Bourne to wonder: vintage images on show for first time in Chennai
The rundown four-storey building at one end of 141, SN Banerjee Road, Kolkata, which once housed the photo studio Bourne & Shepherd, isn’t exactly a landmark today.
The deserted, woebegone (and possibly haunted) building has, for all practical purposes, gone the way of so many old-world edifices in the city — relegated to an absolute state of disrepair, beyond hope for any manner of salvage operations.
Yet, this was one of the world’s oldest photography studios, dating back to the year 1840. Following a ravaging fire in 1991, which destroyed much of their archives, Bourne & Shepherd ended its incredible run in June 2016, owing to financial and legal difficulties (the building was owned by the Indian government). Eventually, the increasing pressures of facing up to digital technologies led the studio to draw a quiet close to its 176-year-old legacy.
The origins of the studio are sketchy, with various accounts tracing its inception to 1862, when British photographers Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson established the studio Shepherd & Robertson in Agra. That studio later moved to Shimla, and eventually became a part of Howard, Bourne & Shepherd, set up by Samuel Bourne and Shepherd, along with William Howard.
The good shepherd
The travelling exhibition, Bourne & Shepherd — Figures In Time, hosted by Tasveer and the Museum of Art & Photography, pays tribute to the studio’s famed archives, and is being shown in Chennai for the first time, after previous shows in Bengaluru, Kolkata and New Delhi.
The opportunity is rare, to get a glimpse of 19th century vintage photographs sourced from the holdings of MAP (Museum of Art & Photography), including a range of landscapes, architectural views and portraits by Bourne and Shepherd.
In addition, for the show, Tasveer has reproduced select prints in enlarged ratios, giving viewers unique insights into these historically significant images.
For a background to the show, a note from Tasveer explains Bourne, one of the most famous of the early European commercial photographers, and the most prolific photographer of the ‘picturesque’ tradition, was a former bank clerk, arrived in India in 1836. “Bringing with him a large amount of photographic equipment, developing local contacts here, and having access to Indian bearers, Bourne travelled the length and breadth of the sub-continent — producing over 2,000 negatives including some of the finest 19th century travel photography,” says the note.
“One of the most prestigious studios of its time, it was patronised heavily by royalty, nobility, Europeans, Indians and a mushrooming upper middle-class; and certain to be commissioned for events such as the Delhi Durbar,” explain the hosts, in the show’s accompanying literature.
“Though Shepherd was also a photographer of some standing, he became more known as a master printer, staying back to head the business side of operations; and was somewhat over-shadowed by Bourne, who soon became the primary photographic expert on India,” adds the note.
Up on the track
Known for his architectural and topographical photography, especially mountain and hill views, Bourne’s work immortalised the Indian landscape and was fervently consumed by the British public — primarily in the form of postcards, book illustrations and views for albums.
The nature of this form of distribution meant that the images were primarily realised in a relatively small size. The show’s catalogue includes an original essay by Hugh Ashley Rayner, the British author and scholar of early Indian photography, on the life and works of Bourne. (A limited edition collector’s portfolio is available for sale, as well as individual archival pigment prints.)
The spotlight is largely on Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), showing stretches such as of Clive Street and Old Court House Street as broad avenues in the city, back in the late-1800s. There are also sparkling visuals from the Delhi Durbar ceremonies and stills of historic sites in Old Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri. Don’t miss the breathtaking shot of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. It’s a singular instance of an image that retains as much of a sense of glory about its visual qualities as it does about the subject.
Bourne & Shepherd: Figures in Time will be on display at Amethyst from July 9 to 16. Details: 45991633
— Jaideep Sen