DC's National Gallery shows photographs of India, Burma culture in the 1850s

A photograph by Linnaeus Tripe of “Pugahm Myo: Thapinyu Pagoda” taken in 1855, lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/McClatchy/TNS)
A photograph by Linnaeus Tripe of “Pugahm Myo: Thapinyu Pagoda” taken in 1855, lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/McClatchy/TNS) TNS

As the British Empire spread in the 19th century, a young Englishman used his camera to chronicle the ancient cultures of India and Burma.

Roughly 60 prints, and two rare negatives, of those efforts are on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in “ Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of Indian and Burma, 1852-1860.”

Linneaus Tripe was the sixth son, of 12 children, of a middle-class family. He joined the East India Company in 1839 as a Captain, and was sent to India as an officer in the 12th Madras Native Infantry.

The East India Company had started as a trading company but ended up the effective sovereign by forming alliances with local leaders and using its military to put down native rebellions.

Senior Curator Sarah Greenough, Head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery, says Tripe discovered a “country and a people almost entirely under British reign.”

He traveled broadly, drawing, mapping and “by the mid-1860s had photographed and mapped India’s cities, monuments and architectural sites as well as its people and terrain,” says Greenough.

The photos served as raw intelligence information for the Company in administrating the area, construction and the study of art, religion and history.

Photography was not easy during that period. Tripe had brought a large camera with him that made 15-by-12-inch salt paper negatives that demanded long exposures but where more tolerant of the hot, sultry climate then other photographic processes. Two of the negatives are on display in the National Gallery’s exhibit.

“They were often the first photographs ever taken of these (palaces and temples) and thus they provided completely different kind of information than anything made before,” says Greenough.

They were also retouched to bring out details. Tripe would paint in foliage and tree trunks to “give them shape.”

In 1855 he set up a printing studio in India to create portfolios of 120 of his photos. He made 50 copies of the portfolios that he sent to various agencies in the British government and India. Unfortunately, not many have survived.

The Indian rebellion of 1857-1858 marked the end of the East India Company’s dominance. The British government took over. Tripe’s job fell to cost cutting and he returned England in 1860, unable to finish his last project, nine portfolios of his photography, which would have been 17,000 prints.

While he made one more trip to India in 1863, he retired a decade later “discouraged” that his work wasn’t appreciated, and died in 1902. His negatives went to family members and his portfolios languished in government offices and the archives of the East India Company at the British Library.

The National Gallery’s exhibit has drawn on numerous sources worldwide to show Tripe’s India and Burma. It will travel to New York and London.


National Gallery of Art

Washington D.C.

Sept. 21, 2014-Jan. 4, 2015