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The Kodak India Album: Colonialism, Local Histories and Amateur Photography

The gelatine silver process had been the most common way of taking black and white photographs in the late 1880s and would come to dominate the Twentieth century. This process involved using an emulsion of gelatine, silver nitrate, and bromide onto glass plates which were exposed to form negatives, that could then be developed and printed on paper. The gelatine silver negatives could be developed weeks after having been exposed, unlike the older Wet Collodion process, where a portable dark room was required to develop the exposed plates immediately. This allowed photographers to carry silver bromide plates with them everywhere and develop them later, reducing the amount of chemical equipment that needed to accompany a photographer to different sites.

In 1888, the invention of the first roll-film handheld Kodak camera by George Eastman gave photographers the option to send their film to the Eastman factory to be developed. To be a photographer, one no longer needed to understand the chemistry behind the development of photographs, making photography accessible to the wider public. These developments took place during the height of the British Empire in the Nineteenth century. Against the backdrop of technological advancements in steam shipping and railways, amateur photography made the colonies much more accessible. Imperialism became a domestic pursuit.

A Kodak album in the collections of the University of St Andrews (AN-1) offers a good example to understand the role of amateur photography in the visualisation of empire. This album, from c. 1880-1903, contains twenty gelatine silver print of views from India, potentially including portraits of the photographers themselves. While the identity of the photographers is unknown, most of the photographs appear to have been taken in the Bengal region, including Calcutta. In containing photographs of the British photographers along with sites from India, the album is like other colonial family albums, such as the albums of the Maitland-Dougall family in the University’s collections (ALB-86). These albums sought to situate the coloniser in colonised spaces, and when viewed in the mother country, tied these individuals to the larger imperial project.

Photograph of the inside of a church showing pankhas, c. early Twentieth Century Bengal (AN-1 003).

The Kodak album opens with a photograph of the inside of a Church (AN-1 003). Hanging from the ceiling in the photograph are pankhas, or hand-operated ceiling fans, typically used by the British or affluent Indian classes during the gruelling summers. These were rectangular devices made from cane and covered in cloth, attached to a rope that was ordinarily pulled by an Indian servant, called the pankhawallah. By pulling the rope, the servant was able to produce a draft to keep the room cool. This was a laborious task, and often resisted by the pankhawallahs on grounds of exhaustion, making them victims of racial violence. With the pankhas hanging from the ceiling, the altar, and the pews below, richly decorated with flowers, the photograph is symbolic of human presence, although there are no human figures present in the photograph. The vine-like plants, creeping up to cover half of the backwall, the potted plants in the corner of the room masquerading as little trees, and the overwhelming presence of the blooming flowers gives the illusion of being in a jungle. Colonies were often projected as spaces of wilderness, untouched by civilisation and modernity. Christianity, on the other hand, was closely tied to the colonial civilisational mission, and religion was a means to both justify British presence in India and the continual exploitation of Indian land and labour.

Imambara on the river Hooghly with clock tower on the left (AN-1 004).

The album is dominated primarily by views of the river Hooghly, beginning with the Eighteenth-century Hooghly Imambara (AN-1 004). This was a structure on the western bank of the river, dedicated to ritual mourning by Shia Muslims. In the photograph, the clocktower rises distinctly towards the left, part of a newer, mid-Nineteenth century Imambara rebuilt on the ruins of the older structure, patronised by Haji Muhammad Mohsin, a prominent Bengali philanthropist. The new structure was completed in c. 1860 and would have been in its heyday when the photograph was taken. It is one of the two photographs of the Imambara included in the album.

Photograph of Indian boatmen with a small boat full of jute (AN-1 005).

Four other views of the Hooghly include photographs of boats on the river. As a river, the Hooghly was very important in the colonial imagination. The English were first allowed to sail up the Hooghly in 1669. By the end of the Seventeenth century, different European powers were competing for control over the river, with the English emerging as the principal traders by the early Eighteenth century. One of the views of the Hooghly is a photograph of Indian boatmen with a small boat full of jute (AN-1 005). Jute was a cash crop grown in Bengal, and by the mid-Nineteenth century, was imported into Dundee, which became one of the biggest manufacturers of jute in the world.

Postcard showing shipping on the river Hooghly in Calcutta, early Twentieth Century (RNWS-13-103).

An early Twentieth century postcard (RNWS-13-103) in the collections at the University of St Andrews provides a glimpse into the busy waterway of the Hooghly, at the time this photo album was created. It depicts the river full of cargo ships, and smaller boats belonging to both the British and Indians, reflects the ties between tourism and imperialism. The presence of these photographs in the album exposes those ties, connecting the Hooghly to a violent history of cash crop production and its roots in local histories of Dundee and the University of St Andrews.

The last photograph in the album is that of the Jubilee Bridge, a railway bridge built over the Hooghly to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 (AN-1 026). It was only 200 metres from the Imambara photographed in the album. Its inclusion in the album along with other photographs of stately celebrations possibly explains why the photographers were in India. One of the photographs in the album is of a bazaar with buntings and a banner hanging between the rooftops of the shops (AN-1 009). The banner reads ‘HAIL RULER OF BENGAL,’ while the two photographs on the following page are of a stately procession of elephants (AN-1 010 and AN-1 011).

Detail from (AN-1 009) showing banner with words ‘HAIL RULER OF BENGAL’.

Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1887, and this marked the beginning of three grand Durbars (1887, 1903 and 1911). Durbar is a Persian word meaning ‘court.’ In a colonial context, it refers to the imperial mass-assemblies marking the coronation of an Emperor or Empress of India to confer ritualistic significance to the British Raj. It is possible that the photographs were being taken around the time of the second Durbar in 1903, which marked the coronation of Edward VII. As imperial propaganda, art and photography from the Durbars sought to present a picture of a peaceful transfer of power to the British and stability of colonial rule. The Kodak album perhaps seeks to preserve that picture of stability through the photographs of the processions and older symbols of imperial power such as the Jubilee Bridge. But it presents an illusion of political stability. The time-period of the Durbars coincided with the rise of independence in India, from demands relating from increased political representation for Indians to Swaraj, or self-governance.

Albums such as this throw light on how the local was intrinsically tied to Empire. For imperialism to sustain, local memory had to conform to larger ideas of colonial collective memories – Christianity and civilisational missions, commerce, and jingoism. The Kodak album contains no explicitly violent photographs. But it is testament to violent histories, and how amateur photography is just as political as state-sponsored colonial photography. A postcolonial reading of such artefacts therefore requires a critical engagement with the subject matter and raises questions about how we interpret colonial collections at the University of St Andrews.

Blog written by Aqsa Ashraf, Collections Trainee, University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums.

Check out an Exhibit on the Album below. Or check it out at this link.