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Encountering Colonial Photography

Sean Willcock, Early Career Leverhulme Fellow in the Department of History of Art, Birkbeck, University of London.

A photograph taken by John Claude White (1853–1918) in Tibet in the summer of 1904 shows the triumphant Younghusband Mission marching through the streets of Lhasa. ‘Every detail both for effect and for defence were regarded’, wrote Colonel Francis Younghusband of his long-awaited entry into the ‘forbidden city’. The grave significance of this imperial parade to the denizens of Lhasa can be gauged by the fact that Tibetan emissaries had earlier pleaded with the encroaching British embassy to turn back, claiming that their presence in the capital would ‘spoil their religion and that the Dalai Lama might die’. Lhasa was marched on nevertheless, ‘unveiled’ for the colonial camera on 3 August, much to the excitement of the metropolitan public. White, the official photographer of the mission, brought with him six cameras and ‘innumerable plates’ that required three mules and a team of ‘coolies’ who were ‘experts in the art of carrying and setting up this cumbersome equipment.’ He used his large and heavy panoramic camera with glass-plate negatives to capture this scene, an eye-catching apparatus positioned to document the imperial parade from the perspective of the Tibetans. Yet those spectators appear less struck by the procession than by this act of photography. The harsh stares of the local congregation make for a tense scene in which the viewer is positioned as one among many in a crowd but without enjoying the anonymity that a crowd usually provides. There is a palpable sense here of the conspicuousness of colonial photography ‘in the field’ and its role as a fraught space of political encounter.

The camera and its procedures were just as much a part of such invasive spectacles as the parading soldiers and envoys. It had a clear imperial symbolism in the minds of the British. The popular commercial photographer Samuel Bourne was emphatic about the camera’s techno-material impact: As there is now scarcely a nook or corner, a glen, a valley, or mountain, much less a country, on the face of the globe which the penetrating eye of the camera has not searched, or where the perfumes of poor Archer’s collodion have not risen through the hot or freezing atmosphere, photography in India is, least of all, a new thing. From the earliest days of the calotype, the curious tripod, with its mysterious chamber and mouth of brass, taught the natives of this country that their conquerors were the inventors of other instruments beside the formidable guns of their artillery, which, though as suspicious perhaps in appearance, attained their object with less noise and smoke.

Drawing on the commonplace Victorian equation of the camera with the cannon, Bourne posits the photographic apparatus as a form of imperial pedagogy, demonstrating the broader militarytechnological complex that underpinned British sovereignty in India. The intended audience of such photographic theatre was not merely the British consumers who might buy Bourne’s prints but the native inhabitants of the ‘glens’ and ‘valleys’ who would probably never see such photographs yet who were nevertheless exposed to the camera and its chemical mists.

Exactly what this meant to those spectators would depend on the local politics, epistemologies and histories of those regions. There are significant problems with recuperating such perspectives at all, due to the silencing effects of the imperial archive. Such issues notwithstanding, I draw on examples of cross-cultural encounters in nineteenth-century Burma, China and Tibet, in order to speculate on what colonial photography meant to those who encountered its ‘curious tripods’ and collodion ‘perfumes’ – not to mention the glass plates, dark-room tents and bottles of chemicals – and who, under varying conditions of consent and duress, participated in the ‘event of photography’ as spectators, sitters and protesters.

John Claude White, The Younghusband Mission entering Lhasa, 1904. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 5.1 x 17.1 cm.

John Claude White, The Younghusband Mission entering Lhasa, 1904. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 5.1 x 17.1 cm.

© Royal Geographical Society, London.

The photographs that were produced in the field were ultimately circulated as positive prints in museums, archives and publications – contexts that have been subject to important and influential studies in the historiography of photography. Yet the ‘negative’ history of colonial photography – how it signified before development, printing and circulation – has received comparatively limited attention. In her contribution to an edited collection of essays accompanying the 2003 exhibition Seeing Lhasa: British Depictions of the Tibetan Capital, 1936–1947, Elizabeth Edwards writes of the negative as ‘perhaps the primary document’ of photography, for it is ‘the negative which captures the light reflected off an object, passing through the aperture of a camera to be held and stilled on light sensitive chemicals spread across a support of glass or film.’ Yet ultimately this primary document is afforded little aesthetic resonance or semantic substance: ‘While the moment of inscription or exposure on the negative carries with it the authenticity of the moment, the sense of meaning created through the use of photographs emerges from the moment those negatives are first printed.’

Frederic Villiers, ‘“Fixing” the Negative’, The Graphic, 12 July 1879, detail of the cover design.

Frederic Villiers, ‘“Fixing” the Negative’, The Graphic, 12 July 1879, detail of the cover design.

© Mary Evans Picture Library.

The phenomenology of colonial photography was thus not all about indexical clarity and albumen sheen. Consider, for instance, ‘“Fixing” the Negative’, the front-page illustration run by The Graphic in 1879, showing the Emir of Afghanistan watching as liquid washed over his collodion-glass portrait. This, I suggest, was how Victorian Orientalist photography was often witnessed by those Others who found themselves sitting for, or witness to, the imperial lens: as a spectacle of image-making, a series of technical, chemical and corporeal processes whose intended final product – the stable and captioned positive print – remained absent.

I consider the negative here as a visually distinctive material artefact but also as a metaphor for how the political significance of the colonial encounter – its conditions of sovereignty and subjecthood – was by no means ‘fixed’, much less overdetermined, at the moment of image-making, even if subsequent photographic prints were indeed submitted to what Ali Behdad describes as the ‘excessive textual anchorage’ of Orientalist discourse. The significance of the imagemaking encounter was instead fluid, underdeveloped and contingent. ‘Photography’ here is encountered not in terms of the detail which the Victorians prized about the medium but through the haziness of latency; not in terms of the various discursive and archival contexts that comprise the ‘social biography’ of the print but via the singular materiality of a negative encountered at the time of its own making; and not in terms of the stasis and instantaneity often associated with photography but through the ‘durations’ that inhered in the contingent processes of preparing, loading, exposing, ‘fixing’ and rinsing negatives.

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