Of places without people

LinnaeusTripe_DIGITAL_Poster

Linnaeus Tripe’s photographs tell of colonial pursuits and one man’s timeless way of seeing. (Exhibition review published in the Hindu BLINK culture supplement, 4 April, 2015)

In the summer of 1855, a British delegation ventured up the Irrawaddy river to the court of the king of Burma. Along with its usual coterie of military and diplomatic officials, the mission brought a man with a fairly novel profession: a photographer. Captain Linnaeus Tripe and his assistants spent over a month cataloguing the monuments and vistas of Burma.

Photography was in its infancy at the time, so wreathed in mystery that the Burmese king allegedly refused to sit for a portrait, fearing that the camera would “take away his face.” Tripe took away a lot more than a king’s face. Using large-format paper negatives coated in albumen, he wrestled with tropical humidity to capture diverse views of the country, from the elegant pagodas of Pagan to the spidery arms of tamarind trees.

After the Burmese mission, Tripe was appointed the official photographer of the Madras Presidency in 1856. One of his principal tasks was photographing monuments and ruins. These included the temples of Madurai and Thanjavur, the crumbling fort at Ryacotta, and other ancient sites that were often very remote. During eight years in Burma and India, his assistants and he produced over 25,000 prints. A selection of this enormous body of work is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, ‘Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860’.

Tripe joined the East India Company at the age of 17 and was trained initially as a military surveyor. He learnt photography while on furlough in England in the early 1850s. A martial rigour infused his photographic work. To shoot a temple, for instance, he would systematically take long exposures from all sides before advancing closer to photograph frontal details. Many of photography’s early practitioners believed the ethos of the craft was as scientific as it was artistic. Just as a biologist collected samples of insects, so too was Tripe amassing specimens for scientific classification and inquiry. His pictures would peel back the unknown, revealing a part of the world that was of growing interest to the British. Aesthetic values seemed to matter less to Tripe than the clarity of the documentation. As he admitted himself, “the picturesque may be allowed perhaps, supplementally.”

The exhibition nevertheless features many picturesque images. There is a gossamer quality to his photograph of the Thapinyu Pagoda in Pagan, as if Tripe had sketched the structure in pencil. Its ornamented roofs float up from the ground while its uppermost spires seem to fade into the brooding sky. Cameras at the time struggled to capture skies, so Tripe would brush clouds into the negative, just as he would add ripples to ponds, and finer leaves to trees. He played with light ingeniously when capturing the entrance of the dilapidated hill fort at Ryacotta. Dark vegetation swarms over the ancient stone till it breaks upon the illuminated gate, which at night was said to resound with the wails of anguished spirits.

People are conspicuous in their absence from his work. Since each shot lasted minutes — not milliseconds — human motion was difficult to capture. Occasionally, one can find the stray man in a Tripe photograph, blurred like a stain on the negative and dwarfed by monuments and landscape. To avoid the clutter of human beings, Tripe went about his work early in the morning. Other times, he recruited the local authorities to block people from city streets or temple complexes. India and Burma appear in his photos as tumble down haunted houses, entirely depopulated except for the occasional ghostly smudge of a person.

Coupled with its focus on ruins, Tripe’s architectural way of seeing makes the places he visited seem rather timeless. An atmosphere of glum decrepitude pervades the photos. Some Buddhist temples are almost vegetal, encumbered with foliage and overgrowth. A broken fort in south India returns to the earth, its stonework indistinguishable from the rock outcroppings of the hills. These evocations of a decaying world no doubt buttressed the colonial notion that South Asia was crying out for the dynamism of Victorian Britain. Photography cannot be separated from the march of British power in the subcontinent. From 1855, cadets at the East India Company’s military seminary at Addiscombe were trained in the use of photographic equipment. To know India, even through the camera, was to better control India.

But the strange power of Tripe’s photographs deserves more than charges of imperial complicity. He simultaneously pushed across two frontiers, one geographic — the previously undocumented sights of Burma and India — and the other technological, the curious magic of photography. In our visually saturated age, it is difficult to imagine the experience of these images in their time. Tripe offered his British viewers both the wonder of the unknown and the wonder of distilling light to shapes and shadows on a page.

(‘Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860’ runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York till May 25)

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