Nowhere is the association between colonialism and photography more clear than in the military applications of photography. Ryan focuses on the Abyssinian Campaign of 1867-68, but British India presents perhaps a richer terrain for understanding how photography serviced the military campaigns that were from time to time launched against rebellious or recalcitrant people or to present an appropriate show of force. The camera was introduced to India through the British army, and the pioneers of photography in India – John McCosh, Captain W.R. Houghton, Lieutenant H.C.B. Tanner, Captain H.J. Barr, and Captain L. Tripe, among others – were almost invariably military men. In 1855, the East India Company had included photography in the curriculum at its Military Seminary at Addiscombe, but only after the Rebellion of 1857-58 were the official uses of photography to be fully explored, as the army routinely began issuing photographic equipment to its officers. The massive photographic exercise in typology. The People of India, which had been initiated at the instance of Governor-General Canning, was transformed by the Rebellion of 1857 into an official project of the State, and placed under the control of the Political and Secret Department. The Rebellion was surely not crushed by photography, but the British triumph at arms was made known through photographs that immediately received wide circulation: no Briton was likely to forget the heroic defense of the Residency at Lucknow, and similarly photographs of the attack on Delhi or the punishment inflicted on rebels were designed to impress upon the native the might of the British forces and their appetite for revenge. When, not long after the Rebellion, photographs were taken of Kuka rebels being tied to the mouth of the cannon and then blown to bits, Indians must have been suitably struck by the long arm of British chastisement. Samuel Bourne, who arrived in India in 1863 and produced a series of photographs of Kashmir and the Himalayas, openly expounded on the terror that photography could inflict on the colonized: ‘From the earliest days of the calotype, the curious tripod, with its mysterious chamber and mouth of brass, taught the natives of this country that their conquerors were the inventors of other instruments besides the formidable guns of their artillery, which, though as suspicious perhaps in appearance, attained their object with less noise and smoke” (p. 75).
The lengthiest chapter in Ryan’s book is on the deployment of photography in anthropometry, ethnology, and anthropology, on photography and the depiction of “natives” and the poor of London alike (pp. 140-82), but here he traverses territory familiar to many scholars. It is this chapter which intersects most closely with the work of Christopher Pinney, particularly the first chapter of Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. In one respect, Pinney’s canvas is not so wide: where Ryan considers the uses of photography in the geographic expanses of the British empire, Pinney offers a fragmented history of photography in India; where Ryan relies on the trope of spatiality, Pinney ruminates on the altered notions of temporality introduced by photography; where Ryan stresses the association of photography with geography, Pinney reflects on photography and its place in the construction of history and memory. Camera Indica is, of course, an allusion, even homage, to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida; yet, as Pinney says, “at the very moment of genuflection” he seeks to “move away from the insular security of the Euro-American cultural region – the ground upon which nearly all work on photography has been built.” The botanical reference, likewise, is somewhat misleading, for Pinney’s interest lies not only in questioning the taxonomies which inform the study of photography, but in endeavoring to provide a view of the “complex changing ecology of photography” (p. 8). lt is this “ecology of photography” which beckons us to take seriously the view, which was expressed often by clients in the small town of Nagda in central India where Pinney did his field work, that they would pay a full fee for full-length portraits, half the fee for half portraits, and only a quarter for headshots (p. 9); it is the same commitment to the ecological survival of plurality, and not only the anthropologist’s fetish for finding an enclave that he can claim as his own, which suggests why Pinney finds the work of studio photographers in an obscure Indian town as full of insights for a more nuanced history of photography as the celebrated photography of an Ansel Adams or a Sebastian Salgado.
Pinney begins, conventionally enough, with photography in the colonial period – but this is by way of moving from “taxonomy” to “ecology”, as shall presently be seen. Though Pinney comments on the importance ascribed to visuality in modern societies, he argues that visuality assumed an even greater place in India, since the other signs by which India might be read were seen as being “unreliable, mysterious and deceptive” (p.17). The British held widely to the view that no native could be expected to abide by the truth; texts had been deliberately distorted by the conniving Brahmins, and all evidence proffered by natives was tainted. Photography, by contrast, fulfilled the yearning for a “stern fidelity” – it proposed to offer to the colonial gaze an India that could be surveyed, explored, mined for revenue, indeed an India that could, in a manner of speaking, be seen and possessed stripped of its inhabitants, or an India where the natives could, along with the flora, fauna, natural resources, and cultural and natural landmarks, be enumerated, categorized, and rendered fit as specimens for a Linnean-type of investigation. The principal virtue of photography was that it enabled the colonial state, as it thought, to know the native; and this was no mean achievement, as the native was slippery, elusive, full of deceitful intent. Pinney describes at considerable length the complex points of intersection between photography, fingerprinting, and anthropometry in the colonial regime of disciplinary surveillance and regulatory knowledge. Daniel Ibbetson, who held high office in Punjab, championed anthropometry: pointing to the difficulties in obtaining by mere verbal enquiry “a full and accurate statement of custom” from “Orientals” and “still more, from semi-savages”, he described “cranial measurements” as “almost absolutely free from the personal equation of the observer” (p. 21). Others, such as Norman Chevers, spoke prophetically if not eloquently of the future of photography, which would “be employed throughout India as a means of identifying bodies” (p. 21). Fingerprinting, which first developed in India, was advocated by the police: it made possible the identification of criminals, and so robbed the native of his mastery at disguise. The “defective” paradigm was one of the two that predominated in colonial photography; the other paradigm proposed to “salvage” the native, putting on photographic record all those communities and tribal groups that faced extinction or were rapidly being denuded of their special characteristics (p.45). Throughout Pinney is at pains to stress that colonial photography was interested not in Indians as individuals, but as specimens of “types”. The subjects who sat for the aforementioned People of India project were merely illustrations of a general type, representatives of a wider group – call it “bunneas”, “Brahmins”, “Gujars”, and so on. In this respect, as in so many others, photography comported well with the broad outlines of the colonial sociology of knowledge. In India, on the colonial view, individuals did not exist; one could only speak of communities, principally in terms of religion, caste, and race. India was a conglomeration of “types”, and photography was most effectively utilized in eliciting and documenting these “types”. At the macro-and micro-level alike, India lacked a history.
From his long initial chapter, Pinney moves on to a brief albeit insightful discussion of the manner in which Indians embraced photography, and their repudiation of some aspects of its colonial legacy (see p.225 n.17). Whether photography spoke to the sense of the visual in premodern Indian culture, or whether it betokened something magical and alchemical – all of this Pinney leaves unexplored, though he points to the ready uses of photography in representing gods and goddesses. Early Indian photographers reproduced colonial photographic practices, but already, by the manner in which they were deploying paint on pictures, they were showing their departure from European traditions. They often did not merely touch up their negatives, or use paint as a supplement; rather, the paint “even” obscured the photographs (p. 79). Where the colonial fixation on “types” betrayed anxiety about preserving the order of Indian society and the purity of taxonomies supposedly derived from Western science, the practice of overpainting photographs raised another order of anxiety about pollution: in the words of Judith Gutinan, author of Through Indian Eyes, “painting on photographs suggests a kind of impurity – on the one hand, an excuse for failing to reach more perfect heights, on the other, a device for watering down what should be a purely photographic statement’ P.82). The Indore State Photographers, Ramachandra Rao, and Pratap Rao, produced “photographic prints of paintings of mythological subjects”, and their images, as those of other Indian photographers, “spring from a representational strategy that is concerned not with categorization and the closure of identity [as was the People of India project, or the anthropometric photography of colonial administrators, ethnologists, and census-takers] but with the manipulation of a repertoire of signs signifying possible states of being” (pp. 88, 91). Their work gestures at almost unself-conscious forms of hybridity; it has room within it for a wider conception of being oneself, and it suggests different modes of transcendence. Pinney argues, further, that the Indian conception of photographic portraiture was not based on the idea of “moral physiognomy”, or the idea, captured for instance in H.H. Risley’s formulation of the “nasal index”, or in Johann Casper Lavater’s claim that structural features of the face unlocked the character of a person, that the moral worth of a person could be deduced from his or her external characteristics. Indian ideas, which are played out in photography as in other domains, were determined more by the indigenous notion of darshan, which entails a dialectical interaction between the gaze that the human directs at the divine and the gaze directed at the human by the divine (p.106). The local people with whom Pinney spoke in the town of Nagda distinguished between the notion of vyaktitva, which refers to the external characteristics of a person, and charitra, which is a reference to the biography of the soul, a voyage into moral interiority; and they were quite adamant in stating that photography had nothing to say about a person’s charitra (pp. 198-99).