Book Review: Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs

Welcome to the book review! Whenever I get my hands on a book, I will share my thoughts with you. There are a mix of books from artist monographs to history’s to theory.

I am always excited to find new South Asian photography scholars and a few years ago, to my surprise I found one in Toronto, Canada. Deepali Dewan is the curator of South Asian Visual Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. In addition to her curatorship she also teaches art history at Toronto University. I am always excited to find new South Asian photography scholars. Dewan’s research has inspired a photography collection being established at the Royal Ontario Museum which is a great addition to the South Asian photography archive. The book being reviewed this month is Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs published in 2012. The book is an exhibition catalogue for an exhibition by the same title. The exhibition was held between June 2011 and June 2012. The exhibition catalogue contains an introduction and essay, “The Painted Photograph in India” by Dewan and an essay, “Color as a Form of Photographic Manipulation” by Olga Zotova. Here I will give an overview of the essays as well as discuss one photograph.

In the introduction, Dewan explains that the photographs were collected between 2003 and 2012 (10). Her motivation for collecting and researching these photographs was “to attempt to place the photographs in a local and transcultural context in order to begin think differently about the history of photography” (10). Most often, we probably look at works of art in their local context, where they were made, where they were originally housed and what they meant to the specific time and place they were made. However, considering them in a transcultural context means looking at the subject matter of the photograph in relation to photographs being made at the same time globally, in addition, looking at the manipulation techniques across time and space. In the study of art, we often look at objects through the narrow lens of their single culture. In the history of photography, the lens has historically been restricted to Europe and the United States. This book widens the lens to include the photographs of India. Interestingly, one would think the photographs of India, especially in the 19th century would easily fit into a conversation about photograph in the West; however, they are often excluded or briefly glossed over.

In her essay, “The Painted Photograph in India,” Dewan explains where many of the photographs come from as well as goes into detail about the four types of hand-painted photographs. Her thesis statement, “Sorting through the different manifestations of paint and photography, their evolution over time, and the various networks of production and circulation is the purpose of this essay and more broadly this catalogue,” expresses her overall research interests in these photographs (16). Many of the photographs in the collection come from the Cyrus and Ruth Jhabvala Collection of South Asian photography, which was collected between the 1960’s and 1980’s (17). These photographs were being collected during a time when the only real interest in South Asian photography was in the British photographers working in India during the 19th century. However, these hand-painted photographs were the delight of the Indian patrons.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this essay and the examination of these photographs is to understand the different ways they were being manipulated with paint. Dewan highlights the ways in which paint and photography were combined including, just a detail of the photograph being painted to the entire photograph being painted, a painting being produced from a photography, and a painting being made on top of a photograph which had nothing to do with the photograph underneath (17). The purposes for applying paint to the prints varies from it being used as a tool to enhance the photograph, to it being uses to correct aspects of the photograph, paint was also used to highlight social or political authority (in the same way scale might be used in painting), and in a symbolic or ritual manner (18). This information is useful to the reader because as the average viewer looks at a photograph they may not think about why the paint has been applied they will just evaluate whether it has been successfully used. So, in essence, paint was applied to the photographs because photography was not singularly capable of filling the needs of the consumer.

In the essay, “Color as a Form of Photographic Manipulation,” Olga Zotova explores the overall history of color being used to change a photograph. Today we often think of a color photograph as the original, the way it should be or always has been. We associate it with reality. However, in photography’s beginnings color was out of reach but always being aimed for. In her essay, Zotova, explores “various methods for manipulating the photographic surface,” “issues pertaining to the application of color on the print – its motivations, techniques, and some examples from different places in the world,” and she focuses “on the collection of Indian painted photographs currently in the ROM’s collection and explore[s] what objects can tell us about the manipulation of photographs in the South Asian context” (37-38). In many ways, this essay is an explanation of photography’s early failures, however, without these pitfalls photography would not be what it is today.

Zotova begins with a discussion of combination printing. Combination printing was originally used because of the drastic exposure time difference between earth and sky. Two negatives would be made in the exact same spot, one being exposed for the sky, the other for the land and then they could be printed together to have detail in both areas. However, as Zotova notes, photographer began to play with combination printing in order to create narratives as is the case with Gustav Le Gray (38). Then her essay moves to a discussion of how color affects a black and white negative and the early problems, which includes a discussion of the early history of color photography. Lastly she discusses the painted options Indian photography studios offered. These include contact prints; prints made from enlargements and painted products using a photograph as a model (41). I enjoy this essay because it take information I already know and puts it in a new frame work which lets me understand a whole range of photographs in a new way.

The reproductions in the book are beautifully done. The photographs show good tonal range, color or both making them easy to study. At first glance, I am most interested in the photographs that are almost completely covered with paint like the one seen above of Sri Bhupal Singh, Maharana of Udaipur. However, after reading the essay, “The Painted Photograph in India,” I am most interested in photographs like the one you see below depicting devotees at Vishram Ghat in Mathura. This photograph falls into the category of being painted for symbolic or ritual purposes.

The foreground of this photograph is filled with a boat on the river. Inside the boat there is an image of a Hindu god placed in the middle and it is flank by three people on either side. On the left side there are two women and one man, one of the women and the man pour water into the river while the other woman holds a garland. On the right, there is a young woman and two young men, the woman and the man in the middle together hold a pot and pour its contents into the river while the other man sits idly. Behind the boat the Ghat is visible. The stairs lead up from the water to a decorative gate and beyond the gate are buildings. The architecture is punctuated by a scattering of figures, it is not overly crowded.

There does seem to be an orange-ish wash added to the background of the photograph but the main source of color is on the boat. There is a fabric over the side of the boat that is painted deep red and orange. Furthermore, the woman on the right side of the boat is the only figure that is painted. Her sari is also painted a deep red with orange accents. Dewan surmises that the woman and the young man sitting next to her are newly married (19). Thus the paint has been applied to the woman’s clothing to function as a tilak or sandoor to ensure the couple has children (19). This is one of those times where research is needed to fully understand a photograph if you are outsides its original time and place.

I find Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs to be highly informative. I enjoy the way Deepali Dewan outlines her research journey and provides the fruits of her labor. Olga Zotova’s essay is also extremely informative but short and not overwhelming for those who do not have a background in photographic history. Overall I think the texts are a unique addition to the historiography of photography. However, the undercurrent of transculturalism could be stated more precisely. For someone with a background in art history or cultural anthropology they can follow the thread, but for the average reader a more connective thread might help.  As for the print quality of the reproductions, they are flawless which to many is what the book is about. I would guess that the reproductions in this book will lead more people to read the text which enhances everyone’s knowledge of photography. Beyond what the book offers, the design work on the book is also well planned and executed. The book stands as a visual work of art in its own right.

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By |2018-10-15T12:29:51-05:00December 3rd, 2016|Book Reviews|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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