Captain Linnaeus Tripe: V&A, London

V&A

The split between mind and matter, classical and romantic sensibilities, Apollonian and Dionysian qualities – is a subject of an eternal discussion. The argument of whether logic or emotion is a nobler merit is an ever-present topic in art, literature and even everyday life. It was also the thought that kept forcefully recurring in my head as I was visiting the Captain Linnaeus Tripe photography exhibition at the V&A.

Tripe joined the East India Company in 1838 and became a successful lieutenant two years later. He left his biggest imprint on history, however, as a distinguished photographer. Being a military surveyor, he was charged with creating a visual record of Burma and was later appointed as the official photographer to the government of Madras, South India. A truly self-made professional, he took on photography at a time when it was just at the beginning of its explosion and brought it to some of the least visually documented corners of the world at the time.

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Upon entering the room and catching the first glimpse of the displayed work, my immediate, subconscious response was: sketches. Tens of sepia-toned, charcoal or pencil sketches, with beautifully aligned geometrical shapes, elaborate compositions and meticulous detail. Yet within a split second reality kicked in, reminding me that it is a photography exhibition and I was overwhelmed with awe of the technical skill and quality of the photographs taken almost 200 years ago.

The reason I mentioned the split between classical and romantic sensibilities is because Linnaeus Tripe embodied it. “The eye of a surveyor, the sensibility of an artist” – is how the exhibition curator described the photographer and this quote epitomizes his whole body of creative work.

On one hand, he was a focused, analytical professional who planned out all of his photos in advance, trying out tens of different takes of the same object from various positions and distances. He also frequently emphasized progressive buildings and structures to show prosperity and well-being under the British colonial rule; or the poorness of areas in order to reinforce British policies to sweep away particular areas and build modern colonial cities.

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On the other hand, however, one cannot simply deny the beauty, imagination and pure aesthetic sensibility of these photographs. For some of them Tripe chose intricate angles which formed flawless geometrical compositions, often resembling a modern abstract painting in the likes of Malevich. In other photographs, he played around with theatrical lighting and contrasts, creating a very cinematic effect which made the pictures look like stills from a Fritz Lang film. The military mission was clearly at the core of Tripe’s work, yet he savoured the artistic pleasures of it to the very last drop.

As beautiful as the photographs are, they evoke an elusive feeling of loneliness which baffled me in the beginning. As I reached the final images of the exhibition, there was one depicting a raja and his nobles sitting in beautiful European chairs under an elaborate canopy; and it suddenly struck me: this was the only photograph with people in it. Most of the pictures represented massive natural spaces, abandoned buildings, empty roads and were completely devoid of any living beings, hence calling forth this isolated, detached reaction in the viewer. As I later found out, Tripe did this deliberately, often taking pictures early in the morning when there was nobody around or asking for landscapes to be specifically cleared of people. The Freud enthusiast in me wants to read deeper into this desolation and pick apart Tripe’s psyche, but not much is known of his personal life, so it would be plain fiction.

What is certain, however, is how astonishingly difficult were the conditions that Tripe had to work under. The air was humid and hot; the massive amount of equipment was bulky to travel around with and the expeditions were very short so he had to work quickly and efficiently to produce such large amounts of work. In order to tackle the high humidity issue, Tripe worked with paper negatives rather than glass and he oversaw the printing of them in his Bangalore studio. To evoke atmospheric effects, he would retouch most of his negatives applying pigment in thin layers. For example, he drew all the clouds in the photographs himself as well as pigmented a lot of foliage, lake and river elements.

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Apart from being a collection of beautiful images and a testament to a major achievement in photography, the exhibition is also an extremely interesting document of a political and social change. It captures piercingly the contrast between Indian values and British colonial rule: what Indians treasured as sites of deep religious importance, to Brits symbolized military victories and colonial power. As history shows, this disregard for tradition and way of life led to a bloody revolt in 1857.

Tripe was forced to close his studio in 1860 due to cost-cutting measures which discouraged him from continuing his work and he abandoned photography completely. However, his legacy is one of the most remarkable groups of photographs made in the 19th century and is a mesmerising study in history, culture and art.

The Captain Linnaeus Tripe exhibition is at the Victoria & Albert museum until 11th October 2015.

Admission is free. For more information visit vam.ac.uk.