CAPTAIN LINNAEUS TRIP carved a particular niche in the history of 19th-century photography documenting aspects of southern Indian and Burmese culture. As an officer in the British army, operating under the auspices of the East India Company in the 1850s, he created a visual inventory of celebrated archaeological sites, religious and secular buildings, as well as geological formations and landscapes. Introduced to photography in Britain at a time when it was regarded as a pastime, Trip realised that it could be used as an effective tool for recording unknown cultures, an asset also recognised by the East India Company, which was amassing information on the territories it occupied.
Using large-format cameras and wax paper negatives, Tripe achieved remarkably consistent results, bearing in mind the infant state of photographic technology, and the huge challenges that South and East Asian heat and humidity posed to photographic chemistry, as well as travelling vast distances over rough terrain conveying masses of heavy but delicate equipment. Tripe’s original and particular gift as a photographic documenter was his military training, his images combining the formal rigour of a surveyor and an aesthetic sensibility for composition, attention to lighting and ambience. ‘Tripe’s training as a surveyor, where the choice of viewpoint and careful attention to visual details were essential, are key to the artistic success of his photographs,’ said Sarah Greenenough, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. This was the initial venue for the first major travelling exhibition of Tripe’s work. It then moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and opens in June at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the first show of the museum’s Indian season.
But Tripe’s work is hardly known and underappreciated, receiving little or no recognition in Europe. His images never achieved a general audience, and are little more than a footnote in the history of photography, though the East India Company and his military superiors in India recognised its worth. It is true that his photographic career lasted only eight years from 1852 to 1860, and that his subject-matter was somewhat recondite, in then remote geographic locations. But as Earl A Powell, Director of the National Gallery of Art, DC writes in the Foreword to the accompanying book: ‘His photos were frequently the first to verify the tales of earlier travellers about the wonders of these places, and they are often the only records of buildings and sites that were later destroyed or altered, some of the most striking pictures ever taken of key monuments and archaeological sites… In addition, his carefully executed prints, coupled with his creation of several large and complicated portfolios, make patently clear why his art was hailed at the time as a ‘noble triumph of photography’.
Tripe was born in 1822, one of twelve children. The family settled in Devonport on England’s southwest coast. But being the sixth son, and as was the practice in Europe for many centuries – not favoured by primogeniture or inheritance – he had to make his own way professionally. Burdened by family expectations, that meant leaving England for a military career. With a recommendation from a local patron, he was interviewed by the political and military wing of the East India Company, and in 1839 was accepted as a cadet, assigned to the 12th Madras Native Infantry. At that time the Company no longer held the trading monopoly it once had, though remaining a significant agent of the British government. It administered vast territories and an immense population in the three regional provinces known as the ‘presidencies’ of Madras, Bombay, and Bengal.
Adjustment to life in India was not easy for Tripe or any other foreigner. Sickness and death were constant threats, heat and humidity overbearing. But during his first spell of duty there, Tripe passed exams in Hindustani and advanced his military studies as a ‘zealous, good officer’. After ten years he returned home on leave in 1851, where he soon received news of his promotion to the rank of captain. His discovery of photography might well have come about by the stimulus of seeing its latest developments at the Great Exhibition of 1851. There was avid public fascination with the medium and its new technology. Tripe probably realised its potential as both a science capable of recording information, which would be useful for the East India Company, and as an art form. Mid 19th-century photographers had a bewildering array of choices of photographic processes. He chose the calotype technique that would give him large-format negatives from which many prints could be made; calotype was also more forgiving of the South and East Asian climate. By using waxed paper negatives, intimate detail could be captured for the resulting image. At his own expense Tripe boldly ordered one of the most technically sophisticated cameras available, of a larger format model than normally used by amateurs, and one of the finest lenses. Its ability to produce 12 x 15 inch negatives set him apart at the beginning of his career, as he realised that for him precision and fine detail were of paramount importance to produce high-quality prints.
Tripe first took photographs at the naval dockyard at Devonport of ships undergoing repair, and of HMS Duke of Wellington, a warship dry-docked nearby for a few days. In a style that later characterised his images shot in Asia, he meticulously circled the ship and photographed from different vantage points to create an overall documentary record. This rigorous, disciplined method created results different from the ‘picturesque’ approach favoured by his contemporaries. But counterbalancing what might seem like a dry, unimaginative technique was his daring yet precise sense of composition, fully employing the rising front of his splendid camera.
Tripe returned to India in 1854, taking with him his photographic equipment and chemicals. It was a transitional time in the history of Britain, India and Burma (now Myanmar), and for the East India Company, transformed from the world’s largest and most powerful commercial enterprise into conqueror and then the virtual ruler of large parts of India and Burma. Gathering information to administer this huge area became critical for governing it; the more the Company knew about India and Burma’s cultural and religious heritage, the more effectively it could govern.
To this end, soldiers and civil servants became scholars. They learnt local languages, to survey, make maps, draw, and eventually for Tripe – the opportunity to photograph, providing the Company with an accurate form of visual information. Within a year he set up a photographic printing studio in Bangalore, its climate being favourable to the enterprise. Inspired by his employer’s interests and realising how they could work to his advantage, he embarked on a privately funded expedition to Mysore in southern India, to photograph the temples at Hullabede and Belloor, several bullock carts carrying his surveying and photographic equipment, tents and food over hundreds of miles.
A huge, sprawling complex, Hullabede had been the capital of the Hoysalan dynasty spanning the 11th to the 14th centuries, its temples elaborately and splendidly carved. Tripe’s approach to documenting them echoes the blend of disciplined forethought and aesthetic sensitivity displayed at Devonport. Instead of taking numerous individual picturesque studies, he made a systematic survey recording the temples in a sequence that is topographically and architecturally interconnected. Beginning with establishing shots showing the landscape of the complex, he moved in to shoot the main temple buildings from middle distance, giving a sense of scale and structure. Once he had established the context and the general layout, he took close-ups showing key aspects of the temples’ design and ornamentation. Science and art intertwined in the photography of the intricate sculptural facades. He had to calculate the amount of time needed to make an exposure (light meters had not yet been invented). But he also studied how the light best struck the facades at a certain time of day, so that it played across the surface, enlivening it gloriously. In a shot of an exquisite relief on the Temple of Shiva, the rays of the setting sun highlight and give depth to the sculptor’s work in a narrow, vertical strip, so that the figures become potent with spiritual energy.
Yet Tripe clearly intended that his photos would document the decline of these important shrines before they completely succumbed to natural forces. His sequence of 72 pictures provided unprecedented documentary coverage of the site.
When Tripe’s work at Mysore was exhibited in Madras, it led directly to his appointment as official photographer for a diplomatic mission to the Burmese court in 1855, the jury selecting images for the show reporting that: ‘The jury are of the opinion that Captain Tripe is entitled to a First Class Medal.’ His distinctive combination of photographic skills attracted the attention of the East India Company, which urged the Bengal and Madras Presidencies to ‘employ photography rather than draughtsmen.’ It suggested that photography should be used to ‘obtain representations of scenes and buildings… with accuracy and economy of time and money,’ an important consideration to keep costs under control. When Lord Dalhousie was preparing for his mission to Burma, he wanted to employ a photographer, and was aware of Tripe’s successful showing at the Madras exhibition.
Burma lay at the farthest reaches of the East India Company’s dominions, but its hostility was a constant threat, and a closed nation for generations, except for a handful of traders, missionaries and military men. Due to the accession of a new king diplomatic negotiations had been opened and Burmese envoys visited India in late 1854. Dalhousie was keen to make a return visit to sign a peace treaty, and also take the opportunity to study and gather information on the country. Tripe’s preparations left nothing to chance for a trip expected to last months. He had tin chests covered in waterproof material to safeguard his photographic equipment and chemicals. As it turned out, he spent three months working under the most arduous conditions and created a portfolio of 120 photographs, cogently revealing aspects of Burmese culture, architecture and landscape for the first time.
Systematic as ever, Tripe numbered his negatives from arrival in Prome to the mission’s conclusion in Rangoon. But on this expedition he added scenic shots as well as imperial and domestic architecture to the anticipated documentation of cultural and religious subjects. Tripe and the mission party were the first explorers to visit and record Upper Burma. On arrival at Pugahm Myo temple complex they experienced a profound sense of awe at its immense scale and magnificence, speaking eloquently to them of the antiquity and sophistication of Burmese civilisation dating back to the 1st century.
Arriving at Amerapoora, the ‘Golden Royal City’, the mission’s ultimate destination, Tripe was permitted to wander through the streets alone or with an interpreter, taking photographs. He sought out interesting views and significant buildings, sequencing the results as if he were taking Dalhousie and the directors of the East India Company on a personally conducted tour. With his customary careful planning, he calculated the best viewpoint and time of day to capture the most expressive light. He was given a ruby ring and four lengths of silk by the king in recognition of the favourable impression he and his comrades had made. Dalhousie acknowledged that photography with its ‘objective gaze’ offered a distinctive advantage, Tripe’s Burma portfolio, though unheralded at the time, securing his place in history among the luminaries of European photographers of the period.
A pivotal moment for Tripe’s career happened in 1856, when he was appointed official photographer to the Madras Presidency. He would now be fully occupied with photographic rather than military matters, and as he said – this work would be the ‘first attempt at illustrating in a complete and systematic manner the state of a country by means of photography’. His brief was southern India, an area laced with sacred sites, including India’s holiest temples for Shiva and Vishnu. Overlaying at least a thousand years of what is now Tamil Nadu’s culture, was British conquest and modernisation introduced by the east India Company, both of which he was detailed to record.
Tripe headed for Madura (Madurai), to the Hindu temples of Seeringham and Tanjore, renowned for the scale of their construction and the elaboration of their decoration. Along with a few picturesque landscapes, judiciously he also included a few subjects reflecting British rule. Technically, the stupendous height of some of the architecture required using the rising front of his camera to its very limits. He also used deep, receding perspectives to dramatise open doorways into arcades leading to the most sacred core of a temple, intimating a pilgrim’s journey from the outside world to the spiritual.
This body of work in south India generated 290 large-format negatives, which is stunning considering the amount of retouching he did on them. From these he made nine portfolios containing a total of 17,745 prints ordered by the government. He also produced a 19-foot-long panorama entitled Tanjore: Great Pagoda, Inscriptions around Binanum (1858), the first of its kind in photography, recording the ancient Tamil inscriptions that run around the base of the Brihadishvara Temple at Tanjore. Occasionally he allowed himself to convey awe and sublimity in his images, and an overwhelming sense of tranquillity radiates from these images.
However, all was about to change for him. With overwhelming problems including illness, lack of chemicals and the monsoon, progress in producing that daunting number of prints, 17,745, was worryingly slow. He was still mounting and finishing them in 1860, 18 months after starting. Meanwhile the new Crown colony of India, which had nationalised the East India Company, had begun reforms, questioning every system and expense. Tripe was forced to close his studio in 1860, after which he all but abandoned photography at only 38. Forced to complete his military service in order to draw his pension, he stayed on in India for 13 years, returning to Devonport in 1873. He died of ‘senile decay’, into which one could read – disillusionment and disappointment – his photographic achievements not acknowledged.
BY JULIET HIGHET
From 24 June to 11 October, Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India & Burma, 1852-1860 at the V & A is part of the V&A’s India Festival. The eponymously named book/catalogue is: ISBN 978-3-7913-5381-4.
The India Festival marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum’s Nehru Gallery, which displays some of the most important objects from the V&A’s South Asian art collection produced between the 16th and 19th centuries,