British captain with tricky name buys camera, helps invent photography

Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902) had a long and productive life, which he ultimately left discouraged in one major dimension. He was one of the fellows who joined the British Army because he took a notion to make a living, leaving his reformer mother, his surgeon father, and eleven sibs behind in England. Actually, it wasn’t the British Army per se, but that weird yesteryear model for today’s US armed forces: the army of the East India Company, which until 1857 ruled India for the British Empire.

Tripe spent eleven years in India, finally taking a two-year leave that stretched into four. During that time he taught himself photography, in a big way, with the biggest camera he could buy. The curators of the traveling exhibit, “Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma,” tell us that Tripe learned photography in its relative infancy, when practitioners had to teach themselves some serious chemistry in order to get the results they wanted. He chose the Calotype, a waxed paper negative, partly because he would be traveling and did not want to transport large glass negatives. He also became one of the world’s most accomplished photo retouchers — not to Photoshop people in and out of his prints, but to add highlights to the Indian and Burmese skies.


Captain Linnaeus Tripe, probably the 1880s

I saw this exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; it has also been at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  There are a number of noteworthy dimensions to this exhibit, one being its organizers softpedalling the photographs’ context, the solidifying of British rule over India and its extension into Burma (Myanmar). I’m not sure why the invasion of South Asia is so gently treated here, except perhaps in the spirit of “well, we all know  what that was about, so we don’t need to hammer it again.” Probably, too, the curators wanted to focus on Tripe’s technical and artistic achievements, and thought that another lecture on the cultural brutality of British imperialism would undercut that mission.

I’ve become persuaded that any opportunity we have to mention the consequences of imperialism is a good opportunity, not to be wasted.  The impact of imperialism is still felt, in the forced migration of millions of people escaping poverty, persecution, war, and the collapse of civil institutions in their home countries. To puzzle out the connections between the manic Western expansionism beginning in the early modern period to the roiling civil wars, racial and religious bullying, and capitalist war whoops of today is surely worth our time, particularly since not everybody is interested in doing this. (If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of, ahem….) Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post has offered a sharp set of observations of the ways in which Tripe’s photographs inform us about the multiple dimensions of colonialism, including the probably offensive suspension of a time-keeping ball from the sacred pagoda pictured below, and the photographing of objects not usually even shown to Europeans. Tripe himself as well as those who appointed him as official photographer for the Burma Mission envisioned his job as ethnographic and antiquarian — so we have here a kind of anticipated or accelerated version of the participant observer syndrome: one of those weirdly western phenomena, closely related to our nineteenth- and twentieth-century fascination with the “primitive,” the “exotic,” the “oriental.”


Signal pagoda at Rangoon


Tripe’s photography is heroic, in scale, in scope, and in the supreme effort behind its accomplishment. The curators’ documentation of Tripe’s work is extensive and conscientious, and leaves one exhausted. Not only did Tripe manage all the equipment and processes involved in his style of landscape and architectural photography, but he also traveled in the difficult modes of military personnel in very hot countries in the mid-nineteenth century. (At one point his work was interrupted by the need to recover from a fall from a horse.)


Tripe’s mission’s travel route, thanks to the National Gallery of Art (Washington)

His captures, particularly those in the then Burmese capital of Amarapura, are a stunning gift to historians. Amarapura became a dissolving city when the Burmese capital was moved to Mandalay a bit later. Tripe’s several hundred negatives of Amarapura and the surrounding area offer an astonishing record of a place changing so fast that parts of it were vanishing. And I haven’t begun to tell the story of his wildly productive work in south India over the next few years.


Statue of Gautama in Amarapura, Burma, 1855

I particularly like the sun-and-shadow images of columned pagodas in south India.

The Puthu Mundapum, Madura (the Madras Presidency), 1858

The end of Tripe’s much lauded work for British rule in south Asia was ignominious and hurtful. Sir Charles Trevelyan, the new governor of the Madras Presidency, revoked government funding for the photographic project, arguing that it was a waste of public resources. (Trevelyan is a troubling and contradictory figure in British colonial history — perhaps the chief Liberal architect of the lethal British response to the Irish famine of the 1840s, and later a reforming administrator in India, well -liked by much of the Indian population. Complicated, this history stuff.) Tripe continued to serve in the Army and was promoted to the rank of colonel. His photography tapered off to nothing, however, and in his retirement, which would of course have allowed him full freedom of creativity and technical experimentation, he turned to collecting coral instead.


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