Photographs as Visual Records

The experiments with photography as a field and its equipment began in the 17th century, with several painters attempting to reproduce their paintings into reality. The innovations explored during the Industrial Revolution further the process, making it possible to project a still image using photographic paper. The technique and equipment used in photography improved over the years, and the 18th century welcomed a large-scale photographic expedition worldwide to showcase the achievements of the industry. Recording banal life of people, architectural landscapes, and portraits of notable figures became the focus of these expeditions.

Despite being visible as archival records, many photographs cannot be seen as objective or fair reports of life. The English dominion over many parts of the world affected the inspirations driving their creation and how photographs were deciphered over time. A notable researcher, Gary Sampson highlights the “paternalistic face” of the British empire in the photos, which portrayed the natives as neglectful of their history and legitimized British control of regions they ruled. Racial division, influence of power and authority and differences in lifestyle were evident through many photos taken during this period. 

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William Johnson – European man in a sedan at Bombay, British India – Before 1860_Leiden University Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Notable photographers

However, Europeans had a partial monopoly on photography in India, as rulers like Raja of Chamba, Ramsingh the Maharaja of Jaipur, and Maharaja of Benaras also took up photography. Lala Deen Dayal, a prominent Indian photographer, photographed scenes on a broader scale than any European firm. Indians began setting up several photographic societies, mainly in Bombay. Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1905) was one of the most influential photographers of Indian monuments during this period. 

His work demonstrated an appreciation for the majesty of Indian architecture, its environment, and its purpose, often focusing on the complexity of subjects and the human body’s experience with carved and constructed forms. Various famous commercial photographers like Samuel Bourne, Shepherd, Johnston, Hoffman, Burke, and Cache also produced excellent works on historical sites and archaeological surveys in India. Despite their success, Dayal’s mastery of the camera allowed him to surpass them all.

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William Johnson – Shamans in British India – Before 1860_Leiden University Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Photography used a tool for division

Photography arrived in India in 1839 but was popular in the 1850s. The 1857 Indian Rebellion, a significant event in nineteenth-century India, led to the British government’s demand for ethnographic photographs to categorize people. After the rebellion, British colonial authorities allowed officers to take photographs of their subjects, creating the first state-sanctioned archival photographic practice in India. Photography allowed colonial rulers to categorize people by religion and caste, contributing to long-lasting caste and religious tensions in India. The photographs focused on showcasing the diverse religious and caste groups in Western India, with clothing significantly distinguishing them from higher-caste Indians.

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William Johnson – Parsi woman and boy, presumably at Bombay, British India – Before 1860_Leiden University Library, via Wikimedia Commons

The use of clothing and costumes on women in photographs is particularly noteworthy, taken to indicate social class. The photographs also revealed the value of British colonial rulers in classifying people, which can lead to discussions about colonial ideas of race. It reveals how the British imagined India mid-to-late nineteenth century, categorized by caste, occupation, and religion. This system was reinforced in the later nineteenth century with the all-India census. Photographs were a reflection of reality and a lens through which the British saw India and Indians, shaping British ideas about Indian society. These photographs and other primary sources like Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” further document imperialist ideas of race during the British Empire’s height in India.

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William Johnson – Bania women in British India – Before 1860_Leiden University Library, via Wikimedia Commons

A methodical survey included collections featuring ethnographic portraits categorizing people based on caste, religion, and occupation through costumes and artefacts in regions under British rule. The investigation of Indian architecture began in the mid-1800s, with initial overviews using drawings and prints to record landmarks. However, photography became the preferred method for documentation. James Fergusson, a Scottish trader, was the first to create a broad visual record of Indian architecture. Fergusson believed engineering to be an understandable text and photography as the most reliable method for capturing that decipherable history for future review. 

Business photography firms like Bourne and Shepherd and Johnston and Hoffman expanded their interest in investigating Indian engineering and contributed to the growing corpus of pictures. Francis Frith, a popular firm in the Center East, distributed an India series due to the rapidly developing business sector for Indian subjects. It also includes landscape shots of Bombay, Pune, and Ahmedabad

Panorama – From the Cathedral, Bombay. No. 3. The Native Town, towards Mazagon_SMU Central University Libraries, via Wikimedia Commons

Another album features eight panorama photographs of Bombay, a colonial Indian city, showcasing its unique architecture. The photographs, spanning from Malabar Point to Colaba, include a photograph titled “The Native Town towards Mazagaon.” These images can spark discussions about the division of Bombay into European sections and the role of Indians in these areas. The collection reveals patterns in colonial rule, as British colonial rulers established and maintained power by creating differences and separating the ruled from the rulers. The photographs also reveal a religiously and ethnically diverse space, spanning from portraits to landscapes. These albums provide a rich understanding of the colonial period in India and the impact of colonial rule on the city’s urban landscape.

References (n.d.). Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation | Yale Center for British Art. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Aug. 2023].

Research Photographs. (2018). Architectural Photography in Colonial India. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Aug. 2023]. (n.d.). History of Architectural Photography and Its Unique Challenges. [online] Available at: (n.d.). Photography in India during the 19th Century. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Aug. 2023].


Hi, My name is Sneha Anand and I am a designer by profession, specializing in heritage conservation. Curious in nature, I like to explore through various media that include writing, reading and illustrating. I absolutely love traveling to different places and documenting my experiences through photography.