Street and Studio:
Popular Commercial Photography in
India and Bangladesh

Alastair McNaughton (photography)
Alec McHoul (commentary)


Cox's Bazaar, a beach resort on the south east coast near the Burmese border, is where the Bangladeshi middle classes take their holidays. Established by a British army officer, Captain Harry Cox, in 1799 as an asylum for the Rakhine – Muslim refugees from Burma1 – it's a bustling fishing port with swimming facilities and hotels in a range of prices and amenities. It also gives tourists an opportunity to have holiday photographs taken, not just in situ, in the town itself, but also in the imaginary – "as if" they had taken much more exotic and expensive overseas trips. It offers, that is, pictures of holiday dreams come true in the form of tangible evidence: the photograph that cannot lie but, at the same time, always speaks of its own contrivance (Plate 1). (OR: View All Plates in a new window)

The photographer here is a Hindu in a Muslim country, a man of low social status. Unlike the strictly street-based photographers, he has a small studio, even though it's no more than 12 ft square – a cupboard at the rear acts as a darkroom while, at the front, a small window displays samples of his photographic wares. There's a variety of backdrops stacked against the wall, each representing an imaginary scene to be chosen by the client – or else the curtain can be drawn across the field for a plainer background. The backdrops are made of canvas stretched on frames, painted in bright and alluring colours. The two-dimensional motorbike, however, is the only prop that this particular photographer offers. (The Coke bottle behind the bike isn't a prop: it's insurance against the frequent power cuts when it's used to hold a candle.) Other studios offer more, so that elements can be chosen and combined to give the most remarkable effects (Plates 6 and 7).

The backdrop in Plate 1 is a rough-and-ready view of the Taj Mahal presumably from the North, across the Yamuna River – as opposed to the more familiar, indeed iconic, view from the South along the main causeway. In a studio in Cox's Bazaar, though, it's an exotic Indian scene. At the same time, it carries important relevances for Bangladeshi tourists as a distant but desirable destination, for the monument was originally built between 1631 and 1653 by a Muslim, Shah Jahan, in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal as a love token and a monument to Muslim women. The Taj Mahal is designed as a mosque but is largely secular – it doesn't face Mecca, though it's inscribed with verses from the Koran in Arabic. 2

In the space of the imaginary, then, it is the signifier of foreignness and exoticism par excellence – a place that would be ultimately desirable as a holiday destination but which is out of reach financially; for overseas holidays are very rare commodities even for middle-class Bangladeshis. While the Taj Mahal is old, the motorbike signifies modernity and so the two may be seen to sit together incongruously, even surrealistically. But the motorbike has much in common with the historic monument: it too gives the effect of opulence in a country where most people walk, use pushbikes or public transport. (And this is quite distinct from India where there's now a substantial nouveau riche who routinely tour abroad.) So the photos are used in quite particular ways then: as simulacra of wealth and exotic holidays; to be sent to friends and retained as keepsakes of events that happened only in the imaginary; and they act perhaps as a form of compensation for the actual, since Cox's Bazaar itself is rather seedy and garish.

Street photography as such (as opposed to the inexpensive studio) is even more down market. The difference is not unlike that between seaside studio portraits in, say, Blackpool, and quick fairground shots where clients put their heads through painted bodies to look like carnivalesque characters. Kishan, the street photographer in Plate 2, has been using the same wooden camera and the same single backdrop for 33 years. Both have been repaired many times and the backdrop shows obvious signs of wear and tear and running repairs – though Kishan also owns a plain backdrop for official portraits.

The backdrop scene is imaginary, a palatial gardenscape, and, again, unrelated to the actual street location in Pushkar (NW India). The price of a finished 5x6 inch black and white photo here is between 20 and 30 rupees (under one US dollar but a considerable sum locally, representing about the cost of a basic meal). These, then, are the basic parameters of Kishan's trade which he learned as a young man from an older master photographer (his "guru").

And the trade he has learned, as it turns out, is a remarkable one. The camera he uses probably stems from the turn of the century or even earlier and operates in an intriguing way. It remains a fixed distance from the object (about 6ft). Kishan loads the camera with negative paper (Kodak commercial photographic paper). He exposes the paper by taking off the lens cap (there's no shutter) and counts to guess the exposure time – 2 to 3 seconds in daylight and 15 to 20 seconds in subdued light. During the exposure of the paper, the client must stay utterly still and not blink or change facial expression or else a blur will result. To end the exposure, Kishan replaces the lens cap. To develop the print, he uses the back of the camera itself as a kind of darkroom. Inside there is a tray containing homemade developing fluid. He pulls the paper out from behind the lens and dips it in the developer while looking at it through a red glass panel (which prevents white light from reaching the negative paper). Once it's sufficiently developed, Kishan removes it from the camera and dips it in a fixative tray (held underneath the camera) for a few seconds; then he washes the paper negative in a bucket of clean fresh water. He dries this as much as he can and then mounts the negative print on the frame visible in front of the camera lens and re-exposes the print for 10 to 15 seconds, again depending on the light conditions. Because he's re-photographing the original negative on to a further sheet of negative paper, he ends up with a positive print which he develops in the same way (back through the two solutions in the rear of the camera, washed in water and dried). It's then ready for the customer to take away. The whole process is while-you-wait – about 20 minutes from start to finish, no film, no plate.3

Clearly then, Kishan's method is a form of calotype, the process first announced by William Henry Fox Talbot to the Royal Society on 31st January 1839 (six months prior to the publication of Daguerre's plate method), therefore one of the earliest photographic processes known, and the only known method of using light-sensitive paper in the camera itself. There are however several differences between Fox Talbot's original procedure and those of the traditional Indian street photographers, though the differences are minimal. Fox Talbot prepared his own paper, while the street photographers use modern Kodak photographic paper. In the original calotype process, the negative image was taken from the camera, developed, pressed against photo-sensitive paper and exposed to sunlight to achieve the positive image.4 By contrast, the street photographers actually re-photograph the negative to get a positive. This suggests that the Indian street situation is probably unique. It's a variation on the calotype and identical with it until the point of negative-positive conversion. The calotype involved a darkroom process, outside the camera – whereas the Indian process involves developing the negative inside the camera, re-photographing, and then re-developing the new positive (also inside the camera itself).

In the standard manuals and histories of photography, there is no clear exposition of this unique and incredibly economical process. To guess at the nature of the invention: it appears that the early street photographers managed to hybridise two 19th century technologies: the calotype camera and the portable darkroom into a single apparatus.5 Perhaps because of the sheer problems of having to carry the whole apparatus and having to present the client with a finished paper print quickly, they by-passed the luxuries of both plate and film photography and the Fox Talbot calotype itself (which all require separate development locales). How they arrived at this remarkable hybrid – a kind of Polaroid avant la lettre – is unknown.6 It is documented, however, that unique local variations on the calotype were being used in India before 1853, and presumably, therefore, within a decade of Fox Talbot's announcement of the process.

In that year Robert Hunt describes a variation used by a Mr Muller: "This gentleman had been practising photography with great success in Patna, in the East Indies. His process is as follows...". Hunt then describes a remarkably economical version of the calotype process that is more reliant on lead than the more usual silver compounds. This appears to have been so effective to Hunt that he writes: "After the ordinary exposure, it may be removed to a dark room; if the image is not already developed, it will be found speedily to appear in great sharpness without any further application. It may then be fixed with the hyposulphite of soda in the usual manner".7 Possibly, then, the search was on, in India, if nowhere else, for a highly efficient and, therefore commercially useable, manner of getting positive photographs directly from cameras before 1853, while all the standard chronologies report that, elsewhere, commercial photographers were still working with one or another of the cumbersome glass- or metal-plate processes. To be sure, Muller's process still involves a darkroom, but his whole impetus is to reduce the development process to a minimum. The impulse is Polaroidal – the same impulse behind today's Indian street photographers. But this is not the only advantage of the simplified calotype. It has further aesthetic and practical virtues: its soft edges are highly conducive to flattering portraiture and it has greater durability than the albumen print which is high on the list of delicacies for the ubiquitous termite.8

Rajahstan, the state in which Kishan operates, has many of its traditional crafts intact since it was fairly untouched during the Raj by the British who had little taste or tolerance for its hot desert conditions. And while the well-known Indian devotion to photography no doubt has its colonial aspects,9 photography counts, still, very much as one of those traditional crafts, particularly in Rajahstan. In Plate 3, another Rajahstani street photographer – this time in Jaipur – is working in front of a backdrop borrowed from a neighbour, one of a row of some six or so street photographers located in the Ram Nivas Gardens surrounding the Ram Nivas Bhag, one of the many palaces in Jaipur. The gardens and the palace are open to the public; local people go there for a day out, to take picnics and walks and to visit the zoo.

This photographer's own backdrop shows the palace itself; but the one shown in Plate 3, his neighbour's backdrop, is an imaginary bridge scene unconnected with it. In the foreground is a rear view of the same kind of camera seen in Plate 2; again made of heavy wood, it is standard equipment for traditional Indian street photographers (by contrast with the studio situation where a modern 35mm camera is invariably used). Plate 3 shows the photographer having just washed the positive print in his bucket and starting to trim the edges of the wet print, ready to dry for the customer. In this case, he's working on a series of identity photos for official documents (ID cards to travel on a train, passports, driver's licences and so on). Clearly visible here are the bench where the client sits for the pose – and the boxes of Kodak photographic paper.

Plate 4 shows a kind of hybrid between studio and street photography. Here another, younger, photographer's backdrop is being carried by two assistants who are standing in front of the Sayeman Hotel, once more in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh. The Sayeman is the most expensive in the town (10+15 US dollars per night) and the backdrop is very much an artist's impression of the hotel itself. The actual hotel doesn't look like this at all – though it does have a swimming pool. The seascape (top right) is fictional, for the hotel is actually well within the town, and 15 minutes from the beach. The backdrop has just come out of the young photographer's small studio in the hotel precincts. And this is a regular occurrence, for the photographer, Babla Paul, often removes the backdrop for outdoor shots. He also cycles down to the beach to take shots of the tourists. The trishaw shows his wares – mostly portraits.10 The top container is full of Fuji 35mm colour film which he both uses and sells. The photographic equipment is stored inside the lower box on the back of the trishaw. The idea of this arrangement (unlike the Taj Mahal case in Plate 1) is to show customers in a very upmarket but quite local scene: though even here, the already expensive hotel with a pool is re-located to an imaginary and exotic seascape.

Why photograph a tourist against a stylised backdrop of the hotel when the "real thing" is so ready to hand? Since there's no way to get the whole of the actual hotel in the background of a photograph, any in situ picture would only be able to show a small detail of the hotel; and so it could be claimed that the shot was faked. Parts and details don't furnish conclusive proof of an experience. On the other hand, a photograph taken against the whole of the hotel (which is only possible by using a backdrop as a proxy) puts the subject in a clear and definite relation to that whole. The result always looks contrived – but as it's a "fake" taken by the official hotel photographer (the only person who owns this backdrop), it has the status of being a genuine record of the visit.

Babla Paul, then, is of a very different generation from the old masters shown in Plates 2 and 3. The old street-photography businesses were passed down through the generations from fathers and grandfathers, and with them came the old calotype technology. These younger men (women are never to be found in the business) use the new 35mm technology. They develop and print their own black and white photographs in darkrooms, but send colour film to the local Fuji Plaza for one-hour development and printing, which makes them somewhat slower than the old hands. But, despite this, there is still a clear niche for them: while inexpensive cameras (mostly Instamatics) are starting to be more common in Bangladesh, good professional 35mm cameras are still a rare commodity. Another mark of the generation change is that many of the painted backdrops are disappearing and being replaced by photo-murals – again (as is more or less traditional) unconnected with the locality. They show such things as Alpine and tropical scenes associated with European-style holidays. By a kind of ironic global displacement, then, a western sense of the "exotic" is brought to the Indian subcontinent as a desirable image-commodity.

If Babla Paul is minimalist by comparison with the old masters of street photography, then Zainal Abedin (Plate 5) is an ultra-minimalist modern studio photographer. All he uses is a plain backdrop or a floral curtain, a piece of linoleum looking like a Persian rug, a box for clients to sit on and a plaster-of-Paris plinth. Situated in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he too works with 35mm film, which he also sells. In this shot, he has brought in his "Kodak girl" advertising sign from outside his studio – almost as a kind of pastiche of the old simulacral techniques. The studio is in a large open-air market in Dhaka. But it's by no means a simple market stall. Rather it's a fixed shop on the edge of the market proper. And while this is certainly a move upmarket, Zainal, like almost all studio photographers does not own his meagre studio but rents it. His set up is comparatively subtle, however, to add to the minimalism – for note the overhead lighting installed specifically for carefully-lit portraits. The overall aim is to offer customers a very different imaginary from that in, say, Plate 1. Here, by contrast with that extreme and exaggerated exoticism, Zainal's clients are offered versions of themselves posed in an aristocratic interior. They purchase the look of distinctly interior opulence.

In the spaces, in the manifold gaps between old and new, street and studio, live interesting and locally unique hybrids. A case in point is the Royal Studio in Bombay (Plates 6 and 7). Like the new upmarket concerns, this photographer (whom we see here posing in his own studio) has begun to work with large elaborate murals and at least one of them (Plate 7) is very northern European in design. But he has resisted the move to photo-murals and retains the artist's impression of an imaginary scene. These two backdrops are fixed on the wall and the client gets a choice between the thrill of the Bengal tiger hunt (curiously posing beside the tiger, as though it were accomplice rather than quarry) or else that of apparently roaring though an exotic town/land-scape on a big Honda motorcycle. As is so often the case, though, there is no real worry about the illusion coming unstuck, revealing itself to the client or any other viewer of the final picture: for clearly placed on the two-dimensional backdrop are some framed verses from the Koran (Plate 7, top left).

Everyone in this business wants to sell or buy a little of a dream – usually, though not exclusively, of wealth in lands where there is almost none. But no one is bothered if there's a slight failure of perspective, if a shadow falls in a plane where it shouldn't, or if a real-worldly object – a Coke-bottle candle holder perhaps – happens to fall inside the frame. No one is bothered precisely because they know and want all this to be a clear illusion. That's what they pay and are paid for, after all.


Coda
Looking Back ...

Alec McHoul


In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes distinguishes between two kinds of "subjects" that any photograph must have: its studium and its punctum.11
The studium is what the photograph is, as it were, officially, about.
In a photograph of a fire engine, the fire engine is the studium.
But the second subject is supposedly more elusive: the punctum is more on the viewer's side of things.
It is whatever strikes us first; perhaps an insignificant detail that has crept into the photograph by accident.
A gloved hand here.
An anklet there.
A strange looking collar.
A clock on a mantelpiece.
A shoe.
The punctum is just that, a point that projects out at us as we look.

Alastair McNaughton – "Mac" – is a well-known Australian photographer who writes with his camera.
In my life, he is a kind of punctum in his own right.
As an analyst, I search in vain for the studium.
Apart from winning the Leica and Nikon/Panorama prizes in 1996, his renowned work with the Maasai in Tanzania, and his multiple exhibitions around the world, he's the kind of person who forces a visual illiterate like me to respond to photography.
Or else!

Couple of years ago, he told me: "Once you understand someone's humour and can relate to them, they accept you and tend to forget that you're pointing a camera lens at them".
That, I think, is part of the secret.

I have many of Mac's photographs.
They hang on the walls of my house and my office.
Somewhere there are even the wedding photographs Mac stopped and stooped to take one Spring day many years ago.
Whenever I look at any of his work, I see my punctum right away.
Like Mac, the studium is always more elusive.

This is why I simply had to mention the Coke bottle tucked away near the bottom right in the photo of the veiled woman on her cardboard motorbike (Plate 1).
In a photograph composed of so many layers (the sky, the Taj Mahal, the cypress-lined path, the drapes, the central figure, the floor, the studio lights...), that for me is the tiny layer of its own that somehow does not quite fold into the shot.
It's a point that points to itself and says not so much "Drink Me" as "See Me".

Then why – and this is always my problem with Mac's pictures – do I have a harder time finding the studium itself?
This is what I think intrigues everyone who sees his pictures.
For example, in a shot of a shaven and robed monk with a kitten jumping through his hands, kitten in mid-air as though levitated, what I think the shot is all about is the remarkable shadow of the whole "event".
Mac, with his near-literal mono-vision (always black and white, always with his "bad eye" closed to the scene, like a hippie Nelson of a photographer), sees depths in planes and colours in shades of grey.
What he photographs is the shadows we always overlook when straining to see what casts them.

So when I look again at the woman on the bike in Cox's Bazaar, I know that she is being photographed by the unknown photographer and that Mac is there somewhere photographing that photographic scene.
After all, was this not the conceit of our whole project?
To use photographs to capture the work of photography in "other" cultural settings outside our comfortable and mutually familiar Euro-Australian picture-scape?
But the woman herself appears, in Mac's picture, the way a patch of black might in a Mondrian.
All of her, that is, except the eyes and forehead.
She opens herself to photography at the same time that she resists its gaze – looking out from the veil, the eternal enigma for the man who wants to take images.

So who is this "man who wants to take images"?
It's a question that links Mac to the photographers he photographs.

The masculine and colonialist will to picture is, itself, on display here.
As someone once said, Mac's photos "seem to be of people who are like him but also not".
He captures Indian and Bangladeshi men in the act of capturing whoever happens to pass by.
Then we have to wonder where both gender difference and colonialism actually reside.
If photography once merely affirmed the gap between East and West in classic orientalist fashion, Mac's photos of Indian and Bangladeshi photographers do double duty.
They seem to repeat that orientalist "desiring" and "wondering" about the other and also, at the same time, to deeply question it.
For theorists of the image, with a practised eye used to finding instances of "orientalism" and "the male gaze", Mac often confounds us with a third visual space of his own.
Sometimes, we don't know where we are.
Irony?

So what I see here – in the first picture – is something akin to the black shroud that the photographer himself may use when composing his shot or else when developing it (see Plates 2 and 3).
The photographer, veiled, shrouded, hides himself away in order to make something else forever visible.
But in this picture, the veiled woman mirrors him back at himself: making herself hidden, except for her own return viewfinder.
The very gendering of photography is, then, partially captured in the shot.
Malek Alloula, in The Colonial Harem, notices as much and more in her reflections on a collection of "sub-erotic" photo-postcards of Algerian women.
She over-states what must nevertheless be suspected:

These veiled women are not only an embarrassing enigma to the photographer but an outright attack upon him. It must be believed that the feminine gaze that filters through the veil is a gaze of a particular kind: concentrated by the tiny orifice for the eye, this womanly gaze is a little like the eye of a camera, like the photographic lens that takes aim at everything. The photographer makes no mistake about it: he knows this gaze well; it resembles his own when it is extended by the dark chamber or the viewfinder. Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze.12

This is one reason why the studium is so hard to pin down.
We ask ourselves: what is this a photograph of?
And we draw a blank.
The studium is missing or elusive because it might be the "unknown photographer" himself.
Or else, the studium might be the studio itself; this scene in a chamber where another chamber (the camera) looks upon another (for Alloula, the veiled woman) looking back at her others.
The studium is, if anything, the primal scene of photography: man looking at woman, woman looking at man, looking at woman looking back....

So, with these pictures, we are always caught in an enigma of variations.
Mac's Nikon is an enigma machine and we, as decoders, are often stumped.
In the shot ostensibly "of" Kishan (Plate 2), do we see Kishan, or else his camera, or else the palace scene in his backdrop?
Once more, we don't quite know where to look.
So perhaps we settle on the draped bench in the "between", the middle ground.
Or else we may go punctum hunting and settle on his thonged shoe or the ornamented plastic bottletop that he uses as a lens-cap.

Moving on to the "Kishan" picture, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying: well, now we see a man taking a man's picture, so everything is different.
Just as simple to start with: now the Western professional with his expensive Nikon pictures the Indian street photographer with his homemade box.
Sure, the colonialist story is there – and perhaps even more so in some of Mac's famously beautiful pictures of Wongi children in bush settings.
But that story can never be the studium of these pictures.
Instead, our focus is never allowed to relax.
It shifts and flickers between planes; the aforementioned mono-vision tempting binocular viewers to flip and flop between the backdrop as three- and/or two-dimensional, or to switch horizontally between Kishan and his camera, his right hand claiming ownership but also stroking.
Economy and love in one frame.
Kishan looking through the lenses of his glasses is not, after all, so far away from the woman looking back through Alloula's "tiny orifice for the eye".
When I look, I want to entitle the photograph "Pride" – but pride transformed from sin into virtue.

Some months ago, Mac wanted to be in touch from his home in Sydney.
He sent me a letter on the back of a folded pre-print of a photo he was working on.
I suspect it was, for him, just a piece of paper he happened to have in his darkroom at the time.
I wasn't supposed to look at the photo, just read the letter.
Now it's on my wall, folds and all.
The subject appears simple at first: it's the front wall of Mac's favourite Sydney haunt, the Palisade Hotel.
But in the picture, the central window comes alive.
It reflects back the Harbour Bridge, as well as both the shadow and the reflection of an outside hanging globe.
I mention this only because, again, we don't know quite where to look: at the wall (with its usual pub signs), into the hotel itself (as any voyeur might through any window, any lens, any veil, any possibility of the forbidden), or else back out again, behind the photo itself to the Bridge that comes to be framed like a picture in its own right.
Wherever we look, in any of Mac's pictures, there are always sub-pictures – beckoning us towards a completely different meaning.
Punctum and studium refuse to be differentiated.

This is why it's just so difficult to wrap it all up into binary differentialist themes like "race", "gender", "colonialialism" and the rest, tempting as this may be.
As soon as we "see" such things (perhaps, as scholars, over-skilled in interpretation?), they move away and something else, something planar and compositional, asks to take their place.
So used to looking, we suddenly don't know where to look any more.

After we drafted our photo-essay, I asked Mac if he was going back to India.
We were sharing a beer and sitting around in his shed.
Of course he was going back!
Then could he, I asked, find out some more about street photography?
He left the next day and shortly sent me back a cassette tape of Uday Mitbalkar (a studio photographer) and Yoduendra Sahai (a photographic archivist) speaking about the history of Indian photography. They spoke fascinatingly and in detail about many aspects of photographic processes and practices — but could offer little historical information about the unique positive-negative paper process (the fatha fath) used by the street photographers, the "Minto Men".

Mac also sent a photo of three generations of street photographers all aligned in one shot.
The father and the son stood either side of the grandfather.
But the grandfather looked younger than the father.
Then I noticed that this central figure – the one who first established the business – was in fact a photograph of that long-dead man, blown up to life size and mounted on cardboard! (Plate 8)
And I then began to glimpse the theme of Mac's whole oeuvre.
He was looking out for chances to photograph others who could ask us to shift between a simple 2D plane and the (im)possibility of depth.
He was struggling to show what he could see with this unique mono-chrome mono-vision of his.

To show what one can see: that was the key to it all, the photographer's stone.
So now I see something else when I look at, for example, Plate 5, showing Zainal Abedin in his studio with his Kodak girl.
Half of me wants to go down the easy route: to read this as M/F, with the plinth acting as the "/" and run on from there: real man, imaginary woman; east and west; clothes vs. flesh, and the rest.
A veritable repeat of Déjeuner sur l'herbe woven in with all the tropes of orientalism?
But this is soon exhausted.
Before long, the theme is the capturing of the sheer fact that photography has always been the art and science of illusion.
The Kodak girl is – like the grandfather – a photograph in a photograph of a photographer's photographic scene.
Her impossibility speaks for the miracle and impossibility of all photographs.
My punctum is the bend in her cardboard legs.
(Just like Mac's faulty eye is a punctum – an error that brings us closer to the truth.)
I look at this and I see the very idea of illusion: of what is bought and sold in every photograph.
And more so than in television and film which move too quickly for us to stop and look.
And this is why I can look at a shot like this for hours.
I'm seeing the art – artifice – of photography, at least partially, shown inside a photograph itself.

The Left has always celebrated Brecht and Godard, in theatre and film respectively.
Rightly so: they thought they could show the realities behind the thin veil of capitalism.
But what the Left forgot was that the alienation technique also showed the illusory nature of such an exposure itself.

For me – and Mac will (I'm sure and I hope) disagree – his work does the same and more for photography.
And it does so prior to and outside any techno-scepticism we may have about Photoshop-type fakery.
He dares to confront the political binaries that can be so easily preyed on today by talk of "identity politics" (and such like).
And, in all of this, he asks us, through the pictures themselves, who and what we might become when we engage in the terribly simple (and simply terrible) act of looking.


Endnotes

1. Francis Rolt, On the Brink in Bengal, London: John Murray, 1991, p. 62. Back to main text

2. Plate 1, along with several of the other images in this essay (esp. 4 and 6), shows the importance of the cypress tree in Indian and Bangladeshi photographic backdrops. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Firstly the true cypress is native to Persia and figures in India as a kind of Mughal fetish. (The causeway leading to the Taj Mahal, for example, is lined with cypress). Secondly, this suggests a very strong Persian influence in design and painting styles generally, so that the cypress in paintings or in private gardens signifies ancient and noble Islamic origins. Thirdly, since the cypress can be shaped and pruned in a variety of ways, it can be made to echo and enhance Mughal architectural forms (such as the turrets/minarets of the Taj Mahal itself). Fourthly, as the first Muslims in India were Turks, the cypress's dominant Mediterranean meanings of wealth and high social status (on the one hand) and mourning and immortality (on the other) have also been carried into India and Bangladesh where, in addition, the tree is associated with the pleasant temperate-to-subtropical climates where it flourishes. Lastly, it is also possible that cypress backdrops echo the kinds of landscapes used extensively in Indian cinema for simulating outdoor scenes – though there is no industrial connection between the production of the two kinds of images. Nevertheless, it is still possible that the cypress in street and studio photography adds something of a cinematic quality. (This note is based on information from colleagues Prof. Vijay Mishra and Dr Shamim Khan.) Back to main text

3. Cf. MacDougall for a slightly different description. David MacDougall, "Photo Hierarchicus: Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography", Visual Anthropology 5.2 (1992): 103-129. See p. 122. Back to main text

4. Time-Life Books, eds., Light and Film (Life Library of Photography), No place of publication (USA): Time Inc., 1971, pp. 66-67. George Gilbert, Photography: The Early Years – A Historical Guide for Collectors, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, p. 27. Back to main text

5. Brian Coe, Cameras: From Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, London: Marshall Cavendish, 1978, pp. 26-27. Back to main text

6. Michael Freeman, Instant Film Photography, Salem: Salem House, 1985, p. 7 Back to main text

7. Robert Hunt, A Manual of Photography, 3rd edn., London: John Joseph Griffin and Co., 1853, p. 236. Back to main text

8. Harappa Web Site Project, Sub-site on photography in India and Pakistan, 1996. Back to main text

9. Ainslie Embree and Clark Worswick, The Last Empire: Photography in British India 1855-1911, Millerton, NY: Aperture Books, 1976. Back to main text

10. The signage on the trishaw (translation courtesy of Dr Shamim Khan) reads as follows:

Back to main text

11. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida,Trans. R. Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Back to main text

12. Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, Trans. M. Godzich and W. Godzich, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 14 Back to main text