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One hundred vintage views of India | Artist’s Statements

One hundred vintage views of India

Bernard J Shapero Rare Books, London and Tasveer, Bangalore are pleased to present this touring exhibition, One Hundred Vintage Views of India. The collection does not by any means attempt to portray a complete group of photographs from the Indian Subcontinent during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Instead, what this show hopes to achieve is to offer a taste of the breadth and depth of this subject.
The selection here offers a variety of affordable and rare early photographic prints.

The exhibition aims to introduce the subject of 19th century photography to potential collectors and institutions in India. There are naturally those who will be familiar with this area of the art market, and who have already assembled established collections, however we hope to expand this area of interest to those who enjoy photography and are involved in collecting yet might not be aware of this early phase in photography. Collecting nineteenth century photographs of India can be very rewarding, both financially and aesthetically. The artistic merit currently given to some of these photographs is based on a wider interest in photography in general and in particular the rarity of these prints which are often only available in a few known copies. Prices in this select group of photographs range from two hundred pounds to over one thousand pounds. These prices are based on some fundamental factors which play an important role when choosing an early photograph from this period.

Condition is an obvious point and as well as wear and tear, tonality plays a large part in pricing. Dark rich tones are generally desirable for albumen prints. Nearly all of these photographs are albumen prints, a process most commonly used in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A sheet of paper was floated in a bath of egg white containing salt, which had been whisked, allowed to subside and filtered. This produced a smooth surface on the paper, the pores having been filled with this mixture. After drying, the albumenized paper was sensitized by floating it on a bath of silver nitrate solution and again dried. This doubly coated paper was finally put into a wooden frame in contact with the negative, normally glass but occasionally paper. Very short exposure times would then establish the image onto the paper which in turn was later fixed in a solution of hyposulfite of soda. The photographer would emphasise tonality through altering the time taken to fix the image. Naturally, over time it has become very hard to find prints that have preserved their rich hues and hence their desirability. Other methods such as salt prints and early lightly albumenized salted paper prints were light in tonality and were intended to be this way, and are highly collectable for their rarity and also visual effect.

Dating the photographs is another important factor in determining value. From the late 1840’s through to the early 1870’s there were a number of amateur and semi-professional photographers working on the Indian subcontinent. These early views and portrait studies are distinguished from the later prolific output of the commercial studios. Early prints were known to be re-photographed again and again with some studios acquiring entire negative stock from others. The idea of having an early print from the photographer himself has never really changed whether from the nineteenth century or later in the early twentieth century. As a rule the earlier the prints the more desirable they are. This brings us onto what we consider to be the most important guiding point in buying early photographs. Follow your own eye. Some of the best collections we have seen were put together for the simple reason that the collector really liked the image. To recognize and identify a rare early print is not an easy task today, especially in the context of its commercial value. Ones reason for collecting is a personal one, and a later commercial print from the 1890’s can sometimes be significantly more interesting than a composition taken in the 1850’s. Nineteenth century photography is a highly specialized field yet at the same time is a medium that now is probably the most democratic of all art forms. The attraction rests in the many details and nuances.

The appreciation of photography as a collectable art medium is certainly not new. The prices of nineteenth century photographs, not just those depicting India, have been steadily rising for the last fifteen years. It is a very accessible medium and in comparison with other art, extremely affordable. The photographers within
these pages would have been flattered to learn that their prints were being appreciated aesthetically now in a joint show to tour India. With the introduction of photography in India, The Bombay Photographic Society, the Bengal Photographic Society, the Madras Photographic Society and the Asiatic Society of Bengal were just some of the groups of like minded enthusiasts who appreciated photography as an art form during the nineteenth century. The art or rather, science, of photography was collected then and was published in India and in Great Britain, being a commercial success with studios dotted around the subcontinent. Examples of photographs by Andrew Charles Brisbane Neill (Item 52), Richard Banner Oakeley (Item 73), Linneaus Tripe (Item 63), Col. Eugene Clutterbuck Impey (Item 24 and 30) and the early Burke and Baker and Samuel Bourne compositions are now very rare indeed, but at the time one could go into a studio and order the prints to paste into a private travel album. Larger and more lavish photographic publications were not so common even then and now fetch very high prices.

We hope that the photographs within this exhibition will help introduce the novice to this field and at the same time provide the seasoned collector with some new and interesting names they might not have come across. This exhibition highlights a select number of prints from the archives of Bernard J Shapero Rare Books. The collaboration with Tasveer is the beginning of a joint effort to bring these rare and early photographs to India. For those interested in early views of the great cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and many others or the rich cultural heritage as seen in the earliest photographs of Mughal and Hindu archeological sites, this
show will delight.

Roland Belgrave
Abhishek Poddar