Old men dragon faces appearing in the carved doorways of a pagoda, the colossal Gautama Buddha presiding lordily over his empty surroundings, unpopulated streets and landscapes that seem to shimmer with their smudge-texture pencil-like surfaces.
British photographer Captain Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902) joined the East India Company in 1838 as a cadet for the Madras Infantry and very soon progressed to the level of Lieutenant, joining his own regiment in South India. It was not, however, until an extended leave (due to illness) in England between 1851-1854 that he began to experiment with photography. He returned to India with his camera and began to make images of the previously un-photographed temples and structures he saw around him and, later on, scenes he encountered in Burma. He would go on to be commissioned by the Madras government to act as official photographer for Madras, capturing sculpture, street scenes, religious and spiritual sights, inscriptions and architecture.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the V&A’s Nehru Gallery which exhibits a range of objects and artefacts from their South Asian art collection and also the V&A’s autumn India Festival – the museum celebrates the prolific output of Tripe through some of his earliest images of India and Burma. The 60 images on display not only showcase the countries as subject but also give us an insight into the particular photographic working methods employed by Tripe at the time.
Tripe used calotype, a waxed paper negative, rather than the traditional glass plate negatives used by his peers back in Europe. This seems to be as much a practical decision as an aesthetic one as waxed paper negatives, although not ideal in a hot tropical environment, could be easily transported without fear of too much damage or breakage - essential for a travelling photographer. The use of paper also resulted in a distinct soft-focus look to Tripe’s images as the fibres of the paper negative transferred onto the paper print. Although he did make prints with glass negatives on occasion and these were generally favoured due to the clean sharpness that was expected from standard documentary photography – the very slight textured blur of the paper negatives give the images a painterly quality that seems to radiate the heat of the streets, the humidity of the air and the atmosphere of a romantic Eastern world changing rapidly – the ancient recorded as its faces the ongoing modernity.
Captain Linnaeus Tripe: photographer of India and Burma (1852-1860) runs at the V&A until 11 October. There are lots of good resources and info available about the exhibition online including more detail into Tripe’s working methods, extensive biography and a reading list if you want to find out more.