Sunday, October 12, 2014

Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852–1860

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 4, 2015

Several new shows have opened recently at the National Gallery, and this display of photographs from mid-19th century India and Burma is one of them.  Tripe worked for the British East India Company when he took these pictures; they were designed to inform his employers about these two countries.  You might think that they would be rather dull - nothing artistic about them, but that's not the case.  Even though he took these photos for work purposes, they are well composed and very interesting to look at, even if you're not working for the British East India Company.

Tripe's military precision and attention to detail served him well in India, where the climate made photography quite difficult.  He managed to achieve consistent results, even with all the heat and humidity.  Granted consistency and a detail-oriented personality doesn't make one think of great artists, but when you need to contend with conditions that are working against your developing any sort of picture, those humble virtues are what allow you to create at all.

Two photographs really stood out for me.  The first is Rangoon: Signal Pagoda which is of a pagoda on which the British had put a signaling apparatus.  They thought they'd successfully transformed a local building into a useful device; the Burmese thought they'd desecrated a holy site.  It serves as a depiction of the British occupation of the area in microcosm.  The British believed they were bringing civilization; the Burmese though they were destroying their culture.  Perhaps they're both right.

Lest you think the British were entirely successful, the locals may have had the last laugh.  The second photograph I particularly noted is Royacottah: View Overlooking the Country, South-Southeast from Inside the Fort Gate.  This fort had been occupied by the British in the late 1700s and viewed by them as impregnable - a great triumph in their battle against the natives.  Fifty years later, when Tripe took his picture, it was abandoned and overgrown.  So much for the immortality of anything foreign to a local environment.

As I looked at these pieces, I was reminded both of Kiyochika and Marville, recording their cities in times of change.  These photos give you a sense of a particular time period and a particular point of view.  Don't look for people in these shots; the technology didn't allow for the capture of movement without blurring.  These are, for the most part, only empty streets and landscapes.  Also like Marville, there came a time when there was no more work for Tripe; the British Army took over India and the British East India Company ceased to hold the reins of power.  Tripe was therefore out of a job, as far as photography went, and he hung up his camera when he was only in his 30s.  A shame, as he could doubtless have turned his eye to other subjects, had he wished to do so.

Verdict: Worth a look, especially if you're interested in India or Burma, English history or early photographic techniques.

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