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Looking at Personal Photos in India Reveals the Self-Image of a Nation


By Christopher Pinney

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Chicago U. Press,

240 pp., $29 Paperback

For anthropologist Christopher Pinney, a proverb sums up the attitude toward popular photography in India: Bahar se kuchh aur andar se kuchh aur (One thing outside and something else inside). In other words, photographs cannot reveal the inner moral character of the sitter - nor would anyone want them to do so.

From this deceptively modest maxim, Pinney has drawn out rich cultural observations on the historical and contemporary uses of photography in India. Like the French philosopher Roland Barthes, whose book on photography, "Camera Lucida," played a key role in his thinking, the author focuses on photography's interactions with everyday life.

The text opens with a brief introduction to Nagda, an industrial town halfway between Bombay and Delhi. In its photographic studios, Pinney locates a vital image-making practice that responds more to the needs and beliefs of the city's residents than to the Western understanding of photography.

Pinney dangles the idea that a flourishing Indian photographic practice contradicts the global dominance of Western documentary media. But this intriguing foretaste of things to come is interrupted by a short history of photography in India.

Photography was first used in India in 1840, only a few months after it was disclosed to the world in France. Rather than inventing new, culturally specific images, most native and colonial photographers adapted the new medium to preexisting Western visual roles.

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Before the lens, differences in physiognomy were exaggerated and made to seem like differences in soul. Ethnographic stereotypes of race and class, which frequently asserted the primitiveness of Indian peoples, found academic approval and ready markets among British colonialists.

Few among the vast numbers of locally run Indian photographic studios made images that were significantly different from European models. Yet by the late 19th century, some photographers had stopped mimicking colonial conventions and had begun to explore the possibilities of overpainting photographs.

By applying paint to photographs, Indian photographers created an image that was more theatrical than literal. Less concerned with depictions of class and race, these painted photographs began to allow Indian sitters to take on symbolic or whimsical personal identities. Bypassing colonially imposed racial stereotypes, some sitters flew planes and rowed boats in front of painted studio backgrounds.

The history of 19th- and early 20th-century photography that Pinney offers is insightful, succinct, and a necessary prologue to the book's argument.

Still it smacks of the lecture hall and library. When the author returns to the photography in the central Indian town of Nagda, the text is energized by the freshness and surprise of closely observed field notes and carefully selected images.

In contemporary Nagda, Pinney claims, Hindu and Muslim belief systems have been resistant to Western theories of representation. Rather than embrace the notion that what happens before the lens has an eyewitness or documentary truth, Nagdarites work with local photographers to create imaginary pictures.

A wedding album may contain heavily painted photographs arranged in flat designs like film posters. In Nagda's popular photography, spacial fantasies gives way to conceptual arrangements of relatives and friends.

Portraits may be borrowed from one photograph and placed in another. Painted backgrounds are frequent, and it does not seem to matter whether the Taj Mahal seen behind the sitter is real or a painted depiction.

In Nagda, images reminiscent of Western surrealism are not uncommon. A head shot of a bride and groom appear on the wings of a vividly colored butterfly. Double exposures and composite prints are widespread. Hyper-reality reigns in memorial photographs, where the photographic image is heavily reworked with color and pen to emphasize a person's physical features, especially the eyes. "Whatever a person wants can be put in the photo," remarks photographer Nanda Kishor. Old black-and-white photographs may be colored. Clothing, jewelry, and mustaches may be added.

Early daguerreotypes, made in photography's first decade, sometimes show sitters enacting personal identities, rather than simply letting the photographer record their physical appearance.

Men and women would often wear clothing or carry objects, like books, handbags, and even other daguerreotypes, belonging to relatives who were not able to attend the photographic session. These home-grown symbols were intended to indicate enduring affection and connection for those not present.

Photography, born of 19th-century science, and thrust into the industrial age, was used by its first clients to go beyond the medium's obvious ability to record external characteristics. These private purposes persisted in popular photography. In Western photography, fanciful everyday applications have long coexisted with the dominant, seemingly unaffected documentary style. Individual high school yearbook pictures allow sitters to put on appearances.

Indeed, the visual conventions of school pictures - from business suits to tree-climbing - chart changes in the cultural archetypes for youths. Today, computer programs permit users to blend, color, and alter photographs. Hardly anyone wants a mug shot on a Web page. But this does not constitute a rejection of Western science. In Nagda, like the rest of the world, driving license, passport, and ID card images coexist with more inventive, personally motivated photo practices.

Pinney's perceptive look at everyday photography underscores how important, yet how inexcusably ignored, is this area of photographic practice. What is common need not be prosaic.

* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

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