Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Photographer of India and Burma, 1852–1860 @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 58 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey and purple walls in two connecting gallery spaces and the adjacent hallway areas on the second floor of the museum. All of the works were made from large format waxed paper negatives between 1852 and 1858. The prints are generally sized roughly 11×14. The show also includes two maps, various wall texts, and 1 vitrine containing a 19 foot long panorama (mostly rolled up) from 1858. The exhibition was organized by Mia Fineman, Associate Curator of Photographs at the Met and was originally conceived by Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Art, Malcolm Daniel, now curator in charge at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and Roger Taylor, professor emeritus of photographic history, De Montfort University, Leicester. A monograph of this exhibit has been jointly published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and Prestel/DelMonico (here); it is available in the bookshop for $65 (hardcover, 228 pages, with 102 full-color illustrations). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the relatively short history of the medium of photography and its relatively late acceptance as a fine art form, a surprisingly large portion of the work done in the 19th century remains a tantalizing academic and artistic mystery. Due to the devoted efforts of a small cadre of relentless curators, scholars, gallery owners, and collectors, particularly in the past decade or two, we have begun to see a more robust filling out of the 19th century photographic pantheon, with new names being dusted off, reexamined, and brought forth for interleaving into the larger already accepted historical narrative. And while many of these rediscovered photographers were experimenters who worked in isolation, government officials dutifully documenting official subjects, or travelers who lugged the first bulky camera gear to exotic locales, as each photographer gets slotted in and better understood, we’re starting to piece together exciting connections and evolutionary aesthetic steps that form the foundations for what would come later.

Part of the challenge that we face when assembling the art historical past from the vantage point of the present is that we inevitably and perhaps unconsciously look for forgotten work that seems to be a missing link, layering on apparent motives and insights that make the story nice and smooth. I know from my own experience looking at 19th century work, there is a siren song tendency to be drawn to the images that seem most “modern”, their more rigorous geometries, innovative perspectives, and clean lines seeming to imply the first evidence of an ongoing refinement of photographic seeing. Often we end up celebrating these visions as being preemptive because they look like what we have come to admire, even though the chain of actual causality and/or direct influence may be tenuous or nonexistent. In a sense, we’re listening for what we want to hear.

As historical documents/artifacts, Captain Linnaeus Tripe’s photographs of India and Burma from the 1850s are undeniably treasures. They are likely the first photographs ever made of the religious and cultural landmarks there, and his systematic surveyor-style meticulousness ensured that he made wide views/vistas that took in the landscape, temple-by-temple portraits, complete interiors, and up-close details of the major monuments, archeological sites, and cities, providing an astonishingly comprehensive view of those places at those times. Given that many of the grand structures he depicted have now crumbled to dust, his photographs represent precious cultural history and important evidence of everything from architectural design and ornamentation to city planning and social organization.

When we apply the label of “artworks” to Tripe’s images, we set up a very different and perhaps impossible set of arguments. One angle is to argue that if we could theoretically compare Tripe’s images to all the others made by different photographers of the same Burmese and Indian subjects (of which there are of course almost none), Tripe’s photographs would be better composed, more elegant, or more striking. The other angle is to compare Tripe’s images with those made by other contemporary practitioners from around the world to see how his compositions stack up, even though he was likely unaware of most of the British, French, American, and other 19th century photographers we might be using as a sample. The first approach is frankly untenable, so we’re left with a more subjective analysis of Tripe’s contributions and a game of relative merit versus those we already know, even though the original intentions behind the pictures might have been widely divergent.

It’s clear from even Tripe’s earliest pictures in Devonport, England, that he had a good instinct for where to put his camera. Pyramidal stacks of cannon balls are smartly echoed by the jagged rooftops in the background in one image, while the bold cross of a ship’s mast adds powerful geometries to a deck view. In his Burmese pictures from 1855, he uses the enveloping mass of a tamarind tree, the contrast of light and dark between temple forms in a wide vista, and long looks down a wooden bridge and the linear flank of a moat to cleverly organize the space in his frames. While graceful Buddhas, intricate wood carvings, and broad plains dotted with temples capture his interest repeatedly, the invasively placed signal beacon atop the tower of an ancient pagoda is a reminder of his real purpose – documenting the major features of the land for military/colonial intelligence.

Tripe’s methodical photographs from India (1857-1858) show him continuing to experiment with compositional strategies. Squared up views of temple architecture remain the norm, but slashing lines of perspective (in the form of fort overlooks, dirt roads, causeways) become more prevalent. For the first time, we see a more developed sense of interior space, from colonnades striped by shadows to contrasts of light and dark created by bright sun and cool darkness. People make their first appearance as part of a court portrait, the clash of colonial cultures captured in the extravagant chandelier over the heads of the seated dignitaries in traditional robes. Detail shots become more specific and anthropological, one even using an O’Sullivan-like measuring stick to give scale to a collection of sculptures. And Tripe experimented with the idea of an endless panorama, taking edge-to-edge photographs encircling the entire base of a temple, capturing its carved reliefs in extreme detail.

Even given the complexities of the photographic processes Tripe was using and the challenges added by the heat and humidity of his chosen locales, the careful attention he paid to his prints is another point in his artistic favor. Using painterly chemical retouching, he added clouds to softened skies, darkened vegetation, and rippled water, and he did so not just once or twice, but pervasively across his images. Given the reversal of tonalities of the paper negatives and the different properties of the chemicals he was using, we start to see Tripe as a pre-visualizing artist (rather than a dutiful visual scribe), with a specific aesthetic end result in mind that he worked with painstaking discipline to attain.

In the end, Tripe’s short career is marked by flashes of brilliance amid an otherwise more workmanlike approach to his photographic tasks. That Tripe gave up photography when he returned from his travels leaves his story maddeningly unfinished. Would he go on to refine his talents and expand on what he had learned in his early work? Sadly, this was not he case, and so Tripe will ever remain a kind of photographic comet, where the brightness of the burn is both momentarily beautiful and extremely fleeting.

Collector’s POV: Linnaeus Tripe’s prints have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade or so. His images are often sold in groups, sets, or portfolios, ranging from roughly 10 to 120 prints depending on the subject or trip. While groups of Tripe’s images have reached prices of nearly $300000, individual prints have generally ranged between $2000 and $19000 each, with the multi-image sets matching this range on a per print basis.

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Read more about: Linnaeus Tripe, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Prestel Publishing

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