself.

“India was a call to duty, a chance to make a career or to embrace obscurity,” writes Osborne, explaining the density in British attitudes towards India, and its contradictory character. “It energised some, enervated others.

Some were overwhelmed by it, lost in it; others were horrified. Many remained determinedly ignorant of the country even as they administered it... There were a few who more or less converted to its values and some who became notable scholars of Indian history and culture.

There were others for whom India was a bazaar of novelties, a display of exotic attractions. Many had some or all of these responses continuously… An examination of some of Samuel Bourne’s work can show how travel and travel photography reflected certain of these attitudes, and in some instances attempted to resolve or repress their contradictions and sedate their fearfulness.”

Samuel Bourne, whose death centenary happens to be marked this year, was arguably the most commercially successful travel photographer in India during the British Raj. Born in Shropshire in 1834, he is said to have worked as a clerk in a Bank in Nottingham. Apparently having nothing much to do on the job, he started taking photographs of the market place from the Bank window with a little camera, which cost no more than £5.

In course of time, he became a proficient landscape photographer, exhibiting his work in Nottingham and London. He also wrote articles for photographic journals. When his work was well received at the London International Exhibition of 1862, he gave up his bank job, turned to professional photography and set out to India in 1863.

Himalayan expeditions

Not much is known about his motivations to come to India, but well documented are his many travels to different parts of the country — often to remote locations — where he enthusiastically photographed places, people, architecture and monuments. In particular, his arduous trips to the Himalayas were legendary. In fact, he was one of the very few photographers in India to plan and undertake treks to Himalayas in that era.

His three trips to the mountains in 1863, 1864 and 1866 were performed with a large retinue of 30-40 porters who carried his large format wet-plate cameras, chemicals, tents, bedding, provisions, on-location dark room, and duplicates in case of a disaster. His camera with square bellows could take glass sizes up to 12x10 inches; through it he was able to see “what elements of beauty and grandeur lay concealed in some of the higher and little known regions of the Himalayas.”

Bourne recorded his experiences scrupulously and published them as a series of reports in The British Journal of Photography. Among his several famous pieces was ‘Ten Weeks with a Camera in the Himalayas’, published in February 1864.

Bourne’s work was widely shown in public exhibitions in Europe and India, and featured in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867. His photograph ‘Picturesque Bridge over the Rungnoo below Ging’ was awarded a Gold Medal by the Viceroy during the twelfth annual exhibition of the Bengal Photographic Society in December 1869.

Studio in Shimla

Bourne photographed several hill stations of the country including Shimla, a tiny city which became his adopted home. It was here that he located his studio, ‘Talbot House’, in 1863, the very year he came to India. He was joined by William Howard, an established photographer of Calcutta; and Charles Shepherd, an English photographer and proficient printer.

The studio, which later became ‘Bourne & Shepherd’, went on to produce what is generally considered to be the greatest body of photographic work in India during that British raj. It became an important supplier of Indian landscape photographs to visitors who came to India as well as to Britishers back home. It developed suppliers throughout India, as well as strategic marketing dealers in Europe.

By the time Bourne left India for good in 1870, ‘Bourne & Shepherd’ was operating from Shimla and Calcutta. Back in England, Bourne reportedly turned to cotton business and gave up commercial photography altogether. After his retirement from cotton business in 1896, he became devoted to watercolour painting which he practiced until his death on April 24, 1912 in Nottingham.

‘Bourne & Shepherd’ in Calcutta changed hands but survived. It reprinted and sold his photographs over the next century and more. Said to be the oldest surviving photographic studio of the world, it exists in Esplanade, Kolkata to this day under Indian ownership. Among its prized possessions is the camera used by Bourne himself. Sadly, a tragic fire accident in the building on February 6, 1991 destroyed a priceless archive of over 2,200 antiquated glass plate negatives.

Shrewd businessman

Bourne is generally regarded as one of the finest commercial and artistic photographers of his time. Historians have particularly acknowledged his remarkable photographic skill, appetite for hard work and stamina for travel.

Besides the 2,000-plus photographic images to his credit, he was also a prolific chronicler who wrote articles suffused with sharp technical details. Moreover, he was known to be a shrewd businessman who ingeniously and tirelessly stimulated demand for his work.

Osborne points out that India was nothing but business for Bourne; and the whole continent was visual raw material waiting to be refined into photographic commodities.

“Bourne shared the attitudes of his customers or cut his ideological cloth to theirs… His operation met and shaped demand… His customers were offered not simply neutral images of India, but, in a choice of subjects and styles determined by English visual taste and imperial preoccupations, he produced representations containing British attitudes towards India... Tourism in general offers the world for consumption.

Bourne’s business was selling the consumption of colonialism, and selling it primarily to those who had produced it.” 

Published 13 October 2012, 13:21 IST

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