Timeless Classics – Through the Lens of Bourne & Shepherd

What the combination of Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd and William Howard achieved was establishing a canon that lives on in the unknowingly, yet faithfully replicated frames in photographs taken by professionals and amateurs of classic Bourne images.

An 1864 portrait of Samuel Bourne, a founder of the Bourne & Shepherd photography studio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An 1864 portrait of Samuel Bourne, a founder of the Bourne & Shepherd photography studio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the sprawling Hindustan Motors factory in Rishra, on the banks of the Hooghly, shut down in 2014 it was the final act in the long drawn out death ritual of the doughty Ambassador car. There was an outpouring of lament that momentarily peaked and then died as quickly, even though the ungainly, fuel-guzzling car was once an icon of India’s ambitions to be a self-made industrial giant.

A similar announcement of the closing of Bourne and Shepherd, established in Kolkata in 1864, which made it the oldest supposedly functioning photographic studio in Asia – and once upon a time immensely successful, and therefore fashionable and influential – prompted the entirely expected ritual of mourning over yet another “heritage” that had died.

But, these deaths were not moments of dramatic destruction of the past; they simply acknowledged that “things are not the same anymore. Technology has changed,” as Jayant Gandhi, the last and ageing owner of Bourne and Shepherd prosaically explained. Obsolescence of style and technology had finally caught up with these businesses. The Ambassador from Rishra was no longer a workable proposition. As a photographic studio, Bourne and Shepherd was not a viable establishment; it could not afford to pay the rent and occupy the once elegant, neo-classical building on a street that had once been fashionable but has now turned plebeian.

Not even a little bit of the soul of the city was eaten away by the official death notice of these two legends. Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial, an archive to a particular set of relationships with the past in the present, explained, “it was the last nail in the already nailed down coffin that housed a long dead establishment,” implying that the end of Bourne and Shepherd would not be an absence that would alter the cultural narrative and way of life of Kolkata.

Bourne and Shepherd started photographing India in 1863 from Shimla, then opened its bigger and better studio in Kolkata, and even set up an establishment in Mumbai by 1880. But it was not simply a place where photographs were taken, and then artistically produced and presented with immense style on thick art paper with a tissue cover and the studio’s name imprinted in silver. It created the “standardised view” of places, people and events, says Sengupta. What the combination of Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd and William Howard achieved was establishing a canon that lives on in the unknowingly, yet faithfully replicated frames in photographs taken by professionals and amateurs of classic Bourne images.

Certainly, the photographs in the ‘Narrative of a photographic trip to Kashmir (Cashmere) and adjacent district’, are in some sense the original from which later photographers have either drawn inspiration or attempted to faithfully replicate. Described as the “most influential landscape and architectural photographer,” Samuel Bourne’s images of the Himalayan region, captured over three expeditions to the Shimla Hills and Sutlej Valley in 1863, the Kangra Valley and Kashmir in 1864 and Kulu, Lahaul and Spiti in 1866 remain the reference for other and later images. His Himalayan expedition images even now functions as the reference frame by which later generations have shot and captured the people and the places.

There are other photographs by Bourne and Shepherd, from images of Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, to the ghats of Kolkata and Benares from the river, the quotidian goings on of natives, the Maharajas, Kings, Prices and Nawabs in their resplendent attire, the rich and the famous including Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Rabindranath Tagore and the young Rudyard Kipling, the sahebs who exuded power and the brown sahebs which have become timeless classics or the standardised view.

The formal closure of the studio in 2016 is not a great tragedy. A fire in 1991 that destroyed most of its archive of negatives, including the 22,000 negatives that Bourne bequeathed to the studio before he sold out and returned to England, was the real tragedy. There are extensive and valuable archives of Bourne and Shepherd’s work in the British Library as well as the National Library in Kolkata and in other repositories across India.

But even before the fire, the prints were being endlessly reproduced, albeit without much regard to copyright, sometimes from the folios compiled by Bourne and Shepherd that marketed the exotic orient in Europe and sometimes from private collections. Reproductions of these photographs pop up in print like the only one of mystic Ramakrishna Paramahansa that is sold in tiny studios to the faithful, who frame and revere it as part of the daily rituals of prayer. The same is true for images of Tagore and his family, as well as other notables of the Raj era.

The closure has not diminished the influence of Bourne and Shepherd. The establishment may be dead, but the concepts the artists and photographers created lives on. “The imagined and or invented face” in the portraits of the rich and famous became the template that other photographers used, be they the ever so humble neighbourhood studio or the fancier ateliers of the “autonomous artist,” says Ranu Roychoudhury, who has a PhD on photographic reproduction in Kolkata in the 20th century . The studio established an “idiom of visuality” and an aesthetics that continues uninterrupted for the most part.

The portraits are, as Tapati Guha Thakurta, leading scholar of India’s art history, says, “a performance.” The frame or “the concept,” the narrative within the photograph had been set by this studio, with its lavishly arranged interiors. To have a portrait or a family photograph taken at the studio meant “dressing up for the occasion and arranging the face” that would be captured permanently in print, Thakurta explained. The expressions and the arrangements in the portrait were not the natural or the normal; they were created for the performance of having a photograph taken. Leena Kejriwal, a contemporary portrait and landscape photographer calls these images “designer photographs,” that establish the “mood of the image”.


The same meticulous construction of a narrative was evident in the show of imperial majesty, designed to awe through the displays of power in the images of the last Delhi Durbar of 1911 and the only one where a reigning British monarch, King George V was crowned as Kaiser-e-Hind with his wife, Queen Mary, as consort. It was a sleight of hand or eye by Bourne and Shepherd that converted the 20th century event into a spectacle that confirmed the legitimacy of the British Empire as the true successor of the magnificent Mughals, at a time when the idea of Swadeshi had grown so powerful that the 1905 decision to partition Bengal was rolled back, signalling a defeat of the Empire by nationalist politics. The photographs, Ranu Rouychoudhury says, became a “tool of empire.” Bourne and Shepherd portraits and Durbar photographs of George V were framed and hung on walls across India, be they government offices, chambers of commerce or even clubs, where the British converged or the Indian sahib imagined himself as a member of the modern, powerful elite.

The “connect to nostalgia,” when she is asked to “create that look” of “as royal as royalty” is a legacy bequeathed by Bourne and Shepherd, and links her as a photographer in the 21st century to the frames they set, says Leena Kejriwal, whose bread and butter is studio portrait work. These recreations are demands for the look that Bourne and Shepherd created: “the mood of the image.” The indestructibility or continuity of the studio, as the creator of the canon is in the specialisations of Bourne and Shepherd, one for the image and the other for the reproduction in print that created and established a visual idiom. The 42 coolies who carried the dark room equipment, the chemicals and glass negatives, the cameras and the tents of Samuel Bourne on his expeditions into the Himalayas, photographing the exotic that few had ever seen, established the benchmark of quality that was the oeuvre of Bourne and Shepherd.

Tradition was made through the reproductions – the quality and the style of presentation of the idiosyncratic artist-photographer who captured the picturesque and thereby “domesticated this exotic land.” While Samuel Bourne created the visual idiom, Charles Bourne reproduced it in print. These were “designer products,” that were “legacy” images and their “USP was the longevity” of the photograph, says Kejriwal. The quality of reproduction and the art that went into the touch-ups, the studios where the portraits were taken, was what distinguished Bourne and Shepherd from the other studios in Kolkata and Mumbai. The style was distinctive, adding to the value of the image.

The things that changed and converted the commercially successful studio into a shabby, dispirited shadow of its former glamorous self was the exit of the exotic Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd in the 1880s. Later photographers attached to the studio did not make a mark and then there was competition. Other studios set up shop. Changes in technology made it easier for others to enter the studio business. The clientele also changed, with more people wanting portraits and family albums at cheaper rates. There were important “native” studios that came up across India and in Kolkata that catered to the growing clientele. The end of the studio’s capacity to reproduce from its collection, after the 1991 fire, meant that there was even less interest in the establishment. It was no longer an institution.

Political and social change stranded Bourne and Shepherd in a time warp. Its photographers were not the individuals that the original partners had been. Other individuals, the “autonomous independents with their autonomous aesthetics,” as Ranu Roychoudhury describes them – emerged to capture images of a different India: Shambhu Saha, who recorded the daily life Tagore’s ashram in Santiniketan, Sunil Janah who photographed the 1943 man-made famine that devastated Bengal, the photographs of Partition, the immensely powerful gaze of Ahmed Ali who captured the building of the “temples of modern India” as an industrial photographer and the new generation of society photographers like Samir Das, who set up shop in the new posh locations such as Theatre Road a k a Shakespeare Sarani.

The death by destruction is the underlying concern of historians and archivists. As head of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences that has a visual archives and an important collection of photographs and other visual objects, Thakurta is very concerned about how easily this history in negatives can be lost. When Bombay Photo Stores, which in many ways replaced Bourne and Shepherd as the stylish studio of Kolkata in the 1950’s and 1960’s up till about the turn of the millennium, shut shop, its huge collection of negatives – portraits, family albums of parties, birthdays and important moments – could not be rescued from the raddi walla. Some photographs survived, but the majority are lost.

Archiving the photograph, or the negative is infinitely complicated and expensive. The Victoria Memorial, the National Library in Kolkata have collections that are a struggle to maintain. Digitising the image is one way, but it is not the same as the print made from a sliver coated negative. “The nose can turn flat and the depth can go missing in a digital image” Kejriwal confesses. The romance of the photograph, especially the marvellous black and whites that were Bourne and Shepherd’s signature images is very difficult to do in Kolkata today. The studios have changed from printing from negatives to digitising family albums and keeping them safe for posterity on CDs. The print makers have disappeared and the art is almost lost, though a few hardy souls – Sanjeet Chowdhury, a photographer doggedly clinging to technologies that are obsolete – who continue to carry the flag, because they can, frankly, afford to do so.