New views on past portraits

July 27, 2001

The tremendous growth of photography in Ceylon during the second half of the 19th century - a period of colonial aggrandisement and rapid indigenous social change - provided a fruitful subject for a British Council exhibition that toured latter-day Sri Lanka last year. Titled "Regeneration", this exhibition formed part of a repatriation programme of archival material held in Britain, and was the outcome of research carried out by John Falconer, of the British Library's Oriental and India Office Collection, and Ismeth Raheem, a Sri Lankan art historian. The exhibition was recorded, in fact almost reproduced, in this handsome and informative catalogue.

Why "Regeneration"? Brett Rogers, from the visual arts department of the British Council, explains in the preface: "The title has been chosen to suggest not only the reproductive nature inherent within the medium of photography itself, but to underline the scope provided by this unique body of historical images for reassessment by a new generation of Sri Lankan viewers."

It was inevitable that the majority of the early photographers in Ceylon were either British or European, although an increasing number of Ceylonese began to enter the trade towards the end of the century. The most celebrated of the outsiders was the Victorian portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron, who spent the last years of her life on the island photographing Ceylonese women in a stylised manner.

Cameron, though, was not a commercial photographer of the type prevalent in Ceylon at the time. The work of such photographers invariably fell into certain well-defined categories. Portraits of the pioneering colonists and their families provided a regular income, as did exotic ethnographic studies or "racial types" as they were otherwise known - for which there was an international demand. Plantation views and pictures of coffee, cinchona, tea and rubber crops were popular with agency houses and planters. Photography was utilised to document the engineering work involved in the construction of the island's rail network and to produce publicity material to attract investors. Pictures of archaeological ruins, botanical gardens, elephant kraals, urban landscapes and royal visits also found a market.

From whatever cultural perspective the "Regeneration" photographs are viewed at the beginning of the 21st century, they reveal how the medium symbolised British hegemony and reinforced the divide between ruler and ruled. However, as Rogers cautions: "Ironically, the power of these photographs is the reverse of what they seem - we may think we approach them for knowledge and understanding of the past, but it is the knowledge we bring to them that makes them relevant today. Whether drawn from official archives, as many of the images in the show are, or from family albums, it is those things that often remain unseen by their original makers that give these images their particular power as historical artefacts."

Many of the photographs illustrate this hypothesis. For example, the photographers of "Study of a Girl with a Vase" and "Nude Study" (both 1880s) could not have anticipated that their ethnographic studies would come to epitomise the sexual exploitation of the Ceylonese female during the time of empire. Likewise, the photographer who took the industrial study "General Sifting of Small Pieces of Plumbago" (1880s) could not have foreseen that his picture of children labouring under the gaze of adult supervisors would come to represent the plight of the child worker in Ceylon at the end of the 19th century. As a final example, the photographer of "Tea Plantation, Looking Towards Adam's Peak" (1870s), could not have imagined that his picture of a new estate hewn out of virgin forest would come to be regarded as an example of environmental disaster in the island rather than of economic development.

Possibly the most telling social portrait is an urban landscape used for both the front and back cover of the catalogue. Titled "Street Scene in the Pettah, Colombo" (1880s), it had a long exposure time and so the human throng below the photographer's vantage point took the opportunity of displaying curiosity in what he was doing. Although the photographer must have lamented the tardiness of the process, the result is of benefit today because the sea of upturned faces provides a unique portrait of a remarkable, albeit exclusively male, cross-section of late-19th-century working-class society in Ceylon.

Regeneration contains more than 40 full plates and an illustrated list of the nearly 100 exhibits. Included is a concise history of 19th-century photography in Ceylon by Falconer and Raheem, a useful account of the many technical processes introduced and then discarded during the early years of photography and a biographical index of photographers, local and foreign, who worked in Ceylon at the time. This catalogue should appeal to art historians, social scientists and photographers alike.

Richard Boyle is a British-born writer residing in Sri Lanka who specialises in the visual arts of the country.

Regeneration: A Reappraisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900

Author - John Falconer and Ismeth Raheem
ISBN - 0 86355 444 X
Publisher - The British Council
Price - £17.95
Pages - 95

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