Felice Beato


Conchita Fernandes takes a look at the enterprising life of Felice Beato, one of the most prolific photographers of the 19th century.

The Taj Mahal from the East, about April 1859.

Have you ever wondered how war photography came to be? Or what must have led the early practitioners of photography to setup base for months in an environment marred by hostility and destruction? The answer is simple—Politics, money and fame, as you’ll discover.

It was the Crimean War (1853-56) that started it all. In the early stages of the war, accounts of the difficulties faced by the British soldiers made its way to Britain, and its citizens were not pleased with the news. To invalidate these claims, a proposal was made by a publishing house to send a photographer to document the war, in favour of the British. Unfortunately, the photographer initially appointed faced an untimely death at sea, while he was on his way to the Crimea. Roger Fenton was next in line, and set sail in 1855. He spent four months there, and largely documented the landscapes, the camp life of the soldiers, and even made portraits of the officers. News of his involvement caught the attention of other photographers. Among them were James Robertson and Felice Beato.

Interior of Secundrabagh after the Massacre, 1858-1862. The event took place in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

There’s not much known about Beato’s early life. What we do know goes back to the period when he began his career alongside James Robertson, who at the time was an established commercial photographer. They were related too; Robertson had married Beato’s sister.

Beato’s career in photography began in Constantinople, where Robertson had setup one of the first commercial studios. Together, they photographed the topographical view of the city, its architecture, and scenes that gave a sense of the area’s daily life. Here, Robertson taught him how to create albumen glass plate negatives. However, it wasn’t until 1856, during the last stages of the Crimean War that Beato would find his footing. Aged 24, he entered the stark, hostile environment of the Crimea, which was unlike anything that he had previously witnessed. His pictures depicted a landscape ravaged by war, but they weren’t as poignant as Fenton’s visuals, like The Valley of the Shadow of Death, for instance. Beato was yet to hone his skills.

Two Sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry, who were hanged at Lucknow, 1857, negative 1857; print 1862. The hanging was a consequence of the 1857 uprising against the British.

He returned with 150 photographs, a majority of which were passed off under Robertson’s name. Beato didn’t seem to obstruct to this. It could be that he was so taken in by his experience that this aspect didn’t matter to him. But subsequent trips to Egypt and the Holy Land with Robertson and his brother Antonio, went on to strengthen his technical and visual prowess. It was here that he learned how to hand-colour photographs and shoot panoramas. The pictures that he produced now went with the ‘Robertson, Beato & Co’ signage, an indication of his elevated status. But nothing was as invaluable (as it would be established later) as inheriting Robertson’s business acumen, an instinct to choose subjects that would appeal to a Western clientele.

With these learnings, Beato left Constantinople (early 1858). His next stop was India; He was hired by the War Office in London to photograph the aftermath of the mutiny that had just taken place. The rebellion was restricted to the northern part of India—Delhi, Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow—and this is where Beato made the most important photographs of his career.

Bahadur Shah. He was the last Mughal emperor of India.

Of all the images that had emerged out of the Crimean War, not a single one showed corpses. Beato wanted to change this with the massacres and mass executions that he witnessed by the British army, during the aftermath of the rebellion. He understood the power and impact of these pictures to horrify, as well as instigate curiosity in his part of the world. His image of the hanging of two sepoys is most likely the first ever photographic documentation of corpses. His photograph of the massacre at Secundrabagh, where the skeletal remains of 2000 sepoys were left strewn on the palace grounds was deemed grotesque. It is said that Beato arranged the bones in the foreground to create a more sensational effect. It wasn’t the first time that a subject had been tampered with. Fenton was probably the first to do it in his image of The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Such interferences with the scene were common at the time.

Beato also photographed the architecture in India, and made portraits of the army generals, officers, and of the native servants. He was aware of the commercial appeal and significance of such photographs, as officers liked to send pictures back home. He did this over a span of two years or more, before moving on to his next destination—first China and then Japan.

Panorama of Lucknow. View of devastation wrought by Lucknow massacre.

Japan was where Beato really flourished. The move, however, was dictated by a financial upheaval that rendered him almost bankrupt. The money that he had made so far from his work was all lost in the London stock market, and he hoped that the move to Japan would help him start afresh. At the time that he arrived in Yokohama (1863), photography had already made its presence in the city. In fact, many Japanese came to Yokohama to learn photography from the newly arrived westerners. Moreover, his arrival came in at a time when the country was in its last years of feudal rule; His pictures offered a rare glimpse of this period of transition.

One of his poignant works comprised of several staged portraits (he hired the sitters) that he made of the various working class professions in Japan. The prints were hand-coloured, a technique that was traditionally reserved only for woodblock prints and fabrics. The subtle yet vibrant look of the colours came from water soluble pigments and not oil pigments. The images became quite popular with his clients.

Unfortunately, in 1866, Beato suffered a setback after a major fire broke out in Yokohama that wiped out a part of his work. But he bounced back immediately, and by 1868, had opened his own studio, which he inaugurated with his first album on Japan called Photographic Views of Japan with Historical and Descriptive Notes, Compiled from Authentic Sources and Personal Observation during a Residence of Several Years.

Chutter Manzil Palace, with the King’s boat in the shape of a fish, on the Gomti River, 1858.

In Felice Beato—A Photographer on the Eastern Road, Anne Lacoste provides a detailed account of the album. “Customers interested in buying the album could select from different sizes, based on their budget and taste… Bindings varied as well, from traditional western leather and cardboard covers to more elaborate lacquer covers that were hand-painted with scenes inspired by Japanese art. Each photo in the album was mounted with a typeset caption by James William Murray, an assistant commissary general based in Yokohama…

Photos were arranged in the album according to the location of the scene views they depicted, with their sequence suggesting a travel itinerary… The album sought to recreate the experience of the typical journey, beginning and ending with views of… Nagasaki and Yokohama, where westerners usually landed and departed.”
Beato’s time in Japan also marked a veritable change in the way he photographed. His pictures, especially of the forested landscapes, show a certain adherence to composition that he previously lacked. Additionally, barring a handful of initial pictures that he shot when he first arrived at Yokohama, Beato had moved away from the gruesome pictures of corpses. He was more concerned about the content of the images, what his customers would like to take back home with them, evident in the album that he produced.

His studio in Yokohama continued to thrive. By 1872, his staff included two assistants, four Japanese photographers and four Japanese artists, who were in charge of hand-colouring prints. They handled most of the day-to-day operations of the studio, limiting Beato’s involvement to photographing a few local events. But the following years saw his finances dwindle on account of investments in schemes that didn’t pan out. Almost penniless, he finally left Japan on 29 November, 1884.
Relentless as he was, Beato decided to rebuild his fortune once again, this time in Burma (1885). But he had competitors with already established businesses—Bourne and Shepherd, J N Johannes and Co, Watson and Skeen… Undeterred, he set out to photograph his usual subject matter—architecture, portraits and landscapes, and soon enough became gained prominence. By 1884, he opened a studio in Mandalay. However, his photographs fell short on the quality that had inhabited his earlier work.

Courtesan, 1866-1867, hand-colored albumen silver print.

His career would be marred by another hindrance. In 1888, George Eastman brought out the Kodak camera that revolutionised photography. Beato knew what this meant, and diversified his business by opening a curio shop. It wasn’t just visitors who could buy from him; he also developed an international mail-order setup for his customers abroad.

By 1898, Beato sold his curio shop. No one knows exactly when he left Burma, but his absence was felt. “There is now unfortunately no Signor Beato, who was a personality belonging to Burma, who could weave so wonderful a legend about any little article he had for sale that people gladly paid his price… He was a showman—Aye, more!” a letter published in the Times of Burma, November, 1902. He spent his last years in Italy, and passed away in 1909, disappearing into the void, just as he had emerged from it, just before the start of his career.

Unlike his contemporaries who were known for a certain genre, Beato had his toes dipped in landscapes, architecture, portraits and panoramas. He was a quick learner, who pursued photography with an almost feverish tenacity, evident in the volume of work that he produced. The quality and subject matter of the print mattered as it determined whether it would sell or not; Beato was a businessman first, and then a photographer. This was also made glaringly evident in his orientalist portrayal of the countries he documented, pictures that would appease his western clientele. It makes one wonder what would he have done differently had there been no ulterior motive dictating his work.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Better Photography.