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Book Review
‘The Coming of Photography in India’ by Christopher Pinney
Though India's photography aesthetic continues to evolve, what has hampered the growth of this powerful medium of expression is lack of awareness arising out of lack of sophisticated critical discourse. Photography as a medium has rarely been taught in art schools, so there is hardly any sense of its history or its contemporary practice. However discerning art promoters are willing to wait for the market to build and mature as collectors get ready to embrace new talent. In this context, a new documentation by acclaimed writer-researcher Christopher Pinney holds significance. Was photography in India merely a void, waiting to be filled by pre-existing cultural as well as historical practice? Or was it disruptive, prophesying new social formations, throwing up new opportunities, and focusing anxieties about the new visibility of previously secluded spaces and events? Trying to find the answers to these questions, ‘The Coming of Photography in India’ presents a subtle albeit compelling account of the limits, possibilities, and consequences of the medium. An editorial note to ‘The Coming of Photography in India’ elaborates: “Explaining the dynamic incarnation of photography as cure, poison, and prophecy, Pinney presents a bold analysis that will reward anyone interested in India, photography, or the history of the book. The book presents an account of the limits, possibilities, and consequences of photography. It asks how we should understand the arrival of this new way of picturing the world. Christopher Pinney, after doing his Ph.D. from London School of Economics, served as Visiting Crowe Professor, teaching art history at Northwestern University. A professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at London’s University College, he has held positions at the University of Chicago, the Australian National University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the University of Cape Town. He has also authored ‘Camera Indica’, mapping the social life of Indian photographs & photos of the gods. Pinney has been the editor of several important collections. Photography has endured a difficult creative journey, as the art historian explains, taking the reader through this challenging journey as photography evolved. His narrative has been broken down into three distinct compartments, ‘Photography as Cure’, ‘Photography as Poison’ and ‘Photography as Prophecy’. The chapters collectively present a sophisticated account of the ‘disturbance’ that photography has brought to all of our lives. The book begins with a cryptically imagined event - an exchange between a rich Indian erstwhile maharaja and an obscure photographer for the kind of portrait, still hanging on the walls of palaces of a bygone era. Taking a cue from this encounter, the author observes that the continuous thread, which stands out in Indian photography is our obsession with the ‘sentimental realism of portraiture’. According to him, it is akin to our engagement with democracy since it fundamentally involves the people of India ‘representing themselves to themselves’. A master storyteller, Pinney narrates facts and anecdotes from as long ago as 1839 with flair and a sense of immediacy. Pinney continues to be interested in cultural spaces that conventional social theory has often tended to neglect: ‘more than local and less than global’, and spaces of cultural flow, which elude the west. He has mapped the anthropology and history of India’s visual culture. Central to his photographic thesis are philosophical questions about the very nature of the medium itself. He ponders over issues like: Does a photograph’s endless capacity to be reproduced strip it of profound value? Does photography impose a way of seeing? These assumptions are relevant to our age—when graphic images from war and conflict zones, categorized as ‘documentary photography’, go as art. His research has a clear geographic focus in central India. In fact, his earlier ethnographic research was primarily concerned with village-resident factory workers. Later, he surveyed popular photographic practices and the consumption of Hindu chromolithographs. His well-researched publications combine contemporary ethnography with the historical archaeology of particular media. ‘The Coming of Photography in India’ is a must read for those with an interest in the history of the Indian photography, which is highly relevant in contemporary context.