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SHOOTING THE SUBLIME
- Raw guts and the spirit of adventure

Till at least the closing years of the 19th century, studio portraiture continued to dominate the field of photography. It was a genre that satisfied the aspirations of the growing middle classes world-wide for many reasons, amply justifying the overhead costs of photographic establishments. At the same time, the commercial appeal of the photograph encouraged individuals as well as some studios to venture into the field of ethnographic objectification, landscape and architectural photography. The Romantic tradition with its emphasis on emotion — be it love, awe, fear or horror — and Edmund Burke’s mid-18th century Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful as sources of aesthetic experience greatly influenced landscape photography. The high, precipitous mountain, torrential cataract as well as the limitless sea that cause “ideas of pain and danger...[are] a source of the sublime”, Burke wrote. On the other hand, the beautiful is smaller, orderly and tranquil — an object of pleasure for the observer.

A few years after Burke, in 1768, the English clergyman, William Gilpin, published his popular Essay on Prints where he defined the picturesque as “that kind of beauty that is agreeable in a picture”. Landscape photography — and of course, its visual precursor, landscape painting —owed much to the philosophical notions of the picturesque, the sublime and the beautiful. As with portrait painting, the landscape artist faced stiff competition from the itinerant photographer, eager to capture rare views for a market on the lookout for striking, if not exotic, memorabilia.

After the invention of the daguerreotype, a stream of photographers flocked to India; while studio photography was the main attraction, there were a few notable exceptions who popularized ‘Views of India’ scenes. In 1863, Samuel Bourne, a clerk in a Nottingham bank who had already made quite a name as a photographer, decided to explore the Himalaya. It is possible that stiff competition at home over the search for the picturesque spurred a growing commercial instinct. At this time, there was a craze in Europe for visuals of mountains, rare, sublime and beautiful. And clearly the ambitious photographer wanted to cash in.

That the racially arrogant Samuel Bourne — who wouldn’t bat an eyelid before abusing and flogging hapless coolies as they carried huge loads of equipment up tortuous paths — was extremely successful is part of photographic history. His compradorial spirit led him to set up three studios by the name of Bourne and Shepherd in Calcutta, Bombay and Simla. In 1866, a mere three years after coming to India, he issued a catalogue of 1,500 photographs and, later, a number of them were re-produced in several volumes.

Among the finest landscape photographers of the time, Bourne’s portfolio included views to suit all tastes. There were country cottages as well as gubernatorial mansions nestling amidst deodars, the Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness in Naini Tal, and the races in Simla for those who sought the comfort of ‘it’s almost like home’ in the hill stations founded by the British in the early Victorian period. To keep the horrors of 1857 alive there were photographs of the Memorial Well at Cawnpore (Kanpur) and the ruins of the Residency in Lucknow, poignant mnemonic devices of ultimate British supremacy.

But it was his three Himalayan expeditions between 1863 and 1866 that garnered for Bourne an unsurpassable reputation — and a solid bank balance. He undertook perilous treks amid hostile mountains, and his talent, vision and, of course, courage surpassed that of most visual recorders in the region.

Apart from his mountainscapes, Bourne probably displayed more versatility in his range of subjects than most of his contemporaries. Felice Beato concentrated on the detritus of 1857, William Baker and John Burke achieved notoriety for their photographs of the Great Game and military campaigns while Raja Deen Dayal specialized in studio portraiture of the rich and famous, impressive buildings and architectural sites, and in recording the Nizam of Hyderabad’s opulent lifestyle.

Towards the end of the century, an unusual and little-known man, with a photographic talent that was perhaps even less known, surfaced in the Himalaya. An “engineer by education, a political officer by administrative appointment and a photographer by calling”, John Claude White’s abiding passion was photography, one that stood him in good stead in his career. As a political officer in the highly sensitive areas of Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, White was yet another cog in the expanding wheel of Empire. He lived among the mountain peoples for more than two decades, and over 200 of his prints survive in museums, libraries and private collections. For Kurt Meyer, architect and antiquarian bibliophile, the serendipitous acquisition of White’s photographs brought some kind of closure to an intellectual treasure hunt: in 2005, Meyer’s fascination with Central Asia and the Himalaya led both him and his journalist wife, Patricia, to put together a number of White’s photographs in a well-researched book, In the Shadow of the Himalayas — Tibet Bhutan Nepal Sikkim. A Photographic Record by John Claude White 1883-1908 (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing).

White was associated with the Calcutta-based studio of Johnston and Hoffman and started writing articles for the Geographical Journal and the National Geographic Magazine with photographs to accompany them. He focussed on the sublime more than on the beautiful in his landscapes and photographs of gaunt, forbidding mountains and imposing buildings in Nepal and Lhasa. Of particular interest is the interface he was able to forge between the requirements of his work — which surely included information on the local population — and the visually appealing. Sympathetic and sensitive to his subjects, White photographed Newari carvers hard at work on the wooden lintels of a home as well as his 20-man escort group consisting of local Sikkimese, Gurkhas and Sikhs.

Of particular interest prior to the 1903 British invasion of Tibet are photographs of the Chinese: members of the embassy in a group pose characteristic of the times — like satellites around a central planet, the ambassador, who sits haughtily with his legs apart on a brocade footstool; White with Chinese officials; marching with Younghusband and a military contingent to meet a Chinese delegation in 1902. Surely these photographs would have been studied, analysed and noted by the British intently, vital information in a volatile situation.

The Himalaya lend themselves to images of the sublime — and White has some breathtaking views of the Kanchenjunga, glaciers in Langpo valley, Siniolchu at 22,370 feet in Sikkim (see photo) and so on. He writes, “There is something exhilarating in these high altitudes, the tremendous expanse of snow around gives a feeling of freedom not experienced at lower elevations, while there is always a fascination at arriving at a summit of a mountain, particularly when the unknown is on the other side” (p. 69).

Freedom, exhilaration, fascination and the unknown — in other words, the experience of the sublime overlay the merely beautiful and the picturesque. Each expedition, every explorer and adventurer-photographer experiences different emotions when faced by the uplifting solitude of the mountains, the resounding gush of a pristine waterfall and the persistence of cicadas in an otherwise deafening silence. To have kept alive for us some of those shivers-down-the-spine sensations through all these years is surely a tribute to the spirit of intrepid adventure and raw guts that led early photographers to shoot the sublime and not only the picturesque and the comfortably pleasing. Samuel Bourne, John Claude White and many others used the camera as an instrument to shore up pleasurable moments and also as one that has, through the generations, made the adrenaline flow and imaginations fly to precipitous niches of remote lands.

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