Picturing the Raj

Nineteenth-century photography of India

"Nineteenth-century photography of India is not particularly well-known, nor is it even that well-documented. In fact, it remains one of the few areas of photography where there are still discoveries to be made," says Hugh Rayner, a dealer based in Bath, England, who started his career as a photographer, often visiting India. Nearly 20 years ago he began developing what is now an extensive collection of books and photographs produced from 1855 to 1930.

From 1860 on, the new science of photography spread rapidly through India, with portraits of British and Indian notables selling alongside sylvan Himalayan scenes, graphic images of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and industrial scenes of the building of India's railways. That such images have survived is remarkable. The fact that these images can be purchased for as little as $80 is exceptional.

Alex Novak, a Pennsylvania-based dealer, says American collectors tend to focus on the condition of the image rather than just the historical context. "The field joins art and history, making some of the most attractive purchases those that offer both a stunning image and the opportunity to learn."

Amateur collectors can find the occasional one-off photograph, but it's the archival collections that the serious connoisseur is after. In 1999 one set of 66 negatives of the Taj Mahal by Dr. John Murray sold at Sotheby's in London for $80,980. Christie's 1996 sale of photographs in the Paul F. Walter Collection reached a total of $680,000. But excellent images can also be found at high-quality fairs, such as the London Photograph Fair, held at The Bonnington Hotel four times a year. "Tonality is key," says Novak. "Beautiful color makes the value continue to go up. Also, salt prints and paper negatives have an artistic feel-a presence you can't get from the modern process."

Novak advises people to watch out for works by Dr. W. H. Pigou, Richard Banner Oakeley, Felice Beato, and Col. Thomas Biggs, all of whose early photographs are becoming scarce and are expected to steadily increase in value. "Quality work is quite rare," says Novak. "Whenever something materializes you have to be very aggressive as a collector."

For information: Hugh Rayner, 4 Malvern Buildings, Fairfield Park, Bath, England; 44-122-546-3552. Alex Novak, Vintage Works, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA; 215-822-5662. London Photograph Fair, The Bonnington Hotel, 92 Southampton Row, London; 44-193-286-3924.