A British colony and the headquarters of many French and Dutch businesses, from mid-nineteenth century India was a source of fascination for the new settlers who, very quickly, sought to express it through the new medium of photography. The exhibition India, in the Mirror of Photographers charts the territory of this fascination by showing the many, now bygone, facets of this country. Region after region, we explore a land that was a favorite subject for the first generations of image-makers.
An Indian journey
Spread across the first floor of the Guimet Museum’s rotunda, the exhibition takes the form of a journey, where the discovery of the photographs is complemented by historical background and detailed contextual information about each new region. The photographs on display are vintage prints dating back to the period between late 1850s and 1890s and created by mostly British and French photographers, including Linneaus Tripe, Samuel Bourne, Baker & Burke, as well as unnamed artists. From Varanasi to Delhi, to Kashmir and Elephanta Caves, to the Taj Mahal, India is a photographer’s paradise: the diversity of landscapes, architecture, and customs presents an exotic vision to a foreigner’s lens.
Beyond the historical component which predominates in the exhibition, and which may be at times overwhelming, this survey of nineteenth-century India is most gripping when it comes to the history of photography and of the visual culture it outlines. As photographers move forward and the technology improves, the compositions and the handling of light get more and more sophisticated. Architectural monuments, bathed in half-light, take on the appearance of theater stage sets, and the lush nature of Kashmir landscapes morphs from Alpine valleys into an equatorial jungle.
Gradually, a true image of India emerges—one that must have shaped the narrative when the photographers got back home to Europe. Between elaborating a visual myth and retracing the development of quasi-documentary nature photography, these images raise a dazzling yet distorting mirror to India.
By Anne Laurens
India, in the Mirror of Photographers
November 6, 2019 to February 17, 2020
Musée Guimet, 6 Place d’Iéna, 75116 Paris