His 1858 panorama of the Tamil inscriptions that run around the base of Brihadishvara Temple in Tanjore in southern India, is an intricate composite of 21 exposures, where the tone of each matches its neighbour. Built in the 11th century at the height of the Chola Empire, the details of the architecture are intact in the sepia prints, which are a result of Captain Linnaeus Tripe’s presence for hours and perhaps weeks on the site. “As nothing like it had been attempted before, it is now widely regarded as a masterpiece of technical virtuosity. Only a handful of copies are known to have survived,” notes Roger Taylor, Professor Emeritus in Photographic History at De Montfort University.
At the exhibition “Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860”, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Taylor will stitch together the prints from Tanjore in a 19-feet scroll to signify a merger of archaeology and photography. To begin on October 11, it will comprise 60 of Tripe’s “most striking” views which depict the landscape and architecture of India and Burma, taken between 1852 and 1860.
A captain in the British Army, Tripe was stationed in the subcontinent, where he spent many years familiarising himself with the landscape of southern India around his base, Mysore, and then Madras Presidency.
Founding member of the Photographic Society in London, established in 1853, he lugged his heavy equipment during his expeditions, initially intended for photo documentation and to strengthen British rule. Soon, he was the official photographer for the Madras Government, spending the years from 1857 to 1859 in creating a visual inventory of the scenic landscapes to the lesser-known.
Buddhist pagodas in Burma and temples in southern India. There are also the more known, and now destroyed, celebrated archaeological monuments, religious and secular buildings. The choice of camera and process was made with a clear sense of purpose — Tripe opting for large format 15×12 inches prints that offered clarity of detail, and the waxed paper process that was more practical. “It gave very finely detailed results and was more readily available than plate glass, which was both expensive and only available from the UK,” says Taylor, adding that Tripe often achieved a misty gradation with the aid of a touch-up brush, using water-based pigment; to plump up clouds or delineate leafy trees.
The exploration, though, was to come to an abrupt end when in mid-June 1859 the government ordered that Tripe “undertake no new work” and sell off his equipment. He was allowed to retain his negatives, that remained in the family collection till 1948, when they were gifted to the Royal Photographic Society collection. However, by the time of his death in 1902, the thousands of prints from the subcontinent had been forgotten. “Very little of his work has come on to the market and is therefore comparatively rare,” notes Taylor.