The interest in a survey of photography in India since 1857 is that it is initially a distillation of British photography which then takes on its own life after national independence.
The Science Museum in South Kensington isn’t where I would expect to find a photography exhibition but this is part of their season “Illuminating India”. We get a chronological survey starting with documentary images of destruction of the Lucknow uprising (1857); these albumen prints, used as source for engravings for journals and magazines, led to a fashion for “Mutiny tourism”.
The book of landscape “Photographs of Indian Scenery” by Samuel Bourne portrays a very grand but quite grey landscape. He was a British photographer who made several trips to India and brought back a variety of photographs. In this book of landscapes Bourne doesn’t use people to establish scale, relying instead to perceive size from prominent rocks and ice boulders; although there was an appetite for these images of foreign landscapes, and allowing for the fading of the prints, his landscape images must have been quite difficult for his viewers to appreciate.
But these were British photographers out touring India. Meantime, we are shown Indian court photography of the same time, much hand tinting to great effect showing the opulence of the Imperial court. And some fascinating portraits by the father and son outfit Gobindram and Oodeyram: studio portraits, carefully lit and posed with charming props such as formal bowls. Assisted also by hand tinting.
The Indian anti-imperialist rallies and peace processions of the late 1940s once again attracted the interest of the world’s news photographers. Prints of several well-known images by Henri Cartier-Bresson are shown, the equipment and film wasn’t yet sufficiently advanced for really sharp images in these fast-moving situations but he captures the atmosphere well in comparison to some of the more technically correct images. The Indian photographer, Sunil Janah, conveys the immense popularity of these rallies, you get a sense that the crowds extend far beyond the frame of his pictures. And also of how widespread the hunger was too.
Cartier-Bresson returned after independence, there’s a print of another famous image of workers tilling the ground by hand in front of a nuclear centre. Just understated and one of a series of images contrasting traditional India with industrialisation.
In the next room we get large format modern images in colour by Indian photographers. Indian scenes show colour well despite the opaque skies.
Finally three contemporary Indian photographers. A striking room of three different views of contemporary India, photographs by Sohrab Hura, Vasantha Yogananthan and Olivia Arthur.
I wonder what British photographs an Indian curator would choose for a corresponding exhibition in Delhi!
Thought-provoking, free and a welcome respite from the kiddie hell hole that much of the Science Museum has become.