By Melanie Hough
In recognition of 70 years of Indian independence from Britain, Getty Images Gallery presents a selection of the earliest photographic views of the subcontinent.
Although the landscapes and portraits of India and its people available today were photographed predominantly by Western photographers during the British Raj – the period from 1858 to 1947 when India was under British rule – the exhibition also includes recently uncovered images by pioneering Indian photographer Lala Deen Dayal. Take a look at these fascinating images that offer a rare glimpse into 19th-century India.
Taj Mahal from the Jumna, 1859
Images of landmarks were popular with the British Raj, which was keen to qualify their presence in the country as heirs to the cultural heritage of India. It was a dubious conceit, but the prints themselves are beautiful and display all the artisanship of early photographers such as Felice Beato and Samuel Bourne.
The majority of the vintage Indian photographs in the archive of Getty Images were captured on glass plate negatives using a wooden plate camera with leather bellows. While unwieldy, the large glass plates caught a wealth of information, producing these impeccable representations of even the most intricate architecture.
The Burning Ghat at Benares (Varanasi), c. 1865-1866
There were a multitude of photography studios in India at the time, run by Western practitioners and those eager to capitalize on the new medium. The Kolkuta studio of Bourne & Shepherd, started by British photographer Samuel Bourne, remains the longest-running in history, only closing its doors in 2016.
The Manirung Pass at an Elevation of 18,600 Feet, Himalayas, 1866
One of the finest photographers of 19th-century India, Bourne’s picturesque aesthetic found its muse in the colossal landscapes of the subcontinent. From the frozen heights of the Himalayas through to the sacred Burning Ghats of Benares (now Varanasi), Bourne applied the same exacting standards to his work, communicating something of the scale with which he was confronted.
The Indian climate posed great challenges for these early practitioners, who would invariably be shooting using the wet plate collodion process. Scaling the Himalayas, Bourne tolerated freezing conditions and required a team of 30 porters to capture his images of the most sublime of landscapes. These abundant environmental handicaps make the quality of these images all the more astounding.
Darjeeling Hills Musician, c. 1868-1875, photographer unknown. The majority of 19th-century Indian photography available today was shot by western photographers. While we can appreciate the technical expertise, beauty of the images, and the historical resource they provide, it is important to be mindful that the Western gaze is refracted. This incredible portrait alludes to a more disconcerting archive, in which human beings were surveyed as clinically as the local architecture. When the eye was at its most colonial, a portrait could become a classification, a detached study of a native “type”. The eight volumes of a detailed ethnography, "The People of India (1868–1875)”, even became an official British government publication, criticized as an act of further subjugation.
Indian Conjuror, London, 1885. Founded in 1854, the London Stereoscopic Company was the very first organization to license photography for commercial use.
Indra Sabha Cave at Ellora, Maharashtra, 1889
Three of the founding members of the first photographic society in India, instituted in Bombay in 1854, were Indians and the early views of the country are not limited to an imperial eye. Lala Deen Dayal, cited as the greatest Indian photographer of the age, enjoyed the patronage of both the British establishment – he was an official photographer to Queen Victoria – but also his fellow countrymen across this complex society.
Portraits of Maharajas, Indian rulers under British Raj c. 1887
Sourced from a handsome four-volume album, this series of maharaja portraits are original 19th-century photogravure prints, a photomechanical etching process that produces painterly images with exquisite detail. Delicate prints in themselves, they are remarkably vivid for images taken well over a century ago. The album’s origin is one of the Archive’s many secrets, and a scrap of a note is the sole clue: The only other copy of this work was presented to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1887.
The dynastic rule of the princely states was protected and flattered under the British Raj. With their powers greatly diluted but their public profile maintained, it was an outward pretence of autonomous Indian government. Shortly before the announcement of India’s independence, a fire was lit by New Delhi officials intending to eradicate the apparatus of princely India. Burning all documents relating to the pomp and pageantry of the old system, it was in 1971 that the last privileges of the maharajas were finally stripped away.
Girgaum Road, Bombay (Mumbai) c. 1890-1910
While mass production of photographs became more viable with the development of halftone printing, color photography was still in its infancy at the end of the 19th century. To color an image meant laboriously hand-tinting each individual print. The Photochrom offered an interim solution, matching the volumes and speeds the market demanded while achieving a sympathetic interpretation of color.