The Oldest Known Photographs of India (1863–1870)

After about a cen­tu­ry of indi­rect com­pa­ny rule, India became a full-fledged British colony in 1858. The con­se­quences of this polit­i­cal devel­op­ment remain a mat­ter of heat­ed debate today, but one thing is cer­tain: it made India into a nat­ur­al des­ti­na­tion for enter­pris­ing Britons. Take the aspir­ing cler­gy­man turned Not­ting­ham bank employ­ee Samuel Bourne, who made his name as an ama­teur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with his pic­tures of the Lake Dis­trict in the late eigh­teen-fifties. When those works met with a good recep­tion at the Lon­don Inter­na­tion­al Exhi­bi­tion of 1862, Bourne real­ized that he’d found his true méti­er; soon there­after, he quit the bank and set sail for Cal­cut­ta to prac­tice it.

It was in the city of Shim­la that Bourne estab­lished a prop­er pho­to stu­dio, first with his fel­low pho­tog­ra­ph­er William Howard, then with anoth­er named Charles Shep­herd. (Bourne & Shep­herd, as it was even­tu­al­ly named, remained in busi­ness until 2016.) Bourne trav­eled exten­sive­ly in India, tak­ing the pic­tures you can see col­lect­ed in the video above, but it was his “three suc­ces­sive pho­to­graph­ic expe­di­tions to the Himalayas” that secured his place in the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy.

In the last of these, “Bourne enlist­ed a team of eighty porters who drove a live food sup­ply of sheep and goats and car­ried box­es of chem­i­cals, glass plates, and a portable dark­room tent,” says the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. When he crossed the Manirung Pass “at an ele­va­tion of 18,600 feet, Bourne suc­ceed­ed in tak­ing three views before the sky cloud­ed over, set­ting a record for pho­tog­ra­phy at high alti­tudes.”

Though he spent only six years in India, Bourne man­aged to take 2,200 high-qual­i­ty pic­tures in that time, some of the old­est — and indeed, some of the finest — pho­tographs of India and its near­by region known today.

In addi­tion to views of the Himalayas, he cap­tured no few archi­tec­tur­al won­ders: the Taj Mahal and the Ram­nathi tem­ple, of course, but also Raj-era cre­ations like what was then known as the Gov­ern­ment House in Cal­cut­ta (see below).

Colo­nial rule has been over for near­ly eighty years now, and in that time India has grown rich­er in every sense, not least visu­al­ly. It hard­ly takes an eye as keen as Bourne’s to rec­og­nize in it one of the world’s great civ­i­liza­tions, but a Bourne of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry prob­a­bly needs some­thing more than a cam­era phone to do it jus­tice.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

The Old­est Known Pho­tographs of Rome (1841–1871)

The Ear­li­est Sur­viv­ing Pho­tos of Iran: Pho­tos from 1850s-60s Cap­ture Every­thing from Grand Palaces to the Ruins of Perse­po­lis

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

Around the World in 1896: 40 Min­utes of Real Footage Lets You Vis­it Paris, New York, Venice, Rome, Budapest & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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