San Francisco, CA 94102
The Asian Art Museum highlights a new group of historical photographs in the second installation of the exhibition Photographic Memories on view from August 27, 2009 through January 17, 2010. The images reflect varied perspectives on the lives people led in Asia, and record travels people took there at the end of the nineteenth century. These views are controlled by the lens of Western and local photographers and are informed by their personal visions, official missions, and commercial motivations.
The majority of the 41 works on view document life in colonial India. The remaining feature China, Japan, and Korea. The subjects range from picturesque landscapes to formal portraits of princes and the photographs date mostly from 1850–1910. Photographic Memories is housed in the intimate Tateuchi Thematic Gallery located on the second floor of the museum between the Korean and Japanese galleries. Consistent with most Tateuchi Thematic Gallery exhibitions, Photographic Memories was organized by the Asian Art Museum and features works solely from its collection.
First developed in the early 1800s, photographic technology was made marketable in Europe in 1839 and in Asia shortly afterward. A photographic demonstration was done in India only a few months later. European photographers were active in Hong Kong and other Chinese trade ports as early as the 1840s. In 1848 a local merchant became the first to purchase a camera in Japan, and the earliest known photographs of that country date to about 1853.
The influence of European painting traditions on early photography can be seen in the choice of subjects and compositions. Throughout Asia, photography was practiced by European and local professionals and amateurs. In India—then part of the British Empire—colonial government officials also used the new medium to create official documentation and surveys. Images of people and places in Asia were produced largely for the Western market; yet, the number of photographs, especially portraits, that survive in Asia itself indicates that there was also an active local market.
Many of the works on view were at one time mounted in albums. Such albums primarily functioned as personal mementos. Photographs showing a wide variety of subjects—city views, landscapes, architecture, staged portraits of “ethnic types” and much more—could be purchased at studios catering to the tourist trade and situated in the important cities of Asia.
Though these albums reveal the varied individual experiences of those who selected and purchased the pictures, most of the owners’ identities have been lost. An exception is one of the Japanese albums on view. It was commissioned by a Bay Area resident, Mrs. J. H. Strobridge, during her trip to Japan in 1890–1891. In the exhibition, the album is opened to display scenic views of a popular tourist destination. Nikko, located north of Tokyo, was famed for its views of Mount Nataisan, Lake Chuzenji, Kirifuri Falls, hot springs, and architectural monuments; it was one of the stops on Mrs. Strobridge’s itinerary.
All of the photographs in the exhibition on colonial India are from the celebrated collection of Dr. William K. Ehrenfeld which the museum acquired in 2005. The works feature the people in India—the British, Indian royalty and elite, and locals—and the architecture and landscape of urban and rural India. Together, these photographs succeed in being more than personal memories. They offer a glimpse into the ambivalent relationships between the colonizers and colonized, touch on issues such as perceptions of the ‘other’ and cultural assimilation, and comment on the political and social realities wrought by modernity and a changing world at the turn of the century.
The photograph of a British officer standing in front of the memorial monument in Kanpur—the site of a massacre of British civilians during the 1857 uprising of Indian soldiers—expresses the intermingling of the political and personal in the colonial experience. The monument was a highly charged symbolic site and stood at the center of a park that no Indian was permitted to enter until after independence in 1948. It served as a ‘pilgrimage’ center for British travelers, while claiming the Indian landscape into British history by implicitly reaffirming the sacrifices of those who lost their lives.
The popularity of photography was not restricted to European practitioners, patrons and subjects. Members of elite Indian society—royalty and otherwise—also embraced the medium. Important Indian photographers are known, as are the identities of some of their subjects. The range of subjects featuring the Indian elite parallels their British counterparts, and includes official, individual and family portraits.
The two portraits of Maharaja Pratap Singh reveal the different yet interdependent worlds inhabited by Indian royalty in the colonial period. In one photograph he is dressed in western military attire and an ornamented turban; in the other he is wearing a silk robe, headgear, and jewelry that mark the status of an Indian king. Maharaja Pratap belongs to the class of Europeanized Indian royalty who shared cultural spheres with the British, yet remained first the ruler of an Indian kingdom, responsible for his subjects’ well-being.
Photographic Memories was organized by the Asian Art Museum. It is made possible by support from Rajnikant and Helen Desai. Display of the museum's collection is made possible by Bank of America.
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