The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Vision of India
Linnaeus Tripe
Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860
Photo by Linnaeus Tripe . Source: metmuseum.org
Linnaeus Tripe, "Royacottah: Gate of the Hill Fort" 1858

I like to think of Linnaeus Tripe as quintessentially English. Even his name sounds like something out of a Monty Python routine. Had he not been an officer, I can imagine him at his desk each day, his bowler hat and umbrella by his side, putting his papers in order and filling out the same form again and again and again.

But he did become a captain, stationed in what for Victorian England was "the jewel in the crown." Trained as a surveyor, he traveled first to India and then across the Bay of Bengal to Burma. Along the way, he became a pioneer of photography.

Photo by Linnaeus Tripe . Source: metmuseum.org
Linnaeus Tripe, "Seeringham: Great Pagoda, Munduppum inside Gateway" 1858

He did not join the East India Tea Company in 1839 as a photographer. The medium was invented just that year. Yet he found himself in perhaps the greatest act of cultural imperialism ever. He taught himself the craft, starting back in England and trying it out on the quarterdeck of a ship to his new assignment. He set up his studio in Madras, on the southeast coast of India, and embraced the move from glass to waxed paper negatives, each 12 by 15 inches, for how else to carry the bulky equipment from temple to temple to photograph them all? And he left roughly twenty-five thousand salted paper prints.

He started more modestly, in 1852, as a salaried employee in Burma. He never did profit from the sale of prints, although his family ended up with the negatives. The company, which then ran the British army there, was no doubt staking its claim to the region's heritage. No doubt, too, it could tell itself that it was not just exploiting land and labor, but doing everyone a favor as educator and preserver. Thanks to Tripe, though, the mission took on epic proportions, much like that of his namesake, Linnaeus, in biology. On his return to India after a short break, he resolved to photograph every temple in sight.

Photo by Linnaeus Tripe . Source: metmuseum.org
Linnaeus Tripe, "Madura: West Front of the Roya Gopurum" 1858

He did so methodically, accompanied by a topographic photographer to record the lay of the land. He stood back to see each site as a whole, then came closer to take in its carvings, ingeniously tilting his lenses to keep the camera level, and finally stepped inside. As an officer, he had the authority to close off a shrine to worshippers, so that he could go about the business of the long exposures needed without the blur of human traffic. One would never know that these temples were not crumbling, but in use. He was so determined to capture every detail that he assembled twenty-two prints into a panorama, on a huge scroll for others to unfurl. He need not have bothered, as ethnographers were taking rubbings, but he left nothing to chance.

I cannot really know him, much less his personality or his motives, but then neither can anyone else. He left no journal of his activities and did not speak of them in retirement. When the Brits shut down the project in 1860, he was only thirty-eight, and he simply returned to military service—but I think that one can still see what he had in mind. Unlike Maxim Duchamp at the monuments of Egypt and the Near East just a few years before him, he was not out to awe the viewer with the artifacts or his art. He was documenting a time and place, like Carleton Watkins in Yosemite or Mathew Brady in the Civil War, but without the Watkins’ mission to establish a landmark and Brady’s to make history. He was only out to leave no wood or stone unturned.

Photo by  . Source:

His photographs may look ethereal in reproduction, at the Met through May 25, but they are stolid and clear. Tripe mostly framed his compositions tightly and symmetrically, in strong contrasts of light and dark, so that small temples loom large, while the Great Pagoda in what was then Tanjore seems relatively modest. He had no eye for politics, living conditions, or local culture, even in a decade of outright rebellion that caused the British government to assume control of the military. Every so often, one can see clouds in the sky, reflections on water, or a colonnade of shadows, but his art was only incidentally an art. He touched up foliage less for effect than to eliminate distractions. Yet he helped create the present-day sense of photography as the equal or embodiment of vision.

Linnaeus Tripe
Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860


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Tuesday, February 24 to
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