Escape to faraway climes with this extraordinary collection of photographs of India. The selection offers a mesmerizing glimpse at the exotic, and we’re not just referring to the locale. These portraits of circus performers and prints of Indian palaces, processions, landscapes, and architectural monuments allow us to fathom the ornate history of East Asia in Victorian times.
Captured by photographers and studios working in India in the late 19th century, the images showcase the subcontinent at the height of the British Raj when India was a treasure trove for the Crown. Taken by the likes of Colin Murray, Felice Beato, and Raja Deen Dayal, the works were patronized by the upper crust of the British Raj and Indian royalty just as photography began to replace painting as the primary means of documentation and portraiture.
However, the heat and humidity in India meant almost 95% of these fragile prints, some of the subcontinent’s earliest, did not survive the century. As this particular genre thrived for only about 35-45 years, these few preserved images serve as invaluable and unique remnants of a bygone era.
It’s thanks to collector and renowned photo historian Clark Worswick that this oeuvre has survived at all. What began as a simple purchase at a Calcutta photo shop in 1959, evolved into a 60-year-long hunt for and romance with indigenous Indian photography, making Worswick one of the first collectors of this work. Today, this genre is virtually impossible to find, let alone exhibit to the public.
As the founding curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Worswick found a way to preserve these delicate works without further damaging them. He printed and “reimagined” the originals using state-of-the-art carbon inks and museum-grade papers that have an almost 400-year-long lifespan. In creating these limited-edition archival prints, he ensured this fleeting moment could survive centuries.
Displayed at a time when no museum was showing 19th-century non-Western photography, the collection represents a groundbreaking moment for Asian art, and an opportunity for a wider audience to explore an important and almost vanished moment in India’s much-changed history.