Photography

Photography makes up one of the largest sections of the collection and features extensive holdings from the 19th century by photographers such as Samuel Bourne, John Burke and Raja Deen Dayal. Highlights from the collection of 20th century photography includes vintage prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh. The collection also includes contemporary photographers working in India, such as Karen Knorr and Vivek Vilasini.

Instagram, Flickr, DSLRs and colour filters form an integral part of the twenty first century vocabulary, and unsurprisingly so. With the rapid rise of technology and growth of phone-cameras and sharing sites, photography today scales new democratic potential – and we’re busy capturing the world, like we never have before.

In India, as globally, photography has travelled a long way from glass plate negatives to becoming a ubiquitous and accessible tool. This section of MAP’s collection examines the transformations undergone by the medium through a wide range of material dating from the 19th century to the contemporary moment.

Photography arrived in India within a few months of Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the paper negative in England in 1839. Finding its way to the subcontinent via the East India Company, photography was initially practiced by the army and a select group of wealthy Indian hobbyists. By the 1850s photographic societies were established in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai) and commercial studios popped up in all the major cities, whilst nomadic ‘photo booths’ travelled to the bazaars of smaller towns. By the end of the nineteenth century, a large number of European photographers had expertly documented many of India’s architectural sites, as well as making anthropological studies of the various social groups from across the country. At the same time that these foreign ‘travel photographers’ were documenting the country’s historic sites, Indian-owned photographic studios were also thriving. Less concerned with the familiar architectural gems of the country, these early studios began producing photographic portraits of India’s prosperous mercantile and professional classes.

The popularisation of the 35mm camera in the early 20th century welcomed a whole new kind of photography to India. Old plate cameras used by the first photographers in India were cumbersome to operate and largely restricted the subjects to landscapes and portraits. Compact and portable 35mm cameras, however, allowed photographers the freedom of movement and speed. This, in combination with the press increasingly reproducing photographs rather than etchings, ushered in an age of photojournalism around the world, and not least in India. After the Second World War, international photojournalists, such as those from the Magnum Photo Agency, began travelling passionately and documenting the post-war political and social landscape. Many of the most enduring and iconic photographs of India were taken during this time, chronicling the end of the empire and the war, and the emergence of a new independent nation-state.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, photography in India took on a new identity and became more closely aligned with the ideas, themes and methodologies of the international art world. Photojournalism, as defined in the 20th century, is still a thriving and perhaps dominating genre, but photography in India now is much broader in its outlook, with contemporary exponents, both national and international, shedding the medium’s identity as a purely documentary device and championing it as a tool of wider artistic enquiry.

The MAP collection includes photographs that span this entire history of the medium in India, as well as a wealth of material from photography’s ‘other histories’ in the country, such as vernacular photography, commercial photography and even erotic photography.

It is MAP’s aim to also draw attention through this section to the ways in which photography has been used, coopted or assimilated in conjunction with other media such as painting or video, in order to produce newer idioms and meanings.

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