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Photography in India (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Aileen Blaney and Chinar Shah (eds). 2018.
Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice
London, Oxford: Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781350027909

The book, giving space and voice to thinkers and writers from various part of the world, depicts how photography in the Indian context had a special role since her first appearance in 1840. It is a stimulating read for anyone passionate about Indian culture, history, and society. Aileen Blaney and Chinar Shah organized the publication in two part: the first one is ‘Photographic time and memory’ and the second one ‘Photographies in contemporary India’. The first part is a collection of different articles related, principally, to historical events: colonial-, post-independency-, and Indian emergency times. India in the mid-19th century was characterized by British Imperialism, this period coincided with the invention of photography in Europe. Historical documentation reported that in January 1840, daguerreotype cameras were for sale at the Calcutta bookseller Thacker, Spink & Co. Photography was an important tool for the British government during the colonial time as photos were an essential part of ethnographic research (p. 4).

The double female perspective of the editors selected very particular points of view. Denise Wilson writes about Lady Dufferin, a woman from an Irish colonial family living in Simla, who started taking photographs in India from 1885; due to her position she took images of palaces, temples, landscapes, and vice-regal staff, with a unique position between the domestic and colonial view. Sabeena Gadihoke narrates about Homai Vyarawalla, officially the first woman press photographer. Vyarawalla was really passionate about fashion and her pictures show the pleasure of dressing up, for both Indian and expatriate women. She took pictures during fashion shows and also of female subjects posing for solo pictures. Gemma Scott in her article analysed the use of the photos during India's Emergency (1975–77) with a particular attention to the women’s presence. The analysis was made taking in consideration, the typologies of photos published in the pages of the Congress Party's bulletin Socialist India, that used images to reinforce the popularity of the Party. This visual narration of the Emergency suggests a dominant and strong support from women for the Party . Scott ends the article by noting that these visual narrations can contribute to the debate whether photos should be used as historical sources beside the simple written sources (p. 98). Chaudary and Pinney, in two different articles, were describing how photos can be transformed: Chaudary describes the photos of the Pakistani artist Imran Channa who used graphite to render photos into drawings which he then used to bring out particularities in the photos. The writer liked this method of interpreting as a practice against the mystified appropriation of the past. Pinney wrote about different artists and their tactics of ‘post-dating’ practices, including: copying, deform, de-synchronize and re-synchronize. The author was interpreting these works as documentations of the spectrality of the past in our present.

The second part of the book ‘Photographies in contemporary India’ is also a collection of articles, but as the section title explains, this section is depicting the contemporary notion and the use of photography in the Indian context using several different examples. This part includes the topics: state documentary photography in the production of narratives of statehood, the widespread phenomenon of the selfie, the use of images during the riots in Gujarat of 2002, the satellite images in India, the missing images on the net and a new thought about rural India images. Kathleen Wyma writes about the work of Bhaskar and Arunkumar: the first is the creator of the Farm, Farmers, Workers photography series and the second of The Guardians and the Dark Field series, both of them are using the images of rural labour in a raw way, to underline the reality of certain rural social and economic spaces. Cinar Shah describes, from her memory, the riots in Gujarat, a terrible atrocity against Muslim families. Photos from the frightening event can transcend the trauma in itself and add new meaning to it. The chapter analyses the relation between trauma, photography, photographer, and the point of view. Fabien Charuau writes about the algorithmic expression of the images to be rendered on the net, reflecting about networked digital images existence and the perception of them.

The book Photography in India will become, with the passing of time, a reference for understanding the history of photography usages in India, from the day of publication until these days. What makes this a very interesting book are the various voices presented in the two sections. Intellectuals and writers gave different points of view, opening up fruitful cultural dialogues!

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