Siddhi Desai follows the story of Samuel Bourne, a pioneering travel photographer and founder of India’s oldest surviving studio.
With its mutinies and rampant colonialism, it’s difficult to think of the 1800s in India as anything besides the British Raj. But amidst the oppression and freedom struggle, was the birth of Bourne & Shepherd, a key character in the narrative of photographic history.
Not only is B&S the oldest surviving photo studio in the world, its archive was the gatekeeper of some of the most important travel documentation done in India, by cofounder Samuel Bourne. A majority of this work, sadly, was destroyed in the infamous fire of 1991, but there is no doubt that Bourne’s explorations of India are a marvellous and pioneering record of that time.
As the son of a Staffordshire farmer, Bourne always had a love for nature. In 1854, he met daguerreotypist Richard Beard in London, who inspired him to take up photography as a profession. Enamoured by the art form, he began photographing the landscapes of the Scottish highlands and other lakes and forests in England.
Following this, he held an exhibition of images in Nottingham that was so successful that he quit his job in a bank and left for India to begin a career that set the precedent for travel photography.
With scenery like this, it is very difficult to deal with the camera: it is altogether too gigantic and stupendous to be brought within the limits imposed on photography.
The Birth of an Icon
As soon as he arrived, he recognised the potential for commercial studios in the country. This was a time that photography worldwide was moving away from being the domain of only scientists. Though it wasn’t a democratic mass form yet, people had started recognising the power of photography as a means to document and commemorate.
In 1863, Bourne collaborated photographers William Howard and Charles Shepherd, to set up studios in Shimla, at first, and Calcutta in 1866. This partnership, which Howard soon left, formed the iconic Bourne & Shepherd legacy.
Since the commercial aspect was taken care of, Bourne wanted to use that money to satisfy himself creatively. From Shimla, he set off for three major Himalayan expeditions, making some of the earliest images ever of the region. For instance, do you know that Bourne was the first ever photographer to photograph the source of the Ganges, high up in the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas?
Before I commenced photography, I did not see half the beauties in nature that I do now.
With a series of exhibitions in Europe and a bunch of writings on his travels, Samuel Bourne’s work was not only the world’s window into India, it is also one of the most detailed documentations of the photographic process of that time.
A Colonial Mindset
Bourne made pictures using the wet collodion process on 10 x 12 glass plates. While one may marvel at a photographer using such laborious equipment in such unforgiving terrain, Bourne had it a little easy. After all, he was not an exception to the colonial mindset. He would have native porters heave his equipment during all his travels. Over 50 porters would accompany him and they would get beaten up if there was any damage to the gear.
But while he didn’t respect the people, he had utmost respect for the Indian landscape. “Before I commenced photography I did not see half the beauties in nature that I do now, and the glory and power of a precious landscape has often passed before me and left but a feeble impression on my untutored mind,” Bourne penned in the British Journal of Photography in 1864.
A Career Cut Short
In 1870, Bourne decided to go back to England, and eventually sold off his shares in the studio, but donated his entire archive of 2200 glass negatives to them. This was, effectively, his retirement from commercial photography. Though he continued to make pictures until his death, his creative energy towards the end was largely devoted to watercolour painting.
The short span of his career is almost ironic compared to the resilience of Bourne & Shepherd studio. But for his pioneering efforts in setting up the studio and his relentless documentation of a land never depicted until then, Samuel Bourne’s contribution to photography is unparalleled.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Better Photography.Tags: September, better photography, india, travel photography, 2014, Samuel Bourne, Bourne & Shepherd, oldest surviving studio, Great Masters