An intrepid photographer
The rectangle that frames a photograph is an abstraction, a shape not readily found in nature; a window from behind which one may safely view a potentially threatening world, one that allows a rational organization of the randomness of nature. If this frame is imposed on rugged mountains, they become mere lines to compose; glaciers become areas of light and shade; buildings and streets become objects to balance; a Bengali porter is but an artful counterpoint.
— Arthur Ollman
YEARS ago, an American historian of photography whom I knew, chanced, while looking for early photographs taken in India, upon an enormous cache of photographs, large-sized glass negatives of photographs in fact, with some old dealer in Calcutta. Her interest at that point was to see if there was an Indian way of looking at things, as different from the European, when it came to photography; and this group of old photographs was not going to serve much purpose, for they were taken by two Englishmen: Bourne and Shepherd, who once owned studios in Calcutta and Simla. But she bought the entire lot all the same, for these were names that had a resonance of their own in the photographic world.
This odd bit of
information that I had carried in my head for all these years came back
to me suddenly the other day when I chanced upon a splendid little book
on Samuel Bourne and his work: Images of India. It was in the
Californian city of San Diego where I currently am, studying, together
with a colleague, the remarkable collection of Indian paintings that
Edwin Binney left to the Museum of Art here, that I found the book. And
the next thing I learnt was that the author of this work, Arthur Ollman,
worked as Director of a museum next door, the Museum of Photographic
Arts, located in the same park. Samuel Bourne was back in my awareness,
As an Englishman travelling through a subject land, Samuel Bourne conducted himself with the arrogance that one associates with many of his countrymen, and there are passages in the notes he was constantly writing while journeying that are filled with bile and contempt for the people – ‘savage-looking men’ speaking in barbarous tongues’ – in the midst of whom he was ‘condemned’ to move. And this casts an unpleasant light upon him as a person. But he took some wonderful photographs in this country. And, in the end, it was India – or was it the Himalayas? – that changed him. He was an obsessive man, someone fired with the urge to record what no man before him had recorded on a glass plate. But every now and then, he would stop and reflect not only upon the scenery that he came upon, but also upon life. To find the picturesque in India is not difficult, but it was meanings that he was coming upon. Consider this passage from a note he wrote in 1866:
Here was I, a solitary lonely wanderer, going Heaven knew where, surrounded by the gloomy solitude of interminable mountains which seemed, in fact, to stretch to infinity on every hand. To attempt to grasp or comprehend their extent was impossible, and the aching mind could only retire into itself, feeling but an atom in the world so mighty, yet consoling itself with the thought that the Power which formed these ponderous masses was greater than they, and that in the marvellous and benevolent operations of that Power, itself, however humble and insignificant, was not lost sight of.
Ollman observes that, with all the ‘superior’ mental baggage that he carried with himself in India, Bourne understood "in a lucid moment on a mountain pass while contemplating the vastness, that his delicate and specific grasp of reality, his analytical photographic vision, his logical and rational Victorian mind, his religious constructs and his enormous sense of rightness, were all lost in that immensity."
Trouble and toil
It could not have been easy for Bourne, and
there are times when one almost feels for the man. As when he writes, Victorian
fashion, in a moment of desperation: "Ah! you gentlemen! And you, careless
public! who thinks that landscape photography is a pleasant and easy task – a
sort of holiday pastime – look at me toiling up that steep ascent in the grey
dawn of a cold morning in fear and trembling that my labour would be all in
vain! See me sitting for ten mortal hours, shivering in cold and mist, on the
top of that bleak pass, waiting for a ‘break’ that would not come! See me
descending, disappointed, at night to my tent, to return next day and go through
the same again …."