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Architecture and photography


In December 1982, The Art Foundation of Victoria purchased a group of 19th century photographs, including some large calotypes (from waxed paper negatives) by Dr John Murray and Captain Linnaeus Tripe, of architectural subjects in India and Burma in the late 1850s. 

During the first decade of photography, in the 1840s, when the medium was still to a greater or lesser extent intransigent and unpredictable (and it was therefore not yet practicable to work in remote landscape) it seems that photographers using the paper negative/positive process, or calotype, were much drawn to architectural subjects, whilst those who favoured the unique photograph upon a silvered copper plate, the daguerreotype, more often turned to portraiture. 

Photographs of architecture are of particular interest as historical documents for they are images dealing with space in time, and the information within them has not been modified by an artist’s hand as in other print processes. As Richard Pare, Curator of Photographs at the Canadian Centre for Architecture has written: 

There is in the best photographs of architecture an intention of space that can be portrayed through the intention of time. The photographer seeks to reveal aspects of space through his understanding of the effects of time. Time past, in the cumulative age of the building, time present in the photographer’s moment, and time future in our present, are all interwoven, becoming an inseparable unit in the perception of each image. The success of a particular photograph depends largely on the photographer’s interpretation of space through time.1Photography and Architecture, 1839–1939, with an essay by Richard Pare, Callaway Editions, New York, 1982. 

Thus we have the actual information in the photograph (in the sense that it has not been subjected to intervention by stroke of brush or graving tool) from the actual time of taking the picture, under the actual lighting and weather conditions which prevailed – as to brightness of sun, time of day and season of year – giving us a uniquely vivid perception of a particular moment from the past, with an accurate visual understanding of the scene. From such material it is possible to trace the changes that have taken place in the intervening years, and also to appreciate one art through the medium of another. W. H. Fox Talbot very aptly described some of the uses of photography in 1839 – such uses as we have long taken for granted in our familiarity with the medium. 

It is so natural to associate the idea of labour with great complexity and elaborate detail of execution, that one is more struck at seeing the thousand florets of an Agrostis depicted with all its capillary branchlets … than one is by the picture of the large and simple leaf of an oak or a chestnut. But in truth the difficulty is in both cases the same. The one of these takes no more time to execute than the other; for the object which would take the most skilful artist days or weeks of labour to trace or to copy, is effected by the boundless powers of natural chemistry in the space of a few seconds.2W. H. Fox Talbot, ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing’, from The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. XIV, March 1839, reprinted in Photography in Print, ed. Vicki Goldberg, Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, U.S.A., 1981. 

Whilst this neatly defines one of the valuable scientific capabilities of photography, another of Fox Talbot’s lines conveys a sense of its expressive capacity. 

The phaenomenon which I have now briefly mentioned appears to me to partake of the character of the marvellous, almost as much as any fact which physical investigation has yet brought to our knowledge. The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our ‘natural magic’, and may be fixed for ever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy.3ibid. 

The Gallery’s large architectural calotypes by John Murray and Linnaeus Tripe eloquently confirm Fox Talbot’s claims for photography as they are accurate definitions and expressive portrayals of subject at one and the same time. 

John Murray (1809–98) was an English doctor who entered the medical service of the army of the East India Company after graduating in 1832. He became a specialist in cholera and served in many campaigns to improve conditions of health for British troops. He appears to have taken up photography some time after 1849 when he was appointed Medical Officer in charge of the Medical School at Agra. He came to use very large waxed paper negatives, 39 x 44 cm, being one of the earliest to attempt to work on such a scale for he intended to hang his photographs as pictures on the wall. Of course, he had another reason for favouring this scale in that the clarity of the information recorded was greatly enhanced by a large negative area, offsetting the slight fuzziness caused by the fibrous texture of the paper surface. 

The Gallery’s major work by John Murray is a three piece panorama of the Taj Mahal, measuring 350 x 1320 mm, the central piece of which is reproduced here (fig. 1). This panorama dating from about 1857 gives us a keen sense of the building, offset by the flanking mosques of red sandstone, and of its impressive domination of the landscape of winding river and plains sweeping into the distance. In spite of the harsh Indian light, Murray has retained an enviable degree of tonal control. Compare the filigree lightness of the white marble tomb soaring into the empty air against the far horizons of the plains, where tiny trees indicate the deep perspective, with the dark and intricate mesh of foliage in the lower picture, where the garden is bisected by a long fountain pool, and observe the detail in this dark area: it is a photographic feat that is almost beyond the bounds of possibility today. But of course it would not be possible even to attempt this today, for the trees have long been removed and replaced with a more formal arrangement of paving and planting! 

Then we can see the Taj from another angle along the river (fig. 2), rising in aery gracefulness beyond one of the flanking red mosques, which is now seen to be taking up the bulk of the foreground. Whereas in the panorama we are given, as it were, an ideal view, showing the harmonious disposition of the three structures, in the angled view we are made aware of the irregularity and contours of a scene which at first we might have thought to be flat, and we can now appreciate its three dimensional sculptural complexity. 

Linnaeus Tripe (1822–1902) was another Englishman who took up photography while serving in India, but whereas Murray photographed for his own purposes, Tripe worked in an official capacity, first in 1855 for the British Mission at the court of Ava in Burma, and later from 1856, as Official Photographer to the Madras Presidency, a post he filled for four years until it was eliminated by the new administration under the new President, Sir George Trevelyan. At this stage it appears that Tripe gave up photography, but he continued his military career, rising to the rank of Colonel in 1870. He retired in 1875 as an Honorary Major General and returned to Davenport in England, where he died in 1902. 

Tripe also used the paper negative process. Although his photographs are not as large as John Murray’s, many of them have a distinctive and unusual textural quality reminiscent of a charcoal rubbing. This seems at times to flatten out the subject’s three dimensional aspect in order to gain an increased capacity for surface detail, as if the representation was transmuted into a design of low tonal contrast on fabric. Some of the Gallery’s examples are of interior views in temples, which have been handled with great virtuosity considering the technical difficulty of such subjects, where the high contrast between blazing bars of sunlight entering from outside, and alternating bands of deep shade within, is not permitted to exceed the bounds of visual intelligibility. Detail is retained in certain instances with judicious and skilled retouching in the negative, and it is known that sometimes Tripe also painted in clouds by hand. Arcade in the quadrangle, Madura (fig. 3) shows the combination of these characteristics in the interesting surface texture and the successful balance in contrasting tones, with detail retained in the shadow areas. 

Idgar and tomb at Ryakotta (fig. 4) illustrates a nice distinction, Tripe shows the intricate confection of the tomb, fashioned by man, amid the primitive barrenness of a landscape which appears to have been baking under successive centuries of pitiless sun, in spite of the presence of a few plants in the foreground. 

The wonderful material purchased by The Art Foundation of Victoria includes nine pictures by Tripe and three by Murray which are bound to draw forth an admiring response when they are exhibited. All were obtained from direct descendants of the photographers, and thus they have come to us from their authors’ private collections. All are thinly albumened paper printed from waxed paper negatives, the albumened print and the waxed negative both assisting to render detail with clarity of definition. 

Jennie Boddington, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1983).

Notes

1          Photography and Architecture, 1839–1939, with an essay by Richard Pare, Callaway Editions, New York, 1982. 

2          W. H. Fox Talbot, ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing’, from The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. XIV, March 1839, reprinted in Photography in Print, ed. Vicki Goldberg, Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, U.S.A., 1981. 

3          ibid.