The struggle for identity, for culture, for nation is a struggle inscribed in space. Space gives rise to the manner in which this struggle is experienced as well as our experiences of being. According to Henri Lefebvre: “each living body is space and hasits space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space” (Lefebvre 1991: 170). Edward Soja claims we are intrinsically spatial beings and active participants in the construction of our embracing spatialities (Soja 1996: 1). For Soja there is no unspatialized social reality, while Lefebvre argues that to change life, we must first change space.
The camera is a framing device that produces space. The camera lens demarcates photographic space creating a border that includes and excludes thereby conferring value upon all that is seen through the viewfinder. In the nineteenth century the British took the camera to colonial outposts and photographed the land, the people and themselves at work and at play. The camera permitted a visualization of foreign lands with greater veracity than painting or illustration had previously allowed. Much colonial photography participated in a mindset that saw it as a transparent window on the world. By providing what were believed to be factual details, photography conspired to persuade the viewer to the concrete reality of the image before them. Within this paradigm photographs of colonised ‘others’ were constructed and circulated as examples of colonised people’s primitive status, while portrait photographs of British colonials were seen to display evidence of European society’s advanced status. Both were a production of photographic space underpinned by a belief in the ‘truth’ value of everything depicted within the camera’s frame.
This is premised on an understanding of photographic space as a Firstspace. Edward Soja employs the concept of First, Second and Thirdspace to demarcate the various spatial dimensions. For Soja Firstspace is the ‘real’, the concrete materiality of spatial forms of the world, while Secondspace interprets this reality through imagined representations of spatiality (Soja 1996: 6). Much early photography participated in perpetuating the belief that photographic space was a Firstspace. The camera lens merely passively and objectively recorded all that was placed before it. However even in the nineteenth century, many practitioners acknowledged the ability of photographs to lie or distort reality. Concerns regarding framing, perspective and light betrayed an awareness of the deceptions of which the camera lens was capable. And in an effort to align photography with art, the pictorialist movement used soft focus and lighting effects to accentuate the aesthetic and break with verisimilitude. It was a claim for photography as a Secondspace – the space of the imaginary, where the photographer’s artistic sensibilities took precedence over objective recording.
However photographic space is neither a real nor an imaginary space. The camera lens flattens space, it fetters depth to surface – it transforms a three dimensional space into a two dimensional image of that space. While a photograph does have an indexical relationship to space, photographic space straddles the real and the imaginary. It is a combination of both spaces that produces something else. The camera never passively records but always actively constructs. And what it constructs collapses the boundaries between reality and artifice.
As such photographic space has much in common with Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace. For Soja, Thirdspace contains both real and imagined spaces simultaneously. Thirdspace permits an intermingling of the knowable and the unknowable, the real and the imagined by the experiences, events and political choices that are shaped by the interplay between centres and peripheries (Soja 1996: 31). According to Soja, Thirdspace is a place where issues of race, class and gender can be addressed simultaneously without privileging one over the other. It is a space which enables an-‘other’ way of understanding and acting to change the spatiality of human life (Soja 1996: 10). Photographic space, as a Thirdspace, is a site from which to contest the dominant ideologies of Firstspace. This has important ramifications for ‘others,’ especially those disenfranchised by colonialism. It may account for the rise of photography as the preferred medium for many artists today interested in issues of identity and the colonial gaze.
Photographic space engenders performance. It elicits degrees of posing, gesturing and acting especially as familiarity with the space increases. Roland Barthes describes four image-repertoires at play in portrait photography: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art” (Barthes 1984: 13). Here Barthes alludes to the performance of being that takes place before the camera. “I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (Barthes 1984: 10). Photography enacts a becoming. And the performance for the camera affects the residual object – the photograph. Portrait photography and photography of other peoples dominated colonial photography, yet the sitter’s contribution to the outcome of the photograph has been consistently elided in postcolonial discourse. It is naive to assume that all colonised people were unfamiliar with the process of photography and the allure of the image. While there were reports in some encounters of colonized peoples’ ignorance of the camera expressed in an “ncomparable fear…that the pictures remove something of their very being and as a result they will perish,” (Bouquet 1992: 200) there were also reports of how quickly many understood the process and what was required of them (Sharma 1995: 24). Furthermore colonial photographs encompass a wide range of images from portraits of Andaman Islanders, who were photographed in an anthropological investigation of ‘race’ to Indian princes who commissioned their own portraits as signs of their wealth and power; and photographs of Indian dignitaries from whom the British photographer first had to seek permission before taking a portrait. There were also many Indian photographers who took up the camera as a vocation or hobby.
While it is highly problematic to infer relationships that took place in the photography studio in the nineteenth century, an acknowledgment of the subject’s role in the outcome of a photograph undermines the power traditionally afforded the photographer and the photograph. It promotes an understanding of photographic space as a negotiated site produced by both parties. The poses adopted by sitters, their gaze and gesture, together with the vestments and accoutrements worn on the body all contribute to the meanings produced in photographic space. It was a space produced not just by the photographer, but also by the sitter, and even in the nineteenth century this could be a contestation, a contortion, or in accord with the intention of the photographer.
The spatial codes at play in the photographic space of the portrait studio are constructed around a visual logic informed by western painting conventions. Single point perspective, which is characteristic feature of western visual logic, constitutes a privileging of the centre rather than the edge and a general grounding of photographic space in naturalism. According to this method of spatial representation, space is constructed so that the body forms the focal point. Subjects usually sat or stood in full or three-quarter length, slightly angled towards the camera. Photographic space privileged the frontality of the face and the body. It was constructed so as to give meaning to the body housed by the frame.
In late nineteenth century India the bhadrolok was a new western educated group that arose in response to British administration, especially in Bengal which incorporated Calcutta, the seat of British power. Eager to distinguish themselves from the more orthodox Indian elites and the poorer classes, most were proficient in the English language, had adopted some British social customs and wore English dress. Most Indians of this class experienced substantial social mobility as lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists and lower level bureaucrats, but most were thwarted from attaining real power by a system that privileged and protected the British. The plethora of studio portraits that exist of Indian men of this class attests to the power inherent in creating an image of the self performing gestures of authority. As a class that experienced various degrees of disempowerment photographic space enabled the bhadrolok to generate images of themselves as potent subjects within colonialism.
The uniformity of poses in photographs produced at this time is striking. As Christopher Pinney has pointed out there was little variation between Indian and British run studios in India nor the nationality of the sitter (Pinney 1997: 74). In many portraits each man stands with a foot forward, the body on a slight angle, one arm either resting on a chair or positioned across the body so that the elbow juts out into the space around. These were conventions employed in Victorian portraiture to signal the strength and authority of men (Linkman 1993: 46). In a portrait of Albert Abid by Deen Dayal, c1900 (figure 1), studio light falls from the upper right corner creating shadows across the body. This adds a tonal quality which gives a three dimensional appearance and firmly grounds the man in the space of the studio. This contrasts with Indian painting conventions where a flatness of light and colour, together with multiple perspectives, creates the appearance of figures floating in space.. Many photographic portraits of this period employ a diagonal lamp to enable light and shade to play upon the body, thereby adding an earthly realism borrowed from western painting conventions. They were effects of artifice employed to convince the viewer of the reality of the image before them.
Figure 1, Albert Abid, Deen Dayal, c1900
Courtesy Narendra Luther
In a discussion of cinema, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that mass culture replicates sameness through a unity of style in which style’s secret is its obedience to the social hierarchy. In this way humanity as a whole is reduced to a formula. The effort at individualism through the portrayal of heroes and heroines is replaced by imitation (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002: 126). This is also at play in the cartes-de-visite – the dominant mode of studio portrait photography in the nineteenth century. An early commodity of the culture industry, cartes-de-visite were produced in the tens of thousands by hundreds of photographic studios run by both Indian and British photographers across India. The style of the carte-de-visite was not only uniform across India, but also all over the world. This was largely due to the dictates of the culture industry and the mechanics of reproduction which meant that some photographic studios could produce up to a thousand cartes-de-visite per day. Cartes-de-visite were made to a formula and posing was standardised and quick. All employed the same signifiers of success. Studios were furnished with heavy drapes, opulent furniture and painted backdrops to create the impression of wealth and prestige. Classical motifs were combined with symbols of learning such as books and globes of the world to suggest the erudition and power of the individual (Linkman 1993: 52). Poses, gestures, props and settings were repeated in the service of generating a limited range of elevated and intensified identities. Hence the similarity observed in many photographs was also about employing the narrow range of visual signifiers that were available in a scramble to project an image of conformity to the ideal. And because the technology was global, cultural difference was made subordinate to its demands (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002: 136).
Photographs were complex spaces that promoted various degrees of engagement with British ways of being and this varied depending upon the class and caste of the Indian man. While many of the middle class created images that mimicked tropes of whiteness some Indian princes created portraits that foregrounded their difference from the British. Indian princes posed in studios clothed in garments and jewels that were symbols of their status and wealth. A photograph of the Sahib of Morvi, depicts the prince adopting one of the standard poses found in cartes-de-visite. Difference in this photograph is confined to dress. Likewise a photograph of Ram Singh by Bourne and Shepherd, c1877, (figure 2) shows the prince in traditional Indian apparel but again adopting the same pose. Difference is a visual display of exotic splendour and this is conveyed through sumptuous clothing and opulent jewels. The construction of photographic space in this photograph is almost identical to photographs of the bhadrolok. The pose and gestures are similar, what is different is the attire and accoutrements worn on the body. However in photographs like these, there remains an alignment with the British and a desire to signal allegiance to the British Empire. This is betrayed by the fact that each prince wears a British medal of honour. Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 an honour system was introduced to acknowledge the service of both British and Indian elites. Such ornamentation gave rise to a shared sense of Britishness and many princes posed for their portrait in complete regalia as did the governors of Bombay, Madras and Bengal and the Viceroy himself. Hence difference, in photographs such as these, can be seen as a display of some sort of exotic sameness.
Figure 2 Maharaja of Jaipur Ram Singh, Bourne and Shepherd, c1877
However other princes, many who saw the honours system as nothing more than empty gestures, were more likely to use photography to generate images that sat outside a British aesthetic frame of reference. Photographic space in these photographs was constructed with overt reference to Indian visual traditions. An example is a portrait ofRaghubir Singh, by Ganpatrao Abajee Kale, 1900, (figure 3). Bundi was one of the oldest Rajput states and Raghubir Singh resisted implementing modern reforms introduced by many other princes during the late nineteenth century. According to Charles Allen he “lived very much in the past, following the ancient customs of his forefathers” (Allen 2000: 206). In this photograph the prince sits in a distinctly Indian pose of power: cross-legged on an embroidered Oriental carpet supported by a large bolster. He is depicted wearing jewels and holding a talwar (sword) – a potent symbol of princely power and military might that was used in Mughal and Rajput miniatures from the seventeenth century. A similar photograph by Deen Dayal depicts Maharaja Sir Pratab Sing of Orchha sitting on a carpeted dais, his shield before him, two attendants fanning him from behind. Both photographs reference Indian imperial painted portraits. One of the standard conventions for conveying imperial power was to depict the ruler seated on a carpet or dais, usually with a sword, often fanned by his attendants (Jhala 1993: 177-179). In these photographs the princes do not wear medals of honour and photographic space is devoid of the usual paraphernalia of western status found in European portraits. These photographs depict rulers that are resolutely intent upon privileging alterity from British rulers. They are productions of photographic space in which the prince declares a lineage with the long history of Indian tradition.
Figure 3 Sir Raghubir Singh,Maharao of Bundi, Ganpatrao Abajee Kale, 1900
While the similarities between the two photographs and Indian miniatures are salient the resounding difference lies in the frontal depiction of the princes in the photographs. Space in Indian miniatures was not organised around single-point perspective but contained multiple perspectives. Figures were depicted in profile with the more important persons rendered disproportionately larger to the rest. In photographs of this time, space is constructed around single point perspective. Rather than depict the prince in profile, as was the custom, the prince faces the camera directly and is the primary focal point. This is a construction of space that reflects the new visuality of photography in India. Photography promoted new ways of looking and radically altered the perspective employed in portraiture. Previously inconceivable, frontal depictions appear in painted portraits from the late nineteenth century (Brand 1995: 148-149).
Such depictions, which firmly positioned the self as alter to British ways of being, enabled Indian princes to maintain sameness through difference. According to Michael Taussig “all identity formation is engaged in this habitually bracing activity in which the issue is not so much staying the same, but maintaining sameness through alterity” (Taussig 1993: 129). Hence Indian princes, for whom staying the same meant maintaining a hold on their traditional power base in India (a power base that had already been significantly diminished by British administration), created images that privileged difference to resist change and the erosion of their position. This was an important difference to the images of mimesis created by the Indian western-educated middle class. This was a class that was created by the British system of administration but felt increasingly disenfranchised by a system that maintained the rights and privileges of British officials. It was a system that kept Indians, many of whom were the educated equals of the British administrators, employed in clerical work. The Indian middle class felt disempowered by the colonial administration and empowerment lay in changing the status quo. Hence mimesis can be seen as a declaration of difference from past Indian ways of being and an alignment with modernity. In contrast many Indian princes who enjoyed favour with the British had an interest in maintaining the system to preserve their power base and this was translated in a desire to remain the same. Their portraits, which foregrounded difference from the British, can be seen as a performance of sameness with traditional Indian ways of being. Pratibha Parmar argues that the appropriation and use of space are political acts (Parmar 1991: 101). How photographic space is created and occupied is politicised in portrait photographs during colonialism. Photographic space in nineteenth century India was both a product of the ideologies of colonialism and produced those ideologies. But more importantly photographic space, as a Thirdspace, could be a site from which to contest those ideologies. Entering photographic space could be a strategy of emplacement within a field of power deploying signifiers of mastery and status that may not be available in the everyday experiences of the spaces of colonialism.
The legacy of the colonial construction of photographic space is still evident in many portraits today. While the politics have changed and the visual signifiers have altered there is often a continuity both in the performance for the camera and the deployment of architectural motifs and props. Numerous photographs reveal similarities in pose, gesture, props and backdrops. The men all stand in poses that enable them to perform tropes of masculinity that privilege dominance and authority. For example in a portrait of an unidentified man from the Satish Sharma Collection (figure 4). Continuity with the nineteenth century studio is also apparent in the psycho-geography of the contemporary portrait studio. The use of pictorial backdrops, the placement of plinths to the side of the body, the prominence of props that signify power, sophistication and an alignment with the modern all have antecedents in the nineteenth century studio.
Figure 4 Unidentified man, Unknown studio, c1970s
Common props in contemporary Indian portraits include telephones, televisions and motorcycles which have replaced books, maps and globes of the world as signifiers of knowledge and the modern. In postcolonial India these objects permit an alignment with a modernity characterised by the consumption of advanced forms of communication and travel. Within the economy of capitalism the ideal is expressed through the ability to consume. Motorbikes in particular continue to resonate for many Indians and today remain powerful signifiers of a restless contemporaneity. The subject astride a motorbike does not fully belong to the landscape but is depicted passing through it (Pinney 1997: 183). The interstitial space between the scenery depicted in the backdrop and the actual space occupied by the motorbike privileges a masculinity that is racy, vibrant and free and herein lies its appeal. The man on the motorbike is an outsider who flees from domestic entrapment and the fiscal realities of life. Or he is an outlaw experiencing the vicarious thrill of the chase.
These photographs reveal an understanding of the performance required upon entering photographic space. It is an awareness that photographic space is much more than a simple record or trace of Firstspace. This contrasts with the preference for naturalism that dominated much twentieth-century studio portrait photography in countries such as Australia: especially the prevalence of the Pixie Photo franchise where individuals and families sit and blandly smile in front of nondescript, monochrome backdrops. In such photographs it is fidelity to the real, (albeit a reality removed of blemishes), that is sought. In contrast photographic space in Indian portraits is overtly interactive. It is a place where the self can rehearse other possibilities for inhabiting space that can then be carried over to the everyday experience of Firstspace.
While many portraits employ a register of poses and gestures within a visual economy of power that can be traced back to the nineteenth century, other photographs are informed by Indian culture, especially Bollywood film. The self can, but for a moment, vicariously experience the glamour of a movie hero, the thrill of a lawless bandit, the power of a prince or the Arcadian romance of a rural worker through enacting the pose and adorning the body with the accoutrements specific to the character. One portrait photographer observed the tendency of subjects, wearing the costume of film heroes and assuming their iconic stances, to speak the lines from films upon entering photographic space (MacDougall 1992: 122). It was an entanglement of the real and the imaginary which produces something else – a space to rehearse other possibilities for inhabiting space.
In many twentieth century Indian portrait photographs the scene is set by the pictorial backdrop. While the construction of photographic space displays vestiges of the nineteenth century it is the deployment of the pictorial backdrop which most markedly signals a simultaneous allegiance to and subversion of the nineteenth century studio. In the nineteenth century backdrops were painted within a naturalist idiom. Influenced by a European aesthetic, they depicted picturesque country scenes, classically inspired balconies or grand interiors with a deep spatial field in accord with western painting conventions. There was an emphasis on verisimilitude and the desire for fidelity to time and space. The rise of the itinerant portrait photographer in India meant that even lower caste Indians, and people from rural villages could cheaply access the photography studio. The affordability of photography resulted in a vernacular construction of photographic space as photographers competed for trade largely through the appeal of their backdrops. Bright, bold graphics became popular. In contrast to the subdued naturalism of the previous century, backdrops became larger than life caricatures of cityscapes, iconic monuments and verdant gardens. The almost cartoon-like element of many backdrops emphasises the whimsical and subverts the pretence to reality at play in colonial backdrops. The scale of many backdrops in relation to the body, together with the high key palette, flattens both space and the body depicted before it so that instead of affirming a three dimensional physicality of the body, the person portrayed becomes a surface – an image. Rather than a space that records a person, it is a space that creates a personality. It is not fidelity to the real that is sought but an idealized version of the self. Siddhartha Ghosh states that the acceptance and popularity of photographs amongst Indians in the nineteenth century, even amongst the most orthodox Hindu families, was directly related to a photograph’s status as an image. According to Gosh “[a] photographic portrait was not just a slice of reality encapsulated, but an image. A man may die, but that is because he is real, while his soul is immortal and so is his image” (Ghosh 1990: 150). Photographic portraits were valued and even worshipped by Hindus because of the power inherent in the image. According to Satish Sharma portrait photographs in India are “dictated by a belief system that sees the world as maya – an illusion. The photograph now becomes an illustration of an illusion. It draws not just on a religious belief in maya but seems to see life as a leela – a play – enacted theatre” (Sharma 1997: unpaginated).
Photographically rendered backdrops rose in popularity towards the late twentieth century. Through photography’s indexical quality the photographic backdrop makes claims for the authenticity of the portrait that are unavailable to photographs constructed with a painted backdrop. It results in a doubling of photographic space that creates a dislocation with the photographic space of the studio. According to Arjun Appadurai the photographic backdrop is “one part of a double frame in which the photographic subject, as well as photography itself, is contained” (Appadurai 1997: 6). The photographic space of the scene depicted is a conflation of a ‘real’ or Firstspace with the imaginative interpretation of this space that results from framing, lighting, the use of angles and depth of field. This sits within the further construction of the photographic space of the portrait. But even this can be subverted in the Indian studio. In a portrait from the Satish Sharma Collection the photographic backdrop of a mountain scene is juxtaposed beside a patterned fabric which relegates it to the purely decorative. It is not the overarching contextual element which gives meaning to the subject, but a surface accretion.
The seamlessness of photographic space is destroyed in many studio photographs. In one example from a studio in Mumbai, a ninety-degree join in the photographic backdrop creates an L-shaped partition behind a young man, sitting on a table holding an oar between both hands in a simulation of rowing. To western eyes, this disrupts the potential verisimilitude of photographic space. However again it is not realism that is the desired effect, but the performative that is valued. Another photograph depicts a man dressed in garments in the manner of a religious deity. He sits in a pose of meditation surrounded by various objects to signify his humility. The photographic backdrop in this image is nonsensical. It depicts the reflection of a hillside in a lake that is cropped so that it appears to hang down from the sky. However it is the edge of the backdrop that creates the greatest subversion to reality because it is not quite wide enough to encompass the scene. As a result the edge of another photographic backdrop appears. The photograph could have been cropped to hide this intrusion but to do so would serve no purpose. The edge of the photograph, which reveals the alternative scene, together with the ninety-degree join destroys any reality effect by privileging the artifice behind its construction. This can be seen in many photographs that employ backdrops. Coherence of photographic space in Indian portraits is not dependent upon a reconstruction or attempt at mimesis of ‘real’ space. Mimicking reality is never the main objective nor even a desired by-product. Rather photographic space is understood from the outset as a place to enact an identity which likewise is not real but an idealised self. Double portraits also fracture photographic space turning space back upon itself. This is achieved by simply reversing a portrait image thereby creating a mirror double or by exposing two negatives sandwiched together. Such darkroom trickery is popular in Indian portraits. It effectively compresses time and space within the one image.
This understanding permeates Indian portrait photography from the nineteenth century to the present day. It is an understanding that photographic space is a place where the self can be experienced within a complex web of visual signifiers that are not usually available in the everyday experiences of Firstspace. Photographic space can create a spatial reality which allows those who access it to contest, enlarge or in someway recreate their experiences of Firstspace. It never attempts to close off subjectivity or pin identity down, but rather allows fluid and transitory experiments with other ways of being that can then be carried over and inform experiences of Firstspace.
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