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HISTORIES ON THE WALL - Domestic displays of photographs are never innocent

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By Malavika Karlekar
  • Published 14.08.08

Memorabilia focused on and around 1857 provided not only a whole host of images but also moments when the public and private were conflated. Grief and negative emotions were juxtaposed with less traumatic personal histories in memoirs, diaries, letters and in the way in which visuals were organized and displayed. Why did a family choose Samuel Bourne’s photograph of Cawnpore’s Memorial Well as the verso to images of colonial domesticity in central India? Why not another happier image by him of Naini Tal or Kashmir? Maybe relatives or friends had been lost in 1857-8. Lest one forgot, it was important to remember an afternoon of horror, of the inherent treachery of the “native”, as one settled into a life of ease and luxury in an alien land. Or perhaps that was the only image available.

The Oxford anthropologist, Elizabeth Edwards, who has worked on the interface between photography and anthropology, likens photographs to “surrogate memory”, and asks whether photographs are “intentionally hidden (in lockets, wallets, diaries, family bibles), where and why?” Such choices matter; in the case of family photographs, what are enlarged, framed and put on public view and those that remain in “small private worlds” — or are even abandoned, thrown into the waste-paper basket — depend on what the owner/s wish to remember, memorialize.

The kind, number and popularity of those chosen to be on display also depended on accessibility and affordability. Material changes in the size, structure and ‘feel’ of the photograph itself and the emergence of the album were integral to the new visual experience. When carte-de-visite photographs, patented by the Frenchman André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854, overtook the daguerreotype in popularity, it was not difficult to understand why. These were paper prints made from glass negatives roughly 4” x 2” in size — the same as visiting cards of the times. A special camera took up to eight images on one plate that could then be cut to size. As the practice of mass production was institutionalized, “the actual photographer was no more than a labourer” churning out images by hundreds in a working day.

A veritable ‘cardomania’ set in and by the 1860s, this format became extremely popular among the Indian middle classes in the three presidencies. Visual mementos were now easily exchanged among family members, tucked between the folds of letters lovingly penned to parents, children, siblings and cousins. At a time when it was not always easy for a married woman with numerous domestic obligations to meet members of her conjugal family often, nor hear their voices in the pre-telephone days, photographs were welcome reminders, eagerly awaited. Soon, as albums were devised for these cards, data banks of memory and recall were created. In 1867, albums appeared that could accommodate cards as well as the more formal cabinet-size print — 6.5” x 4.25” — that had been introduced in 1866. A typical up-market album consisted of thick board pages pressed between covers bound with tooled or Morocco leather, with gilt edgings and an elaborate clasp.

Photographs, also mounted on boards — and often with the names of the studios printed in calligraphy in varying fonts on the back — were to be slipped in through appropriate cut-outs in the pages. As printing technology advanced, these cut-outs for cabinet and carte-de-visite photographs were often edged with gold and the thick pages elaborately decorated with floral motifs. The obverse of the photographs were imaginatively used by studios to advertise themselves. For instance, a special appointment was required for the sitting of which negatives were kept, and the paper for the print had been made in Austria. Similar cultural interfaces can be read into the pages of albums where young Indian women look out through sprays of violets — more likely to be found in the gardens of the peaceful English cottage-by-the-sea than in tropical Bombay or Calcutta.

By the 1870s, there was a brisk trade in albums and these provided Victorian women an outlet for their artistic proclivities in an enthusiastic construction of their family’s visual histories. Soon this preoccupation took root in urban India, judging by the number of family albums still available, though many are in sorry states of disintegration. With the growth of domestic photography, pages of albums from the beginning of the 20th century started getting crowded out with shots from the Brownie camera of picnics, college graduations and even weddings. Often, the frontispiece would be an elaborate studio portrait of the newly-married couple to whom the album belonged. Such poses were increasingly informal, the body language of conjugality more relaxed than those of early photographs.

The carte-de-visite and the album however were more for restricted viewing — while the interiors of homes were used for public statements on taste and ownership, helping owners amass what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital”. The display of the photograph in the domestic sphere coincided with significant familial and spatio-temporal changes. Urban professions, emergence of the nuclear family, the growth of photo studios as well of the demarcation of public spaces within the home led to an interest in displaying not only family photographs but also chromolithographs and oleographs, random English landscapes, those of the Hindu and Christian pantheon, and the ubiquitous Ravi Verma print.

In an interesting exhibition held recently that looks at the visual culture of the Thiyyas of North Malabar, the social anthropologist Janaki Abraham explores the question of “who has photographs and albums and the contexts in which these photographs are taken”. Nor does a difference in class explain such differences in this matrilineal community — but “rather individual biography and occupation, for example, are critical” in determining a family’s visual culture and ownership of a camera.

The walls of homes become spaces where a narrative is worked out not only with photographs but also with trophies of shikar, clocks, plaques and so on. In this visual of a Thalessary home, a venerable ancestor is flanked by mounts of two well-polished buffalo heads and horns. The photograph of the middle-aged man in a suit and tie is hung from the bevelling on the wall and touches the wooden ceiling well above eye-level. Clearly, it is supposed to be seen — but not looked at closely. The more recent photographs are at a lower level, there to be examined. The buffalo heads would indicate a family that had, at some stage, known a style of life that included shikar. And the sartorial style of the gentleman, a certain status. Both the photograph and the mounts are integral to the public face of the family; their display around the daunting old-fashioned bars of the window would indicate an old family home — where, however, members have little interest in replacing them with something more elegant and contemporary. In another home, an entire wall is devoted to a framed print of “HRH Prince of Wales” from Pears’ Annual of 1920 while other adjacent spaces are packed with family photographs.

It is possible then to link Bourne’s grim reminder of 1857 with this compositional arrangement. They are both visual commentaries on the colonial experience and their display a signifier of what the owners felt should be visible and perhaps commented on by viewers. One represented the rulers’ honouring the martyrs; the other, a subject people continuing to honour their erstwhile rulers well after independence. Both are part of an apparently seamless discourse that links the private with the public as they appear in spaces where family photographs are also on display. A century and a half’s visual production contributes to the complicity or resistance — perhaps subconscious, at times — of the owners of images in relation to a semiotic debate that argues that the making of choices is never ‘innocent’, even if this merely pertains to the arrangement and display of photographs of happy domesticity.