It’s exceedingly rare to come across a new – and virtually unknown – master photographer who, when photography was in its infancy, produced an outstanding body of work, then vanished. But this exhibition, Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852 -1860, makes a persuasive case for inserting Captain Linnaeus Tripe into the pantheon of early practitioners of exceptional talent:
Photography was less than twenty years old when, in 1851, Captain Linnaeus Tripe, an officer in the British East India Company, returned to England after his first deployment in India. He both discovered and taught himself the new medium of photography and, as his early images of England reveal, displayed both superb technical ability as well as the eye of an artist. No doubt his training as a military surveyor also contributed to the precise and disciplined quality of his work. Interestingly, like many other early photographers, he felt free to retouch skies and foliage, to convey what his images could not yet reproduce.
In 1854, Tripe returned to India with the intention of photographing the south Indian province of Madras, where he was posted. This exhibition — which for the first time brings together for American audiences the body of Tripe’s work – begins with his earliest English photographs (1852–54), moves to those created on expeditions to the south Indian kingdom of Mysore (1854), as well as to Burma (1855), and then back to south India (1857–58).
Tripe pursued his project on his own for two years, then convinced the East India Company that photography was the ideal instrument for recording and conveying information about places, people and cultures largely unknown to the West. His mission also may have served as a good “cover” for British colonial interests in India and Burma.
Using large-format waxed-paper negatives, Tripe achieved remarkably consistent results despite the heat and humidity, which posed constant challenges to photographic chemistry. Whatever the mixed motivations of Tripe, a British army officer, and the diplomats with whom he travelled; he worked with extraordinary speed and dedication. ln just six years, he produced more than 290 large-format (12’by 15”) negatives, and close to 25,000 prints, many of which, at the time, were lauded as triumphs of photography.
Elliot Marbles and Other Sculpture from the Central Museum Madras: Group 26
Medieval Indian Statuary in the Central Museum, Madras, May–June 1858
Albumen silver print from dry collodion on glass negative
Tripe introduced to British eyes some of the first images of celebrated Muslim and Hindu temples, as well as palaces and forts, many of which still attract worshipers, scholars and tourists. He also captured the beautiful and fairly unknown natural landscapes of Burma and India.
Tripe’s ambition to photograph the whole of India was derailed by the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Control of India, “the Jewel in the Crown” was transferred from the East India Company to the British government, which promptly trimmed expenses, cut Tripe’s program and ended his mission. Tripe never took another photograph, eventually retired, returned to England, and his work largely disappeared into the fog of history. Now it is restored to us in all its beauty and, especially for students of the history of photography, well worth a visit.
The exhibition, organized by Mia Fineman, Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs at the Met, was conceived by Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Art, Malcolm Daniel, curator in charge at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Roger Taylor, professor emeritus of photographic history, De Montfort University, Leicester. It was on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, and will travel to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London (June 24 to October 11, 2015).
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographs of India & Burma From the 1850s
February 24 – May 25, 2015