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.