An ode to the painted photograph

Pran Nevile


Madras Nautch Party: A painted photograph called for skill
Madras Nautch Party: A painted photograph called for skill.

THE camera made its appearance in 1839 when Louis Daguerre unveiled his invention in Paris. The first photographs were hailed as mirrors of reality. It brought a crisis in art and some painters exclaimed that with the advent of the camera “painting is dead”. The camera immediately became popular and within a year, it surfaced in Calcutta in 1840. India, with its bewildering diversity of people, ancient historic sites and monuments, the beauty and grandeur of its mountains, plains and rivers, provided rich material to the photographer. By the 1870s there were commercial photographers in every major city of India. The art of photography was taken up by Indians as a lucrative professional enterprise and as a fashionable hobby. Photography rapidly replaced painting especially in respect of portraits, as the camera was known for its exact image of reality.

Hindu Nautch girls, Mumbai
Hindu Nautch girls, Mumbai

During the last quarter of the 19th century, traditional artists were struggling hard to survive the onslaught of the camera. They used to make sets of colourful paintings of native people of different occupations in their exotic costumes, their festivals and rituals as well as local scenery with its typical flora and fauna. There was a ready market for these pictures among the European travellers and the British residents. Now, with the commercial photographs, these artists lost their clientele. They were compelled to switch professions and many of them became photographers.

They called themselves artist-photographers and were known as such well into the beginning of the 20th century. At first, some of them copied photographs or painted directly on top of them. Like the artisans they too sought the patronage of princely courts and took photographs of maharajas and nawabs, who in some cases gave them official appointments and commissioned them to photograph royal festivals and functions.

A portrait of a Brahman Lady
A portrait of a Brahman Lady

Early photographs of the late 19th century, though yellowing with age, show the high quality of work executed by Indian photographers who created a specific kind of imagery, infusing into their work inherent Indian aesthetic traditions. Black and white pictures, however, were not quite attractive and lacked the dazzling impact of brightly-hued ones. The latter appealed to the rich and famous who wanted pictures to show the glamour and grandeur of their wealth and power. It was also felt that India, with its vast diversity of peoples and the beauty of its scenery, would be robbed of colour if shown in black and white.

For a true picture of the country — especially to those living abroad and who did not have the opportunity of visiting India — the land and its peoples had to be shown in colour as it provided that extra information about the subject in its descriptive content.

The art of hand-colouring black and white images is as old as photography. The technique was developed in order to create a realistic appearance of the subject. The Indian artist-photographer, however, produced another characteristic kind of image that of the painted picture which became immensely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was considered the most natural photograph and also the most appealing. This picture was usually partially painted but on some occasions it was completely painted over leaving little trace of the original lens image.

All the same, the final product revealed the artist-photographer’s rich tradition of artistry and workmanship. He used colour in an interpretative way to produce fresh shapes, forms and expressions about the subject. We react subjectively to colour as it has the potential to create and change a mood. The artist-photographer achieved the desired result through the dominance of one particular shade or tint over all the others.

Parsee Lady, C: 1890
Parsee Lady, C: 1890

A painted picture called for the skills of a team of artists. One was responsible for retouching the negative with a shade of red or pink in order to wipe out the dark areas of the picture. The second undertook the finishing work on the photo-print with crayon and pumice in order to soften the light and shade effects. The third one painted the background with water colours while the fourth expert outlined figures in a photographic print, giving them a silhouette effect. The last man of the team was the oil painter who supplied the final magic to the picture.

The combination of hand-painting and photography presented a novel picture with a brilliant new range of tones. Rooted in Indian skills and perceptions, these pictures developed into a novelty totally Indian. As a creative technique, hand-painting offered unlimited scope in adding emphasis to a picture. The artist would often change the background scene by adding or excluding certain decorative effects, items of furniture or changing the facial expression of the subject in order to show authority, grace or kindness as desired by the patron.

Raja Deen Dayal, the renowned Indian photographer who was appointed by Queen Victoria as one of her official photographers could photograph in European and Indian styles. Many of his Indian-style photographs were retouched, painted and finished to meet the increasing demand for bright painted pictures from the aristocracy.

The commercial photographers painted photographs of Indian people of different classes and professions attired in colourful costumes. These were used not only as illustrations in books and in travel literature but also as picture cards for tourists. These photographs were more than beautiful objects since they represented a tradition and a new expressive form for Indian artist photographers at that time.

The novelty of painted photographs, however, did not find favour with Europeans who considered it a device to cover up the laws in a photograph or hide the ineptness of the photographer. As the 20th century rolled on, growing influences of western education and ideas brought about a significant change in people’s outlook and tastes. The painted photograph eventually lost its popularity with the elite and finally vanished from the scene.