Vintage vignettes

Pran Nevile presents some rare snapshots of India from
the US Library of Congress collection

THE invention of the camera in 1839 was hailed for its ‘exact’ reporting of reality. The invention caught on like wildfire and within a year, it surfaced in Calcutta. Photography also received support from the government. It subsidised photographers who shot historic monuments, military expeditions and public works projects. By the 1870s, a number of European commercial photography firms had set up shop in every major city of India. Among the best known were Bourne and Shepherd, Johnston and Huffman, John Burke, T.A. Rust, Barton Son and Co. and Nicolas and Co. The only Indian firm was set up by Raja Deen Dayal and Sons – the official photographer of the Nizam.

Frank George Carpenter’s India collection has pictures of street scenes and people in native costumes

A photograph showing vendors and craftsmen selling their wares captures the Indian milieu Photos courtesy the writer

Rare views of the cities of Mumbai and Agra during the period 1905-20 have been caught through the lens

The remarkable part of the collection is the large number
of photographs of Indian women. Courtesans and nautch
girls posed readily, while family women (below) faced
the camera reluctantly

Dayal was appointed by Queen Victoria as one of the official photographers of the Crown. In the early years, Indian professional artists, especially the portrait painters, used photographs as painting aids but, in due course, most of them switched professions and became photographers. The European firms of photographers in India produced a series of photographs on views of India. The camera recorded India in the late 19th and early 20th century but these photographers projected India according to their own perception of what they saw, felt and thought about the land and its civilisation.

In the recent spate of publications of old photographs, we have seen pictures of a bygone era sourced from the British Library and some private collections. We have also seen some post-1857 mutiny photographs of Delhi and Lucknow commissioned by the British patrons. In the course of my research in the Prints and Photographs Division of the US Library of Congress, I stumbled upon a most fascinating voluminous stock of photographs on India collected by one Frank G. Carpenter and also some other American visitors to India. The Carpenter Collection was donated to the US Library by his daughter in 1951 and I was the first person to discover this fabulous record of the Indian panorama. Incidentally, it was editorially acknowledged by the American Centre, New Delhi, in their magazine Spanthat Carpenter’s collection was discovered by me and no scholar had earlier ever mentioned about it. I have been exploring the visual record of the British period to reconstruct the social and cultural scene in India during the Raj. The British libraries and museums were my favourite haunts but I was struck by the Carpenter collection, which covers the period of the late 19th to the early 20th century and contains rare images of the picturesque and exotic India and its people which are of immense historic value. Despite the primitive camera and other ancillary equipment used by the early photographers, it is noteworthy that most of the photographs are of a high standard, comparable in quality with the best of photography of that period. As the travellers and visitors to India at that time rarely carried a personal camera, they invariably bought photographs of the Indian panorama from the commercial photographers who catered to the demands of the tourists.

Frank George Carpenter, journalist, traveller and author, was the famous American travel writer of his time. He began his global travels in 1888 and continued for more than three decades, which took him to nearly every part of the world. He used his collection of photographs for his geographical writing, the collection, consisting of nearly 20,000 photographs, is remarkable for its content. The photographs deal with human geography and depict the economic, social and cultural life of different people as well as their distinctive customs and religious practices. Many of the photographs were taken by Carpenter and his daughter themselves.

They travelled to India in 1909 and were fascinated by the diversity of Indian people and the country’s scenic splendours, historical sites, magnificent temples, mosques and palaces. There are a large number of mounted photographs of Indian panorama, many of which were purchased from the famous Indian commercial photographers of the time. Carpenter’s India collection has pictures of street scenes and cities and towns, people of different regions in native costumes, transport vehicles of varying types, shops, vendors and craftsmen at work and their environment. Carpenter’s own appearance in some pictures marks his personal enjoyment of his own travels and adventures. The most remarkable part of his collection is the large number of photographs of Indian women of different classes. It was difficult to take photographs of respectable women, who were mostly in purdah and shied away from the camera wielded by a man. The photographer had to depend on courtesans and nautch girls, who readily posed for the camera, while women servants, lower-caste people and tribal women did so for a nominal payment.

The discovery of the Carpenter Collection alone prompted me to explore the entire visual material on India held by the Prints and Photographs Division of the library. This exercise was rewarding enough as I found a vast collection of photographs of practically all major historical monuments and also those depicting scenes of principal Indian cities with a bewildering diversity of people. Most of these photographs dating from the 19th century were taken by the commercial photographers mentioned above.

I also came across a few collections donated to the library by the descendants of American travellers. One of these gifted by Percy Hamilton Davis in June 1947 contains rare views of the cities of Mumbai and Agra during the period 1905-20. There are also pictures of historic events of imperial importance, for example, the Prince of Wales visit to India in 1875, Lord Curzon’s Durbar in Delhi in 1903 and King George V’s famous Delhi Durbar of 1911.

Another pile of photographs that struck me was of the American soldiers and the war activities in India during World War II. Taken by American cameramen, these pictures were sent home for publication by the US Office of War information, then located at Janpath, New Delhi.

I noted that a sizable number of photographs on India stored in the Library of Congress are not available in the holdings of the British Library London – the chief reservoir of this material as well as in some other archives. I am surprised how this photo treasure escaped the notice of the distinguished American photo historian Clarke Worswick, well-known for his anthology of Indian photographs called The Last Empire – Photography in British India, 1855 – 1911, published in 1976. While acknowledging the sources such as the British Library and some American collectors, he makes no mention of the Library of Congress. A similar omission is noticed in Judith Mara Gutman’s Through Indian Eyes dealing with the history of photography in India, published in New York in 1982.


Simply stereographs

THE most rewarding outcome of my wanderings in the Prints and Photographs Division was the discovery of a remarkable collection of stereographs of the Indian panorama, dating from the 1870s to the 1920s. These double photograph cards produced by juxtaposing two views taken simultaneously but from slightly different angles present a 3-D solid image when seen through a binocular viewer of a stereoscope. One of the most popular diversions of the Victorian era was the stereoscope. Through the illusion of three dimensions, people were not only entertained but also enlightened about the landscape and people of other countries.

The stereographs of the Indian panorama, dating from the 1870s to the 1920s, were double photograph cards produced by juxtaposing two views taken simultaneously, but from slightly different angles

I have not so far come across a single collection of stereographs in any other library or museum that I have visited. This rare collection in the Library of Congress presents a reservoir of information about the life and times of yesteryear through the eyes of its cameraman. The range of stockpile on India is quite extensive, covering not only the sights and sounds of the country at large, but also the picturesque facade of Empire, including historic events like the majestic Delhi Durbars of 1902 and 1911 with all their regal splendour and dazzling pageantry of the native prices. During the late 19th century many American photographers came to India to take stereo pictures. Most of the stereographs carry the imprints of the American companies, like Underwood and Underwood Publishers and Keystone View Company, the leading producers of this novelty. — PN