History of photography in India

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Political background

India in this feature refers to the Indian subcontinent, which is dominated in area by modern India, but also includes the nations of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Partly because of the extent of this area, but largely because of its geo-political importance in the Victorian era, many photographers came to the subcontinent during this period, as well as the many indigenous photographers. This is the first of several features to look at some of them and their work.

Although the Portuguese were the first European nation to begin direct trading with India following the first successful voyage around the south of Africa in 1498 by Vasco da Gama, they were soon followed by the Dutch, French and British.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the British East India Company (often known as 'John Company') with its private army under Robert Clive had decisively beaten both the Dutch and the French and taken power in several states. Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) to completed the takeover in later battles. By the nineteenth century, the rule of John Company virtually covered the sub-continent, with the Indian rulers subservient to company commercial interests while often still nominally in power.

The so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857/8 (increasingly known in India as the First War of Independence) showed the British government that the Company could no longer be trusted to run such a vast area. The uprising was accompanied by terrible massacres by both sides and was finally bloodily suppressed by British troops. The British government now realised it needed to rule India directly, setting up the India Office to do so in 1858, with Queen Victoria being installed as Empress of India in 1877.

Imperialist photography?

Much photography of India in the early years of the medium was inextricably tied to the colonial regime. Photographers who went to the region were mainly from Britain and many went as employees of either 'John Company' or the British government. Some photographed as amateurs, while others were actually employed to take photographs. The company actively encouraged it employees to photograph, especially to record archaeological sites, and photography became a key element of the 'Archaeological Survey of India', established in 1861 (following on from the activities of the 'Asiatic Society' dating from 1784) and still in existence.

Another aspect of colonialism was religious evangelism, with missionaries coming from Britain to bring Christianity to this land which already had its own religions deeply embedded in its culture. A number of the missionaries were keen and sometimes very competent amateur photographers.

Few westerners in India were not a part of the colonial presence, and it was the westerners who formed the major market for photography in India, as although they were a small minority of the population, they were largely those with the money to buy photographs. Many bought photographs to paste into albums, so as to make a visual record of their times in India, which they would take back to the home country at the end of their tour of duty.

The 'Indian Mutiny' in particular considerably raised public interest about India in Britain, creating an increased market for photographs here, and was thus a key event in the development of photography in the country - as well as a milestone in the struggle for independence. People who read stories in the newspapers about Delhi or Lucknow wanted to see what these places looked like, and wanted to see pictures of the Indians. Because of its importance in the development of photography in the area, there are links to several sources of information on the history of India, viewed from varied perspectives, in the box at top right.


One of the problems inhibiting the spread of photography in the early years were the patents taken out on their inventions by both Daguerre and Talbot in England and some other countries. These appear also to have had a restraining effect on photography in India in the 1840s.

There seems to be no clear record of when the first photograph was taken in India. Some sources suggest that a lithograph was published of Calcutta in 1840 based on a photograph, and that the first commercial photograph taken in India dates from 1844.

The first native Indian photographer known by name appears to be Nawab Ahmed Ali Khan of Lucknow, although the exact date at which he started to take pictures seems not to be unclear. Although some sources state 1845, it may have been after 1850; certainly the earliest picture taken by him in the India Office collection is dated 1855.

The first portrait studios started to advertise in 1849 and there are several daguerreotypes that possibly date from around that time, as well as a few salt prints from a similar period. There seems to be little evidence of earlier photography.

The wet collodion process was published in 1851/2, without any restrictions on its use. Talbot attempted to claim that his calotype patent also covered the new invention, but he lost the case when he took a photographer to court. After this defeat he also gave up efforts to enforce the patent on the use of the calotype, and photography was freely available to anyone who wanted to use it.


Photography really took off in India on a large scale in the 1850s. Portrait studios, using the daguerreotype, were being advertised by 1849, and their business soon grew. They continued to make daguerreotypes for some years because the relative simplicity and speed of the process enabled them to produce small pictures in a few minutes at reasonable prices, but for other uses the new process quickly dominated. Probably the best known of these daguerreotypists was William Johnson, who had come to Bombay as a civil servant in 1848, and four years later was running a studio there, in the mid-1850s in partnership with William Henderson. Johnson was one of the founders of the Bombay Photographic Society. Johnson later worked with the wet plate process, using a whole plate camera (8½x6½ inches) producing a number of well bound copies of his three volume collection, 'Photographs of Western India', the three volumes covering 'Costumes and Characters,' and two of 'Scenery, Public Buildings.' A set of this extremely valuable work that had been presented to the patron of the Bombay Photographic Society was recently discovered in the DeGolyer Library of Southern Methodist University in Texas, USA, where it had lain uncatalogued for many years.

Johnson also published a two volume work of his pictures of people in London in 1863, entitled 'The oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay.' Probably very few copies of any of his works will have been made, as the pictures at this time had to be produced separately as albumen prints and pasted onto the printed pages.

Wet Plate or Calotype?

For the amateur photographer and commercial photographers wanting to produce large prints, the choice in the 1850s was between wet plate and calotype. Many amateurs and some professionals preferred the calotype (some using the waxed paper variation) as the paper could be prepared beforehand and processed at leisure.

Working with wet plate in Indian conditions must often have been uncomfortable, although many photographers will doubtless have trained their servants to perform much of the hard labour, as well using them to carry the heavy equipment from place to place. Although we think of India as being hot, Samuel Bourne's problems when photographing at altitude in the Himalayas were mainly caused by extreme cold temperatures.

Unknown Photographers

Indians were also quick to pick up the new skills, probably largely as European photographers employed many of them as servants and assistants. As in other countries, there was a demand in India for portraits by all who could afford them, and studios were soon set up to meet this demand.

Some of the Indian rulers had long been patrons of the arts, and several engaged court photographers to record themselves, their families and their activities - as shown in the work of Ahmad Ali Khan in the previous section.

Many Indian writers on the history of photography complain that little is written about the early work of Indian photographers. Although true, this largely reflects a lack of research rather than an imperialist bias by other writers about photography.

Why Europeans are more visible

The work of the European photographers is well known largely because their pictures sold to major organisations - such as the East India Company - and also to the Europeans - soldiers, civil servants and others - who had come out to India. These collections and many of the albums put together by these expatriate workers came back to Britain, and many found their way into museums and other public collections.

Many of the major figures became well-known both in India and in Europe at the time, and some of the British photographers also exhibited and sold their work in Britain. Others settled back in their home country taking their negatives and prints with them, which were later sold at auction or given to museums. Much of their work was made available to the British public at the time or later and has remained visible.

Prominent Indians

There were some Indian photographers who also sold work to the institutions and expatriates, such as Ahmad Ali Khan and, rather later, Lala Deen Dayal. Most would appear not to have done so to any great extent. Possibly they sold their work more to Indians - and, especially in the case of portraiture, much will have ended in family albums in Indian homes.

Courses and Studios

That there were Indian photographers is obvious. The early daguerreotype studios established around 1849 employed Indians, as did the commercial photographers founded in the next decade. As early as 1855 a course in photography was established at the Madras School of Industrial Art, with students being encouraged to record Indian agricultural tools and practices. C Iyahsawmy, one of the instructors there, accompanied Linnaeus Tripe, who was appointed 'Photographer for the Government' in Madras in 1856 as his assistant (see 'Images from Tripe' box, top right.)

As this feature in 'Frontline' indicates, Iyahsawmy also took pictures. There are roughly 80 pictures in the East India Collection from the Madras School of Industrial Arts from the 1860s, and quite possibly these include work by Iyahsawmy.

Photographic Societies

The Frontline feature also notes that Iyahsawmy's work was shown in annual exhibitions in Madras, probably those of the photographic society there. Other Indian photographers also showed work at the photographic societies that had been established in the main cities in India in the mid 1850s, including Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

The depth of interest in photography can be seen from an 1857 exhibition by the Photographic Society of Bengal. John Falconer in an essay on Ethnographical Photography in India 1850-1900 (the link - see box, top right - is not always available) notes that this included 460 pictures, including 30 by Dr Narain Dajee, a professional photographer and a council member of the Bombay Photographic Society. Dajee's work was unusual in including pictures of fakirs, snake charmers, musicians, soldiers and other Indians. Most of the other work would probably have been landscape, architectural studies and portraits of Europeans.

The photographic societies took themselves very seriously; publishing catalogues of their shows and magazines regarding their activities. However, at the time there were no successful methods for the mass reproduction of photographs. Presumably many of the pictures taken by the photographers - particularly the Indians - are still held in private and public collections in India. Although there have been some publications on early photography in India, much research still needs to be done into this early work. It is perhaps surprising given the long history and strength of the independence movement - at least as old as photography in India - and over 50 years as independent countries that more has not yet been made available.

Print Labels

Many early photographs of this period are by unknown photographers. Mainly these would be portrait photographers working in small studios; undoubtedly many would have been by Indians, others by British amateur photographers who were employees of the company or in the army.

Larger studios would have cases for daguerreotypes with a company label or mark, and paper prints would be labelled, printed, signed or stamped with the photographer's name. Photographs produced by amateurs - then as now - would be less likely to be marked.

A later feature in this series will look at the work of Lala Deen Dayal and later Indian photographers.

John McCosh, (1805-1885)

One of the first photographers known to have worked in India was John McCosh, an army surgeon with the East India Company. He was based in Lahore and Ludhiaana just before the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1847, and produced many photographs using the calotype process, including the only known picture of Duleep Singh as a Maharaja. The reign of this boy king, the son of Sardar Ranjit Singh, was ended by the war.

The McCosh albums included over a dozen portraits of Sikhs, mainly officers in the Sikh army as well as some of the non-Sikh officers, who were also encouraged to grow long beards. As well as photographing people, McCosh also photographed the Sikh palaces and other buildings, as well as landscapes and military scenes.

In McCosh's album (apparently in the National Army Museum in London), the British officers are captioned with their name and rank and where they were based, and other Europeans are also identified as individuals. When photographing Indians, he typically only gives a generic caption, such as 'Madras Man', treating them as types.

This approach was systematised by the British administration. The Governor General, after the 1857 Mutiny, set up a massive project, The People of India' run by the department responsible for state security. Its aim was to map out the racial types of India as a part of the apparatus of state control. Instructions went to the local areas to commission photographers to photograph typical people to represent the various castes and tribes of India.

There seem to be few reproductions of McCosh's pictures online. You can see some rather poor cropped images as illustrations to the article by John Falconer on 'Ethnographical Photography in India 1850-1900' (see box, top right.) His pictures are sometimes referred to as 'grainy', which would refer to the effect of paper texture visible in prints from calotype negatives - there would of course be no grain in the usual photographic sense of the term.

Frederick Fiebig

Little seems to be known about Frederick Fiebig. He was probably born in Germany and became a lithographer (and possibly was also a piano teacher) in Calcutta, publishing a number of prints in the 1840s. You can see some of his panoramas on the web, but there is no evidence that these were made from photographs, although it seems likely they may be the prints referred to earlier in this feature.

In the late 1840s Fiebig turned to photography using the calotype process, producing prints that were often hand-coloured. His photographs includes several hundred views of Calcutta in the early 1850s, one of the earliest detailed studies of a city, a large hand coloured collection of which were bought by the East India Company in 1856, their first major acquisition of photographs. Among the roughly 500 pictures were views of Calcutta, Madras, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Mauritius and Cape Town.

Fiebig's straightforward black and white prints are more tasteful and powerful, and you can see some reproductions of them online, in a auction catalogue (PDF format) which, among much other fine photography, includes a set of pictures by Fiebig.

Dr John Murray, (1809-98)

Dr John Murray was an officer in the Bengal Medical Service (the medical service of the East India Company's army), and a prolific amateur photographer. He became one of the masters of the calotype process, making fine prints from the large paper negatives. He was one of the first to photograph the Taj Mahal, and most of his best pictures are of architectural subjects.

Murray who was born in Peterhead, near Aberdeen, Scotland the second son of a farmer there. At 15 he went to Marischal College, Aberdeen, continuing to Edinburgh University where he became a Doctor of Medicine in 1831. He then studied in Paris for around a year before leaving for India to work as an Assistant Surgeon for the East India Company in 1833. In India he got married and worked as a hospital superintendent and a field surgeon before becoming the civil surgeon for Agra in 1848, where his major work was in research into cholera, in which he became a leading expert.

Starting Photography

Murray began to take photographs in 1849, though most of his pictures are from the mid-1850s until 1865, when was appointed Inspector General of Hospitals and was apparently too busy for photography. He worked both with the wet plate process and also with the waxed paper variant of the calotype, which was more convenient when travelling.

Murray built up the first extensive record of the Mughal architecture of Agra Mathura, Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri. The most famous of the monuments was of course the Taj Mahal, which he photographed from every conceivable angle and distance, including some fine 3-part panoramas. He also photographed many other buildings and ruins, as well as some landscape pictures. Most of his pictures were taken with a large camera, giving paper negatives around 18x14 inches in size. There are a number of his negatives reproduced on line as well as the prints. As can be seen from the reproductions, these are superb images.


When he came to Britain on leave in 1857, he brought a selection of his pictures with him, and they were published by Joseph Hogarth both as individual prints and a portfolio, receiving a very favourable review in the Morning Post. They were also exhibited in London and published in 1859 in a book, 'Murray's Picturesque Views in the North Western Provinces of India', of which only two copies are known to exist.

Almost 600 of his pictures, are now in the India Office collection at the British Library, and some can be seen on line

Murray came back to Britain in 1871, living in London for some years before moving to Sheringham, Norfolk where he died in 1898. An extensive collection of his photographs, negatives and papers was sold at auction at Sothebys, London in 1999.

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