Photo Focus: Samuel Bourne

Welcome to Photo Focus, where I examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs. Furthermore, this is inspired by an idea a professor of mine always discussed in graduate school. He would talk about what about the photograph brought the viewer in and kept his or her attention. I will discuss what draws me to the photograph as well as, give a description of the photograph, a formal analysis, and discuss the meaning of the photograph.

This week is a first for Photo Focus as I am examining a photograph from the 19th century. The photograph is by British photographer Samuel Bourne, taken in Tiruchirappalli (Tritchy), Tamil Nadu, India in 1869. The photograph is interesting for its subject and composition, but also the visible historical documentation written on it. I will explore the each of these things the subjects of the photograph, the design principles and elements, along with the writing on the photograph, and use these elements to discuss the content or meaning of the photograph.

Most likely this photograph is an albumen print which was the first commercially viable way to make a paper based negative. This process is also noted because one of its main ingredients was egg yolk. Facade of Horses, Mundepum, Trichinopoli is the photographs title and it is simply named for the main composition element in the frame. The facade fills the frame on the right hand side of the frame and recedes into the background as it cuts across the frame. The far edge of the facade is about 1/6th of the total pictures width away from the left edge of the frame. This remaining space is occupied by the dirt ground and a sliver of another temple structure which designed in the typical South Indian Dravidian style.

The six or seven columns are very detailed. While the overall column is a monolith, meaning the entire column is carved from one stone, it is sectioned off horizontally. At the bottom of each column the carving shows a group of kneeling or squatting male figures holding the rest of the column up. The next section on the column in the foreground seems to show a ritual on the side of the column and a woman playing a musical instrument on the front edge of the column. Beyond the column in the foreground it is hard to tell exactly what is happening in these sections, however, it appears they show rituals dance and musical instruments being played. Above the two lower sections is the main structure of the columns, which is a large horse standing on it’s hind legs. The horses have decorative details carved into them and have a human figure sitting atop them. I surmise that the figure is a warrior as the figure in the foreground column is strapped with a sword. In the first column and all of the preceding columns, the horses front legs are being held up by two attendants who hold stilt like rods under the horses hooves. The second column has a different composition, while the horse is still in the same stance, the way it’s front legs are being held up is different. This column shows a man with another man on his back. The man on the back has a harness over his head and the horses’ hooves are resting on the harness. Behind the two men is another man using his hands, arms, and the weight of his body to stabilize the two stacked figures. Behind this man is a smaller man stabilizing him. The receding columns appear to show the horses legs being held up in a variety of ways, but the details are not readable. The columns are capped by architectural carvings which resemble the Dravidian style architecture of the rest of the temple complex. Furthermore, the facade is capped by a rounded roof.

Another notable aspect of the photograph are the two human figures between the second and third columns. There is a man in typical Indian dress and turban sitting between the two columns, while a boy in a white shirt, dark trousers and capped head faces the seated man. The lower left corner of the photograph is left void and is filled with the dirt ground of the complex. This triangular shape is mirrored in the top of the frame by a blank patch of sky. Furthermore, in the left hand corner, Bourne wrote his name and a photo ID number on the negative, it says “Bourne 2064”. In this reproduction, the border of the photograph is visible. In the bottom left of the border Bourne’s name and the photo ID number have been written again and in the bottom right of the border the location details have been written, “Facade of Horses, Mandepum, Trichinopoli”.

All of the things i described above come together in the composition in a certain way through the elements and principles of design to communicate a message. The two most dominant element/principles of design in the photograph are space and scale. It is through the space that the facade fills in the photograph that the viewer understands that it is the focal point of the photograph. Furthermore, through the scale of the horses and the record keeping in the margins of the photograph, the viewer understands there is an emphasis put on the horses.

Scale is the most important design principle in the photograph as it is manifested in several other way than the one stated above. In addition to the size of the horses, scale is used in a practical way to give the viewer an understanding of the size of the horses and the overall facade by placing the human figures among the architecture. This tells the viewer the architecture was built on a grand scale and that the horses are nearly life size. Furthermore, the proportion of the horses within the columns points to the dominance of the rulers who built the columned hallway.

The scale of all of all of the elements within the column gives the elements a hierarchy. As discussed above, the columns contain scenes of the common man, temple activities, the horses and the men mounting on them (which I argue is connected with the rulers), and then temple architecture. The common man is at the bottom of the column signifies they are the largest group and that they are the least important. The temple activities are held up by the common man by their devotion and participation. They also hold up the empire through taxes and labor. As is common in many societies religion and politics are intertwined. The temple legitimizes the rulers and in return the rulers fund religious building which sits at the top of the column. In essence it shows the cycle of the community. Beyond the dense reading of scale and hierarchy, the alternating columns create unity with variety which creates more visual interest and more to visually explore.

The history of the objects in the photograph and its photographer support the reading I have made of the photograph. The photograph was taken of the Sesharayar Mandapam (hall) in the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple complex (dedicated to a reclining form of Vishnu) in Srirangam on the edge of Tiruchirappalli by a British photographer. According to UNESCO the temples origins date to the 1st century CE during the Sangam period (3rd cent. BCE to 4th or 5th cent. CE). However, the temple complex was expanded during successive dynasties including the Cholas, the Kongu rulers, the Pandyas, the Hoysalas, and the Vijayanagara empire [which includes the Nayak dynasty] (, accessed: 11/17/2016).

It is believed that the Sesharayar Mandapam (hallway) with the horse columns shown in the photograph here was built by the Nayak dynasty who ruled from 1529 to 1739 (, accessed: 11/17/2016). They were the last Indian dynasty in the area before the British took power in the region in the mid-1700’s (, accessed: 11/17/2016). Thus the photograph is a form of power just like the building of a religious structure or the grand carving of a horse. Through the photograph Samuel Bourne for the British Empire has captured the architecture and sculpture of the Nayak dynasty.

In conclusion, the photograph functions in the same way as the columns. The horses show the might of the Nayak dynasty while the photograph shows the power of the British Empire and their colonial regime. Each ruling government has used art to legitimize their ruler-ship and their might. I reached these conclusions by examining the photograph and interpreting what it contains. The subject of the photograph and how the composition is laid out leads the viewer to power. However, the photograph not only shows the power of the British Empire but also the power of a successive dynasty in the area.

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Photography/History Vocabulary: Principles of Design

By |2018-10-15T14:22:23-05:00November 18th, 2016|Photo Focus|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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