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Where how is preferred over what

'Traces of India' at UCLA's Fowler Museum invites us to observe the ways others observed the country.

March 20, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Imagine a world in which every historical object and event has been exhaustively studied. If you think this would put scholars out of work or force them to broaden the terrain they cover, you probably haven't crossed paths with many academics, who generally defend their shrinking areas of expertise with the ferocity of a rat in a hole. When dyed-in-the-wool professors run out of subjects to study, they study the ways in which those subjects were studied.

That's what happens, prematurely, in "Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900" at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Organized by curator Maria Antonella Pelizzari for the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, this ambitious yet defensive exhibition takes a big step back from its subject -- Britain's colonial presence in India -- to look at the ways in which a handful of amateur, commercial and government photographers looked at that country.

Despite what the title suggests, the subject of the show is not India. It's the idea of India that these travelers, bureaucrats, military officers and journeymen anthropologists, archeologists and historians held in their heads as they crisscrossed the subcontinent, collecting bits of information as they served the British Empire, directly and indirectly.

The exhibition gathers about 200 vintage silver prints, scores of albums and folios, a smattering of watercolors and etchings, and two dozen postcards and calendars, as well as several videotaped snippets of contemporary Bollywood films and a 100-year-old stereoscope in the form of a miniature theater. But it insists that visitors forgo a view of India for a view of a view.

Here's how Nicholas Olsberg, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, puts it in the catalog's foreword: "As with all areas of the CCA's photographic collections, these suites, single images and albums were chosen for their capacity to reveal the changing characteristics, intent and qualities of observation." We are invited not to observe a nation, its architecture or its history, but to observe how others observed it.

How the exhibition's images depict things is more important than what they depict. The buildings, ruins and architectural fragments in the pictures are included not as evidence of earlier Eastern cultures' religious shrines, military fortresses or civic monuments. Instead, they're displayed because they provide evidence of the state of mind of Westerners, who were interested in such historical artifacts for economic -- as well as scholarly -- reasons.

This is the abstract, mental space the show struggles to map. In theoretical terms, "Traces of India" is a meta-exhibition. It is less focused on the nitty-gritty specifics of individual photographs, stunning monuments or particular events than on the general categories, broad frameworks and ideological lenses through which such messy, multilayered realities are filtered.

It begins on the right track, with a promising display of 18th century engravings and aquatints of Indian landscapes by British artists William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniell, and Samuel Davis. Their handmade works bring the conventions of European landscape painting to a distant land, adding mystery, romance and a whiff of danger to their picturesque outlook.

The earliest photographs follow a similar format. Beautiful prints by John Murray, Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and Thomas Rust depict such buildings as the Taj Mahal, the fort at Agra and the Great Arch of the Quwwat al-Islam Mosque as tourist destinations. Despite bulky cameras and fragile equipment, early photography proved to be an efficient technology for capturing souvenir views of distant lands and bringing them back home. The postcard was born; 10 from the 1920s and '30s are displayed here, with their fronts and backs visible.

The next gallery's photographs, which form the show's heart and soul, replace the pleasantly picturesque compositions of the earlier prints with a less fanciful, more point-blank approach. Here, photography is treated as a tool that documents, records and preserves -- as straightforwardly and scientifically as possible -- the visual facts of historic buildings, crumbling ruins, weathered facades and broken sculptures.

Well-lighted, frontal close-ups by Robert Gill, Linnaeus Tripe, Thomas Biggs and William Pigou stand out among the works by 12 photographers, all of whom put a priority on clarity and objectivity. Row upon row of pictures of pagodas, temples, tombs, musical instruments, forts, inscribed stones and carved sculptures hint at the immensity of the task of surveying the colony and cataloging everything of interest.

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