The April 1902 photo is titled “Their Excellencies Lord and Lady Curzon With First Day’s Bag in Camp” and is part of the new exhibit “India Through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
It shows Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, with pith helmet atop his head and hands jauntily jammed in pockets, and his lady, also wearing a pith helmet and holding a fan. At their feet is a bloody and quite obviously dead tiger.
“I love this because it epitomizes what India was under the British,” Rama Deeva of Potomac said at an opening reception for the exhibit at the Sackler last Thursday night. “They were the rulers. They had this grand life. All they did was hunt and live well.”
“This is very nostalgic for us,” added Manjulika Ghosh, referring not to the era of British rule, but the panoramic views of her homeland mounted at the beginning of the exhibit. Both she and Ms. Deeva are in their late 30s and hail from Calcutta.
The 135 photos were taken at the time of British rule, better known as the Raj. Most of the prints were made from glass plates on paper coated with albumen (egg white) and salts. Besides the panoramic views, the exhibit includes images of architecture, monuments, elaborate ceremonies and everyone from tribal leaders to princes and maharajahs.
“The exhibition does, of course, reveal an awareness of imperial attitudes,” curator Vidya Dehejia told the reception audience, “but it never foregrounds these attitudes.”
One of her aims was “to present photographs as works of art and detach them from their all too frequent status as documentary material,” she said.
The images are politically neutral, but she concedes that the accompanying text might “give them that edge.”
Milo Beach, director of the Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, called the photographs of India “among the most evocative photographs of a past historical period that we have.
“It’s easy for people to relate them to paintings and to kind of gauge what cultural encounters are all about when two different kinds of people come together, because the British view of India is very British.”
The exhibit combines photos from the Frick and Sackler collections as well as from the British Library’s Oriental and India office.
Ms. Dehejia, deputy director of both the Freer and the Sackler, said that within six months of Louis Daguerre’s 1839 announcement of his newfangled photo process — the daguerrotype — cameras were available in Calcutta. By 1856, photo societies had sprouted up in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
“The golden age of photography in India coincides with the golden age of photography in the British world,” said Ms. Dehejia, who hails from Tamil Nadu in southern India. “I thought that it was time to highlight the achievements of early photography.”
The exhibit, which runs through March 25, also asks members of the general public for their own photos of India. The pictures will be part of an on-line exhibit and a community photo album at the Sackler. For more information, the Web site is www.asia.si.edu.