The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The camera unsettled the private/public equation in the middle class

On October 16, 1846, in Boston, two significant scientific discoveries working in tandem were presented to an admiring audience. In a public demonstration, 68-year-old John Collins Warren, among the most renowned American surgeons of the 19th century, administered the vapours of sulphuric ether to his patient, the 52-year-old printer, Edward Gilbert Abbott. Abbott had a congenital tumour just below his left jaw that needed to be removed. Aware of the need to publicize the revolutionary use of anaesthesia where the patient was 'lost in sleep' and 'did not experience the slightest pain whatever', Collins called upon the photographers, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, to record the momentous event. The owners of the highly successful studio that specialized in daguerreotypes (invented in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in France) ' while quick to capitalize on the opportunity ' had to deal with Hawes's squeamishness at the sight of blood. A simulated re-enactment was photographed, although in months to come, Warren's breakthrough in surgical procedures was recorded live by these two photographers.

In the visual, Warren's hands are placed in a proprietorial gesture on his patient. There are seven other men in the frame, all dressed fairly formally, while the supine patient sprawls, his head thrown back. A 2005 display from Southworth and Hawes's studio at New York's upscale new premises of the International Center for Photography ('Young America ' the Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes') showcased shimmering images of Collins at work ' this time operating on a young seamstress. Well over a century-and-a-half later, the operating theatre appeared cold, stark and forbidding. But it was from this room that the 'death of pain' was announced, its discovery as well as visualization a significant contribution to the epistemology around the management of suffering.

It was clearly the historic moment that appealed to Southworth and Hawes ' who otherwise seldom found it necessary to step out of their well-appointed studio on Tremont Row in the heart of Boston's artistic world. The studio ' like other establishments mushrooming around the world ' appealed to the gentry, the social and political elite of the city. An attached exhibition gallery displayed portraits of important clients ' Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Within the studio, equipped with elaborate props, costumes, backdrops, the two men preferred to take the photographs themselves rather than depend on the growing breed of operators ' as those who handled cameras were also called. As in other parts of the world, these would be framed or put into elegant albums with tooled leather- or Morocco leather-bound covers with gilt edgings and an elaborate clasp, part of the personal gallery of middle class families keen on remembering ' or asserting ' identity and belonging.

Except for the rare 'on-site' frames, the production of daguerreotypes required a specialized space, trained personnel and a whole host of props and accoutrements. As studio photography quickly put the portrait painter out of business, client expectations also increased and diversified. By the middle of the 19th century, studio photography appealed to the growing urban middle classes worldwide, a certain sameness characterizing pose, posture, gaze and props. The studio became an enclosed space where fantasy and desire could be worked out, amply aided by elaborate backdrops that were unfurled with a flourish. Irrespective of whether it was New York, Cairo or Bombay, there was a certain unmistakable ubiquity in these new, almost sacred, spaces, a distinct protocol marking their usage. Frequently located on the top floor of buildings, the ceilings of which were fitted with blue glass to let in light, the studio resembled an elaborate green room. A description of an early London studio comments on its 'ornamental plasterwork, velvet and gilt, with changing rooms, maids in attendance and cosmeticians at the ready'. Here, as Walter Benjamin rather sardonically commented, the photographer was confronted with representing 'a member of a rising class equipped with an aura that had seeped into the very folds of the man's frock coat or floppy cravat'.

The new visual specialist, often the owner of the studio, was a slightly intriguing ' if not awesome icon ' of the industrial century. As director of the minor theatrical production, his staccato instructions were diligently followed by a primarily male clientele. The photographer and his team (of course, the majority were ' and continue to be men ' took charge of the client, went through their requirements carefully and made suggestions on pose, posture and demeanour and even gave directions on items of clothing and accoutrements. Props, such as impressive tomes, elaborately carved furniture, pediments, exotic indoor plants and so on were also available for selection, as also in some cases, items of clothing. So as to prepare his clients adequately, Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905), the most prominent Indian photographer of the times, provided a catalogue of his work that also contained a step-by-step guide of what to expect on a visit to his studio. Clearly, the sitter was well advised to place oneself in the hands of the specialists. An engagement at his photographic studio could take several hours and be physically taxing. Often, a revolving studio chair incarcerated the sitter whose head was fixed with a clamp and limbs too were similarly immobilized.

Clients were asked not be intimidated but rather participate in the process. Decision-making on the kind of backdrop required ' whether it was to be one of Scottish glens, distant castles or a tropical rain forest ' required thought and introspection. The staging of contexts in the studio reminds one of the power of the early photograph to re-enact ' as in the case of Warren's surgical procedure ' or indeed, enact, a fantasy. In the colonial context, the backdrop could either assert or subvert the sitter's 'real life', often challenging the client as well as the photographic establishment to produce the desired effect. Settings with expensive draperies, over-stuffed chairs, objet d'art and other Victoriana ' were vital in the spectacle of presenting oneself for an audience. These not only connoted a certain established upper middle class status but also became symbols of aspiration for a life of achievement and learning, and of a certain kind of leisure and ease. Here again, the element of fantasy was scarcely hidden.

From around the end of the 1850s, as the Indian urban middle classes started patronizing photographic studios, these became instrumental in fracturing notions of space and visibility: where the use of public space was governed by notions of race and gender, the photographic studio became a shared locale. It was not unusual for the colonial rulers and the Indian elite to patronize a well-known studio and use the same photographers ' and may be identical props ' albeit sequentially. It was also the studio that brought the private into the public gaze. A few years after the first men were photographed, women entered studios, and in north and east India as well as in Muslim-dominated regions such as Hyderabad, pardanashins ' those who rarely stepped out of the inner quarters of their homes ' were whisked into studios run and operated by women. At around the time that framed visages of shy Indian child brides gazed out of baroque frames, the camera expanded its role ' one that was to soon record war, destruction and desolation in searing detail. Rapidly, the world entered drawing rooms and parlours through the camera's unrelenting gaze, thereby interrogating the public/private dichotomy of middle-class life.

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