Sunday, October 25, 2015

August 21, 2015: Talk on "Photography on glass - When photography came to Madras" by D. Krishnan and S. Muthiah at the Press Institute of India

Attended a beautiful presentation on "Photography on glass - When photography came to Madras" by Mr. D. Krishnan, photo editor for The Hindu and the great Mr. S. Muthiah at the Press Institute of India in Tharamani. Mr. Muthiah didn't look his age and observers would have sworn that he was twenty or thirty years younger.  With his characteristic verve and impeccable English, Mr. Muthiah made it a treat for listeners. Met a few fellow members from the Madras Naturalists Society at the lecture, including General Secretary, Mr. K. V. Sudhakar.

Mr. Muthiah began with a short biography of Harry Miller who, according to Mr. Muthiah, had the largest collection of glass negatives on Madras. The negatives dating from 1880 to 1930 were acquired by Mr. D. Krishnan who catalogued it with the  assistance of Mr. Muthiah.

Mr. Krishnan then took over and explained about the collection. It was interesting to note how the negatives have been painstakingly preserved at room temperature in small handmade paper covers which were in turn placed in boxes made of acid free material all of which were as old as the negatives themselves. That such an ingenious method were used to preserved these negatives a hundred years ago is ironical, especially when we don't use any such methods today.

Mr. Krishnan also gave a brief history of photography before making way for Mr. Muthiah. Krishnan described how the camera obscura had been used for ages with the earliest references going back to the 13th century AD. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the early scientists to have described it. The subject was asked to sit in a closed room and a camera obscura was placed in its walls,. This camera obscura produced an inverted portrait of the subject at the opposite end. An artist would then paint the subject's portait based on the likeness generated by the camera obscura. The first permanent photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826. It required a seven-hour long exposure. Mr. Krishnan also described many of the early processes used such as the daguerrotype, calotype, wet colloidon and gelatin processes. Almost all the plates in  Harry Miller's collection, Mr. Krishnan explained, were either wet colloidon or gelatin.

Mr. Muthiah, then, gave a brief account of the history of photography in Madras. The first photographer to chronicle Madras, Mr. Muthiah said, was Alexander Hunter who in 1850, founded the Madras School of Arts. In the 1850s, the Government appointed three photographers - Linneaus Tripe, Captain Lyon and W. W. Hooper to photograph people and places in the Madras Presidency. They explored the length and breadth of South India to fulfill their mission. The early photographers, Mr. Muthiah said, were the artistic successors of early 19th century landscape painters such as the Daniells and much of their work was of a similar nature.  Linneaus Tripe was a captain in the British army who carried out an official photographic expedition in Burma before moving to Madras Presidency in 1857 as official photographer to the Madras government. His assistant Iyyasamy appears to have taken many photographs of his own in the process becoming the earliest recorded Indian photographer in the Presidency. Hooper captured the Madras Famine of 1877-78, one of his most important photographs being that of rice bags brought by ships lying on the sea shore in Madras. Bourne and Shepherd arrived on the scene shortly later and to the west, they remained the most prolific photographers of India for most of the 19th century.  But their impact upon the growth of photography in Madras was minimal as they focussed more upon the imperial winter and summer capitals of Calcutta and Shimla. The Madras Almanac for the year 1858 lists four photographers, two among them - Maselamoney and Davasigawmoney being Indians. The arrival of Nicholas & Co on the scene however changed things forever. The Nicholas brothers - John and James arrived in 1857 and 1858 respectively and set up Nicholas Bros. in the latter year. In 1864, it became Nicholas Brothers and Co. when their brother-in-law John Parting joined them. But it reverted to its original name of Nicholas Bros. when Parting resigned from the venture in 1865. It became Nicholas and Curths when a Herman Curths joined the venture in 1868. When Curths left in 1873, they settled for Nicholas and Co. once and for all. Nicholas and Co. declined and eventually disappeared in the early 1900s. One of their greatest discoveries would be A. T. W. Penn, who came to India at the age of sixteen and joined the firm in the mid-1860s. He remained their best photographer for a long time and many of those pictures copyrighted to Nicholas Bros. were probably Penn's creations. There exists only one known photograph of Penn and that portrays Penn at his guitar along with Misquith of the music shop, Misquith and Co. Penn left Nicholas and Co. in 1875 and started his own company but he remained always on  friendly terms with the Nicholases. Mr. Muthiah ended the Nicholas' story with a tragic afterword - James Nicholas and his wife Ellen had a daughter who died suddenly aged three due to poisoning. The child's ayah Mary was suspect and subsequently arrested. She was convicted by a local court and given capital punishment. But Mary appealed to the Supreme Court at Calcutta and a retrial was subsqeuently held. This retrial completely exonerated Mary and ruled the child's death as an accident caused by swallowing of harmful photographic chemicals that James kept at home. So, it was the negligence of James Nicholas and not the ayah's  malicious intentions that had caused the child's death. However, within six months of her release, Mary too had passed away. The circumstances surrounding her sudden and mysterious death remain unknown.

From the 1880s, the Nicholas Bros. faced stiff competition from Wiele and Klein, a German firm which specialized in picture postcards. Wiele and Klein employed a fellow German, Michael Peyerl who they admitted in  the 1920s as a partner.

The firm changed hands after the Second World War but retained its name with fluctuating fortunes till a studio fire in 1987 delivered the final blow. Come 1930s and the biggest names of the period were G. K. Vale and Vasan Studios both of whom specialized in wedding photography. Though they did a few landscapes too, photographing landscapes had by then become out of fashion.

After Mr. Muthiah's enthusiasm-filled and information-packed lecture came to an end, there was a short question and answer session. And I had a readymade question to ask. When was the first colour photograph taken in Madras! The first true colour video shot in India as we know was made during the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Were there colour photographs and videographs of Madras that were as old?
But Mr. Muthiah left it to Mr. Krishnan to answer my question. Mr. Krishnan said that he had absolutely no idea when the first colour photograph in Madras was taken but the sports sections of The Hindu started to  switch over to colour in the 1960s. Mr. Muthiah recalled with childlike enthusiasm how while working on a book on the Chettiar community, he came across scores of hand-tinted photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Muthiah concluded the presentation by recalling memories of a visit by a National Geographic Magazine team to his native Sri Lanka. The photographers, Mr. Muthiah revealed, took great pain to click photographs of people and places in the then Ceylon, fishermen, beaches, etc - thousands of them, in fact, but in the end, selected barely a handful of those to be published in the Nat Geo. Thus, Nat Geo must have built a reputation for quality and perfection.

Thus, an interesting lecture came to a conclusion.  I might have left out many points as I simply can't remember them in the absence of any notes. But this description would have given a fair idea.

Mr. D. Krishnan of The Hindu giving an introduction to the history of photography 

 Mr. S. Muthiah begins his "The Story of Photography in Madras"

Klein and his equipment in the Nilgiri Hills

 Dr. Alexander Hunter - founder of the Government School of Fine Arts.

 Rice bags lying on Madras beach (W. W. Hooper, 1877)

 Catalogue of the Nicholas Bros., 1866

 The pier, Nicholas and Curths, 1872.

Mowbray's road sometime before 1881 (Nicholas & Co)

A. T. W. Penn (right) with his friend Misquith (left)

Stephen's Church, Ooty, A. T. W. Penn

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