• Sneha Chdy

Framed in memories: The history of photography in India.

In 2016, the oldest photo studio, Bourne and Shepherd closed its gates. This marked the end of an era, the shift from studio photographs to digital ones and a whole range of history in its backyard. As we bid our farewell to the one’s renowned photo studio in Kolkata, we have to look at how the whole phenomenon of photography began in India.


Photography came to India almost as concurrently as its inception in Europe. However the usage of photography gained popularity only after 1857.

Officers were often encouraged to carry the camera with them on their travels to photograph people of India. The copies of these plates were then deposited to Governor General Canning. This marked the beginning of the first state sanctioned archival photographic practice in India.

The massive eight volume of ‘The People of India’ was compiled and produced where the ‘interesting subjects’ were shot.


The volumes began the genre of anthropological photography on an unprecedented scale. The anthropological work was published between 1868 and 1875; it contains 4 photographs representing the work of at least 15 photographers. The photographic archive consists of a range of representations of landscapes, buildings, the indigenous people in groups and individually and the British engaged in high tea or at war.

India saw the evolution of different technologies of cameras as they were improved and developed in Europe. It has been suggested that camera obscura is what spearheaded the popularity of photography in the subcontinent, during the 1850s.

Another type of camera that came in the early 1840 called the Daguerreotype camera. It was brought to the streets of Calcutta by a Monsieur F.M Montairo. It was almost a decade later that the Calotype cameras were brought by a Mr. F.Schanzhofer , who started business in Calcutta. It became the most widely used type of cameras in the subcontinent by both professionals and amateurs. The next advancement in the photographic scenario in India was the introduction of the collodion camera, which reduced the exposure time to 30 to 120 seconds for landscapes. However it had one drawback, the photographer had to carry with themselves enormous amounts of equipment. Samuel Bourne needed as many as 30 porters to transport his equipment for his first expedition to the Himalayas in 1863.


As the craft spread all through the subcontinent, enthusiasts emerged from the subcontinent to come together and discuss and display their work. The first of such societies was The Bombay Photographic society which was established in October 1854.

Governor Lord Elphinstone was the patron of the society. The second society to come up of this sort was The Photographic Society of Bengal and Lady Canning was the patron of the society. She also took the initiative to establish the Photographic Society of Madras in 1856. These societies came up with their Journal. These memberships of these societies number from 88, of which four of them were women and by 1863 the membership increased to nearly 250. The craft of photography didn’t just remain as an amateur activity.

The Secretary and Treasurer positions at the Photographic society of Bengal appointed natives. Indians gradually mastered the technique of photography. Ahmed Ali Khan, Shivanshanker, Lala Din Dayal were one of the regarded Indian photographers.

By 1865 Din Dayal was made the court photographer by the Nizam of Hyderabad. And later, we went on to open his studios in Bombay, Indore and Secunderabad. He opened a separate zenana studio in Hyderabad, which was managed by Mrs Kenny Levick. It was a separate space for women in purdah could be photographed away from the societal gaze of sacred and profane. By the 1860s, most photographers knew the basics of composing photographs.



Photography saw moderations from place to place as it evolved to Indian way of making art. One of the peculiar ones was the Delhi type. Artists in Delhi used photography as a method of producing miniatures in short time. Desmond in his article ‘Photography in Victorian Era’ writes that the artists would carefully trace the photograph on a sheet of ivory, touch it up and then color it with watercolors.


The East India Company and the Court of Directors encouraged the study of photography in Scientific and educational institutions under the influence of the government. It was intended that these people trained in these colleges will be able to find employment in public works, Trigonometric or revenue survey or archeological work.

Photography found an essential role in both archeological and architectural field work. Alexander Cunningham, Archeological Surveyor, James Fergusson, the eminent architectural historian and the then Governor General Lord Canning, understood the eminent role of photography in these studies.


Hurichand Chintamohan was one of the Indian photographers who made notable contributions in recordings of archeological surveys. By 1868, it had almost become customary to have photographs in the archeological survey reports. Photography had a huge role in recording the architectural diversity of the Indian subcontinent. The rich architecture present in India was both known and acknowledged by the British. A report by James Fergusson recognized the accuracy of photographs in recording the architectural impressions. It was the abundance of ethnic diversity, the presence of forts and temples and palaces that attracted this large number of photographers visiting India.

The popularity of camera and hence photography encouraged commercial photography in Europe and the public demand for photographs of exotic places emerged. The Indian subcontinent was seen as a place that held all varieties of oriental life, scenery, manners and peculiarities.

In addition to that photography was being increasingly used in official and public works. Norman Chevers, an official in Bengal Army suggested the use of photography to identify the corpses and to record crime scenes as they were for later reference to the Magistrate and Civil Surgeon. Photographs of convicts were used as means of recording and maintaining a database of police records. Photographic apparatus were used by the officers of the Public Works department to understand the landscape. The photographs taken by Railway departments were some of the most accurate photographs of the landscape.

A branch of photography that sprouted later on was what has been called as military photography. Probably the earliest instance of military photography happened during the Mexican War of 1846-48.


One of such photographs was the ones captured by John McCosh, who was a surgeon on the Bengal establishment of the East India Company. He captured his fellow officers and military equipment during the Second Sikh War in 1848.


Photography was introduced in the curriculum of cadets by the East India Company in 1855. The photographic exhibition of the Bengal Photographic Society in 1874 mentioned photographs produced by Royal Engineers. Felice Betao and James Robertson recorded scenes from the Mutiny of 1857. Some of them include the damaged barracks of Cawnpore, which was held by General Wheeler, the Kashmir Gate at Delhi and the residency at Secundra Bagh at Lucknow. Some of the photographs were recordings of brutal events. One of them recorded the hanging of the sepoys, W.W Hooper, photographed the execution of Burmese dacoits.

The British government used to employ the services of photographers and studios in their departments. John Burke, who had studios in Peshawar and Murree was invited to join the Peshawar Valley Field force in 1879. His photograph records the Second Afghan War in the most graphic way.

Another thing that happened somewhat simultaneously is Bourne, a former bank clerk, visited India, with massive amounts of photographic equipment and produced around 2000 negatives of the Indian subcontinent.

Samuel Bourne later entered into partnership with Charles Shepherd. They established a studio in 1862, Bourne and Shepherd that became one of the most prestigious studios of the time.


It was patronized heavily by Royalty, Europeans and a mushrooming upper class Indians.

The studio was commissioned for covering the Delhi Durbar. Bourne and Shepherd were the official photographers for the 1911 Delhi Durbar after which they received the title of ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’.


Bourne and Shepherd at its peak, the studio had two major corresponding offices in Shimla and Mumbai.

Developing photography in India was however quite difficult. The varied and tropical climate of India would make the process of producing photos much difficult. In the monsoon the lenses would get covered in fungus and mildew, spots will fill the paper. The damp and the heart were the primary reason for damage of photographic equipment. W.H Warner, in the British Journal of Photography wrote, ‘There is that evil which in Europe is bad enough but in India is a million times worse.’

The invention of photography happened in an opportune moment for Europe’s colonial power. Much like railways, photography too in the Indian context is something that arrived and developed under the British rule. Photography has now developed to digital forms, but the story of its beginning dates back to the late 19th century. It is impossible to understand the beginning of photography without its colonial background. Photographs as they were produced then and as they are consumed now are an integral part of forming the memory. Photographs were essential tools of depicting and understanding the British gaze of the indigenous and their reproduction of it. The arrival of photography and its evolution has created a huge impact on how we record, what we record and why we record.


72 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All