ROLAND BARTHES ONCE WROTE that photography started out by photographing the notable, but soon it decreed notable whatever it photographed. Almost all the images in Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera c. 1860-1950, the Alkazi Foundation’s newest exhibition of vintage photographs, belong to that truly early era, when the camera was still understood as something meant only to capture the momentous, the monumental or, at the very least, the exotic. Which is probably why, to our jaded 21st-century eyes, these pictures seem, at first glance, somewhat dull. As Susan Sontag already understood in On Photography (1977), “[t]he image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”
It is a difficult task to imagine in 2010 how magical it must have been to see, circa 1880, the Jama Masjid as one saw it every day from Dariba Kalan, or the Red Fort on a wintry morning, captured in silver and grey, frozen into permanent two-dimensional form. It is particularly difficult at a time when the many channels of the ceaseless image-production machine—hoardings, tourist brochures, newspaper supplements, television channels—bombard us (or at least those of us who live in Delhi) with images of these very structures, almost challenging the eye not to see them as clichés. And yet, if one gives them a chance, some of the Historic Delhi images can make the same things appear utterly fresh. Sometimes it is the mental double-take as the eye recognises some element that has remained constant in a space otherwise almost entirely transformed. Sometimes it is the starkness of the composition, the frame empty of everything except the building—a building we may have seen a million times, but never without people. The gleaming whiteness of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in Samuel Bourne’s image from 1865, or Humayun’s Tomb in an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) photograph from 1923-4, for example, appear almost eerily unmarked by human presence—or time.
What is the visual pleasure one might get from such an image? It is the opposite of that which one usually derives from old things—rather than presenting us with the comforting patina of age, the old photograph magically strips away layers of time to reveal an object that is almost unbelievably pristine.