The Tribune - Spectrum


, April 14, 2002
'Art and Soul

An intrepid photographer
B.N. Goswamy

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

Interior of the Moti Masjid in Agra: Photograph by Samuel Bourne, 1865
Interior of the Moti Masjid in Agra: Photograph by Samuel Bourne, 1865

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, once again.

Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

Picasso: Again and forever
February 24, 2002

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001
Arts in the time of crisis
November 4, 2001
The Nizams and their jewels
October 21, 2001
Reviving a languishing craft
October 7, 2001
Buddhism in Australia
September 23, 2001
Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001

The book tells one a great deal about Bourne: his growing years in the Midlands of England, his early fascination for photographs that caught with such fidelity and tonal fineness likenesses of people and places, his resolve to learn and cultivate this skill for the rest of his life even though there were other interests, including writing and painting, that he had. He won, while fairly young, some renown for himself in his circle, being seen as "something of a local master, a spokesman and authority on the art." But it was not until he set sail for India, late in 1862 – he was twenty-eight years old then – that he truly found himself, it seems. It was here, in this strange and mysterious and vast land, that Bourne immersed himself in his work, "from the untrodden snows of the Himalayas to the burning shore of Madras". And it is from this point onwards that Ollman’s book takes on a special interest, not only because the photographic journeys of Bourne in India are closely followed, but because there is an inner journey of his that is tracked along side. The names of the places that one comes upon are all too familiar to us – Calcutta and Benares, Lahore and Amritsar, Chamba and Kulu and Kangra, Shimla and Murree and Kashmir – ; what is not familiar is the extraordinary difficulties that a photographer like Bourne faced, travelling as he was for months on end in the most difficult of terrains in the Himalayas, and carrying the outsized, and cumbersome, equipment that had to be carried those days on the backs of coolies and mules everywhere.

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 …."


This feature was published on April 7, 2002