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.
There is something about 19th century landscape and architectural photographs that pays close attention to structure. There is often a highly formal structure to the composition because the photographer was using a view camera. The view camera demands an attention to detail from the photographer, as the camera is cumbersome and a lot of effort goes into taking a single photograph. In today’s Photo Focus, I am examining a photograph by Linnaeus Tripe, a 19th century British photographer working in India.
The photograph you see above shows a view of the entrance into the Great Pagoda in Seeringham, South India. Tripe placed the camera in the center of the street, giving the viewer a realistic view of the surroundings. The camera points straight at an archway gate leading to the main pagoda. This central structure is tall and heavy, being made of stone. Four columns hold up the heavy roof. The columns have a square base and circular shaft. At the top of the column there are three decorative fluted sections. The top section appears to be a squashed sphere from the weight of the roof. The roof has a square base with a triangular shaped structure on top, which is typical of South Indian temple gateways. The details cannot be made out, but it is obvious that this pyramidal structure is carved with freezes. On either side of the gateway, the street is lined with shopping stalls. These stalls lead from the foreground into the background. At the front of the stalls there is a stone or cement half wall with the goods of the shop behind it. Each shop has a grass roof held up by rough wooden poles in front of the stalls. The long exposure time of the photograph has blurred the people in the photograph, most to the point where they appear as white translucent spots on the print. There are two figures on the right hand side of the photograph, just beyond the bottom corner that stand still long enough to be recognizable as human figures. Across the background behind the stalls is a solid stone wall, which blocks the viewer view. In the middle of this wall, directly behind the gate is an entrance. This entrance appears to be in the shape of a pyramid as well. Furthermore, it has also been elaborately carved. Through this entrance another doorway is visible but its details are obscured.
The central nature of the entrance gate in this photograph sets the composition and its important elements throughout the whole photograph. First of all, placing the entrance gate in the center of the photograph tells the viewer it is the most important aspect of the photograph. The scale of the gate adds further confirmation to its importance. Furthermore, the way the camera has been placed in the middle of the road has created one-point linear perspective. Thus, the lines created by the stalls recede into the distance and converge on a central point or focal point which is located in the center of the gate. This leads the viewer’s eyes through the gate and to the entrance behind it. Line and shape also play an important role in the photograph. The most dominate lines are horizontal and diagonal. Horizontal lines give a feeling of stability while the diagonal lines point to chaos. The most dominant horizontal line is provided with the wall of the religious structure in the background, while the most notable diagonal lines are those created by the grass rooves of the stalls. The rectangle shape is the most prominent shape in the photograph. The gate provides a rectangular window to the doorway of the temple entrance which echoes the rectangular shape. Beyond these elements, all of the elements in the photograph contain a heavy visual weight. Stone and grass hang heavy over the heads of the inhabitants.
This photograph not only documents what the central gate and its surroundings look like, it provides the viewer with a message. It shows the viewer the close relationship between the secular and spiritual worlds in 19th century India, meaning that the temples and shopping were intertwined in their proximity to one another. The photograph also implies there is a separation between the viewer and what lies within the photograph. We can see the external gate well; however, our view of what lies beyond and in the interior sanctuary is off limits. I would argue this photograph was produced for non-Indian viewers and it gives the feeling of being an outsider. As a viewer, we can see the structural elements, we can see the daily lives of people but we are not allowed into the personal belief of the people in the area. Interestingly, in South India many temple complexes remain closed to outsiders. There is definitely a colonial gaze in this photograph, one of curiosity and perhaps judgement.
As I look at this photograph, I begin to wonder what 19th century British nationals would have though when they looked at the photograph. Would they have seen the grandeur in the gate or would they first notice the building materials and structure of the shopping stalls, as there is a great contrast between them. This is heightened by the lines in the structures. The diagonal lines of stalls give the impression that the society is not stable, that the only stability is given through religion (the walls of the temple). Colonial photography was often used to show people back home why their country needed to be in power in a foreign land. The claim was often that the colonial empire was trying to provide modernity to an uncivilized people including what they considered barbaric non-Christian religions. However, the truth is that the colonial powers were just taking over the resources of the area from natural to man power and further subjugating the people.
Photography is a powerful tool. We often think of photographs, especially antiquated ones as being benign. However, they often contain powerful messages that can still be decoded today. Through a formal analysis of the photograph, it is usually possible to get at the meaning. Many photographs from the 19th century were made with a view camera and explore highly structured compositions. This is the case with Tripe’s photograph, as he was an agent of the British Empire he was a Colonial in the army.