Posts Tagged ‘photography’

The anthropology of photography

August 14, 2008

Malaviaka Karlekar writes about family photographs that get displayed, and those that don’t (and, what it tells about the owner/s):

The Oxford anthropologist, Elizabeth Edwards, who has worked on the interface between photography and anthropology, likens photographs to “surrogate memory”, and asks whether photographs are “intentionally hidden (in lockets, wallets, diaries, family bibles), where and why?” Such choices matter; in the case of family photographs, what are enlarged, framed and put on public view and those that remain in “small private worlds” — or are even abandoned, thrown into the waste-paper basket — depend on what the owner/s wish to remember, memorialize.

The walls of homes become spaces where a narrative is worked out not only with photographs but also with trophies of shikar, clocks, plaques and so on. In this visual of a Thalessary home, a venerable ancestor is flanked by mounts of two well-polished buffalo heads and horns. The photograph of the middle-aged man in a suit and tie is hung from the bevelling on the wall and touches the wooden ceiling well above eye-level. Clearly, it is supposed to be seen — but not looked at closely. The more recent photographs are at a lower level, there to be examined. The buffalo heads would indicate a family that had, at some stage, known a style of life that included shikar. And the sartorial style of the gentleman, a certain status. Both the photograph and the mounts are integral to the public face of the family; their display around the daunting old-fashioned bars of the window would indicate an old family home — where, however, members have little interest in replacing them with something more elegant and contemporary. In another home, an entire wall is devoted to a framed print of “HRH Prince of Wales” from Pears’ Annual of 1920 while other adjacent spaces are packed with family photographs.

An interesting piece; take a look!

PS: At our home, the pride of place goes to two photographs of Nehru (from Illustrated weekly — with four lines of Frost’s The woods are lovely below — was the photographer Jitendra Arya? Probably); and, in between the two is a photograph of my grandparents!

The stories that photographs tell

June 15, 2008

At our ancestral home in my village, among the many photographs of relatives distant and near, politicians, gods and goddesses, there hangs a black-and-white photograph. It is the photo of my father’s grandfather, my paternal grandparents, the eldest daughter of my grandparents, and my grandfather’s nephew. And, of course there are stories about the absence of my father’s grandmother as well as for the presence of grandfather’s nephew in the photograph. In fact, most of the family stories I learnt in relation to photographs of this sort, and, at times, after hearing some family story, I tried to understand the described events with respect to the photographs.

And, some of the stories that were related to me about the photographs are fairly detailed — who took the photograph for example, and when — before so-and-so was born but after so-and-so’s seemantham and so on — and, I was told on good authority that the one in which my grandfather looks a bit tired is because it was taken on an Ekadashi day (when he was fasting).

I remembered all those photographs when I saw this nice piece by Malavika Karlekar in the Telegraph:

By the 1870s, the camera entered the lives of the Indian landed elite and the growing middle class; it was invaluable in the depiction of family life and newly-acquired professional roles where it became de rigueur for men with or without their families to be framed for posterity. Elaborate formal attire, the pose and the positioning of persons, were of vital importance; in the case of a married couple, how each spouse was seated or standing individually and in relation to one another often indicated relative status within the marital bond. Individuals or families in groups stood or sat elaborately dressed, framed against the backdrop of phantasmic studio sets — distant lakes, castles, tropical forests — that looked beyond everyday realities. This juxtaposition of the mundane with the imagined can be viewed as an image of the colonial encounter, where both ruler and ruled were involved in the intricate practice of redefining themselves; make-believe too had a role in this complex process.

The piece by Karlekar is not only the social history of family portraits in colonial India, but also a tribute to a Gandhian:

Some families, more than others, have been conscientious in the preservation of family photographs, diaries, memoirs and other random writings, a case in point being that of the Sulemaini Bohra Tyabjis of Gujarat. Family archivist Salima Tyabji has painstakingly organized, arranged and curated the many photographs of this amazing family (most of which are in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library); it is almost possible to reconstruct a family history and indicate social change on the basis of these visuals alone. For instance, several document Abbas Tyabji’s metamorphosis from a Western-educated fun-loving professional to a devout Gandhian, the camera zeroing in infallibly on changed dress codes, demeanour and pose. The recently published biography by the historian, Aparna Basu, brought out by the National Book Trust, tells us about this metamorphosis of the by-then-elderly Abbas. This informative little text recounts how he came to be referred to as the ‘chhota Gandhi’ — an ironic epithet, as Tyabji was 17 years older than the Mahatma.

Basu has relied on his diaries and public papers held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as well as published and unpublished biographies, and “an unending stream of letters” between him and M.K. Gandhi. The present photograph that Basu uses in her book clearly belongs to Abbas’s pre-Gandhian phase (picture). In this family photograph taken at Abbas Tyabji’s Bombay home, the photographic establishment has almost re-created a theatrical set, the central characters being Abbas (seated in the middle without head gear), and wife Ameena who is next to him. As the photograph was being taken at home, the photographer was able to devote more time to its composition, very likely with inputs from the family.

What is particularly interesting is that nobody engages with the camera: not one of the 17 people looks straight at it — and yet there is a certain dynamism in the visual. The photograph forces the viewer to give it more than a passing glance. Abbas’s head is almost at right angles while Ameena looks askance, with somewhat downcast eyes. A close examination of each person’s pose indicates that there is nothing accidental about any of them. Generations and genders are mixed, clothes, postures, demeanours composed — if not dictated — and arranged to give it a certain dramatic quality. There is movement in stasis and several sub-groups within the larger assemblage in this conversation piece, that is like many group portraits by the 18th-century British painter, William Hogarth, with all the “atmospherics of a domestic drama”. Clearly considerable thought — if not debate — ensued before the shot was taken. And as it is likely to have been taken in the 1880s, if not the 1870s, the entire event would have taken quite some time, perhaps even half a day.

Here is the wiki page of Abbas Tyabji (with a nice photograph of Tyabji with Gandhiji). Though Karlekar does not mention it, Salim Ali, the foremost of Indian ornithologists is the nephew of Tyabji.

When to take photographs

May 5, 2008

Tyler Cowen gives some pointers in a short post which packs lots of punch:

If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it. The fact that your memories will in part be “false” or constructed is besides the point; they’ll probably be false anyway. In other words, there’s no such thing as the “one-time in-person viewing,” it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other. Daniel Gilbert’s book on memory is the key source here.

Furthermore you don’t need the later viewing for the photo or video to be worthwhile. It’s all about organizing your memories in the form of narratives and that is what cameras help us do, if only by differentiating the flow of events into chunkier blocks of greater discreteness.

A photo that requires retakes might be more effective than a photo you get right the first time.

Cowen goes on to tell about his own photo taking habits and links to a post with pointers to take better photographs. Take a look!

Earliest photography course in Asia

December 9, 2007

Apparently was offered in Madras in 1855! Malavika Karlekar has more details:

The army officer, Linnaeus Tripe, gives an interesting and well-documented account of bullock-cart travel during his extended photographic trip in south India. Photography had arrived in Madras soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. As in the other two presidencies, the colonial middle-classes took to it with much alacrity — to be soon followed by Indians. Bourne and Shepherd did not travel so far south, and the initiative was left to H.R. Wiele and his partner, a Theodor Klein, who was born of German parents in Madras, to set up one of the best-known studios in the region. This was around the 1880s. Earlier, in 1855, photography had been introduced as a subject in the Madras School of Industrial Art (the present College of Arts and Crafts). One of the earliest institutions in Asia to offer the subject, the principal, A. Hunter, encouraged students to record agricultural practices and indigenous implements. The following year, the Photographic Society of Madras was started by Walter Elliot. Elliot belonged to that select group of civil servants who combined an exacting full-time occupation with other interests, in this case natural history and photography.

Apparently, as early as 1857, there was a photographic expedition:

Prior to his trip, Tripe located informants who were asked to supply information about local antiquities, natural phenomena and of course, ‘native races’. He set out from Bangalore on December 12, 1857 and reached Madras almost five months later via Salem, Srirangam, Trichy, Madurai, Pudukkottai and Tanjore. He used four bullock carts built at the Bangalore arsenal to transport equipment and his staff. Despite the discomfort of hot weather and an exhausting tour, he produced 275 large 14 inches by 12 inches paper negatives, sixteen 14 inches by 11inches dry collodion negatives on glass plates and 160 stereographs, also on glass plates.

I would love to see the photographs from Salem district, since (a) my district was part of Salem district during the British rule, and (b) according to the piece

Tripe had photographed all the major temples and architectural buildings in the region and had made interesting landscapes of Salem district and documented life within the palace of the ruler of Pudukkottai as well.

What is more, Karlekar also tells us that the photographs were published as albums with annotations by scholars such as G U Pope. Karlekar’s piece is full of nuggets like this; a must-read piece; don’t miss it.