Tony Korner on Some of India's Earliest Photographs

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Click ahead to discover Artforum publisher, Tony Korner's selections from the upcoming selling exhibition The Great Within: Photographs of India and the British Raj in the 19th Century. Tony is a frequent visitor to India for many years and a great admirer of Clark Worswick’s exceptionally important collections of early Indian photography. The exhibition will be on view at Sotheby's New York headquarters from 14–29 March. 

The Great Within: Photographs of India and the British Raj in the 19th Century
14–29 March | New York

Tony Korner on Some of India's Earliest Photographs

  • Samuel Bourne, View of the Dhal Canal, Kashmir, 1864.
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    If you ignore the Indian figure to the left, this serene view of trees reflecting in water made by Samuel Bourne could be a view of the English countryside he had just left. The image by the great British photographer is of incredible quality considering it was made in Kashmir in 1864. Not surprisingly it won him the Gold Medal of the Bengal Photographic Society that year.
  • Samuel Bourne, The Spiti Valley from Dunkar, Evening, 1866.
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    This is another astounding image of delicate shading as the mountains recede into endless ranges like an painted theatre backdrop. It’s hard to believe that 150 years ago Samuel Bourne organized expeditions of up to 30 porters to climb mountains transporting the heavy and cumbersome photographic material and equipment he needed to take luminous images such as this.
  • Colin Murray, The Palace in the Lake, Oodeypoor, 1872.
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    The Lake Palace in Udaipur, now a luxury hotel run by the Taj Group, is still one of the most beautiful locations in India. The water level of the lake may rise and fall but otherwise it has barely changed from Colin Murray’s time. As in this exquisite photograph the shimmering white marble of the palace is best seen from the lake shore.
  • Attributed to Colin Murray, The Seven Pagodas, Mahabalipuram, 1875.
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    All but one of the “Pagodas” (in fact temples) at Mahabalipuram have disappeared into the sea. This huge boulder on the shore is still there just as by Colin Muray saw it. The scene of the penance of  Arjuna carved into the “living rock” with its stunningly realistic elephants reminds me of the exciting grandeur of Peter Brook’s epic 12 hour theatrical production of The Mahabharata (in Paris, New York and Glasgow) 30 years ago.
  • The Extraordinary Center of 19th Century Bombay, 1895.
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    In the center of Mumbai (Bombay) there are many buildings in Indo-Saracenic-Gothic Revival style (see “Bombay Gothic” by Christopher London, 2002). On the left is the Sassoon Library and on the right the massive railway station. Both still stand today relatively well preserved. Even the lions, just visible at the entrance to the railway building are intact. The absence of anything other than horse-drawn transport, and a rickshaw in the distance indicates it was taken before the end of the 19th century. The sharp focus of the moving figures is surely only possible because in the hands of an expert photographer the strong sunlight allowed for the briefest exposure. Nestle should acquire this image!
  • Raja Deen Dayal, The Char Minar and the City Bazaar, Hyderabad, 1887.
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    World famous Char Minar (four minarets), the monumental four-way arch constructed in the heart of Hyderabad as a mosque in 1591 by King Kuli Qutb Shah supposedly in gratitude for the end of a cholera epidemic, is the symbol of this still powerful city. Raja (Lala) Deen Dayal, court photographer to the 6th nizam of Hyderabad, was India’s most renowned photographer, creating many iconic images, none better known than this one showing the bustle and traffic in the main city market, which looks much the same today.
  • Felice Beato, Chattar Manzil Palace with king of Oudh’s boat in the shape of a fish, sunk in the Gumti River, 1858.
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    The kingdom of Awadh (Oudh to the British) was known for its exquisite craftsmanship, architecture and decadence. The king’s boat in the shape of a fish looks like a Jules Verne-imagined craft.This incredible image is a record of the fantasy which prevailed at court, the boat pathetically broken in two, the head sunk in the river and the tail stranded on the bank. The British annexed Oudh in 1856 and in 1857 sadly after the Great Rebellion destroying many of the lavish highly-decorated buildings of the city.
  • Thousands of Hindu Pilgrims at the Magh Mela, 1885.
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    Uncountable millions arrive every 12 years for the famous Kumbh Mela at Allahabad (in Uttar Pradesh) for the ritual bathing at the point where the three great rivers, the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati flow together. The Magh Mela at Kumbakonam (in Tamil Nadu) takes place every year. This magnificent photograph gives an idea of the packed crowds of men in part of the smaller Mela showing thousands of shaven-headed devotees in the water of the temple tank at Kumbakonam, the largest temple tank in India.
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