THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART-- By the latter half of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had gained dominion over governmental affairs on the Indian subcontinent. Such began a period of Company rule in India; a private hegemony in exchange for checked territorial autonomy – precursor to the British Raj that would spring up from the aftermath of the Indian rebellion in 1857. In London, the Company’s stockholders lined their pockets with vast fortunes, as did their agents abroad through calculated alliances with the Hindu maharajas and Muslim nawabs of the subcontinent’s subordinate princely states. For the English, India was the land of untested opportunity.
Into this climate of promise, Linnaeus Tripe arrived on the South Indian coast in 1840. A young and unassuming lieutenant from Devon, Tripe was on the subcontinent for more than ten years before experimenting with the artistic medium that was to become his legacy. Returning to England on leave in the early 1850s, Tripe began to experiment with photography, just ten years after the camera’s first commercial introduction. Upon resuming his post with the East India Company in Bangalore in 1854, Tripe photographed for the first time more than sixty temples; a collection which later debuted at the Madras Exhibition of Raw Products, Arts, and Manufactures of Southern India. The series, which was widely praised, cemented Tripe’s reputation and ultimately gained him an invitation to accompany an official East India Company expedition to Burma departing in June of 1855.
An impressive retrospective of Tripe’s photography now on view at the Met draws heavily on his work from this period. In Burma, Linnaeus Tripe came into his own as photographer, documentarian, and artiste. Tripe practiced a kind of pragmatic photography whose quiet attention to artistic subtleties left an indelible mark not only on remembrances of a monumental empire but the history of the medium itself. His deft and innovative maneuvering of early camera equipment produced photographs of rare quality. Extensive panoramas of architectural detail are testament to the photographer’s level of craftsmanship, as he achieved a high degree of difficulty with enviable finesse. And as Company photographer, Tripe executed his mission to document previously unphotographed sites of historical and religious importance with tremendous professional precision: he created a catalogue of colonial imagery whose value lives on as history. Yet Tripe’s photographs from Burma are more than mere marvel of technical aptitude or matter of historical record; they are sublimely beautiful.
The mood is subdued, almost melancholic. The eerie sepia and gold hues of photography circa 1855 cast the Burmese landscape in a kind of necromantic light. Burmese streets empty of life: silent, ageless streets. Streets leading through markets to monuments, stupas, and temples. Streets from which one gets the sense of bygone days – days before the Burmese Days of the British Raj – yet eerily frozen in a kind of timeless pallor.
I especially enjoyed the curator’s note accompanying the image of a weathered wooden pagoda with much of its roofing absent. Tripe observed through his lens, the text tells us, that the Burmese were more intent upon making new merit than restoring older monuments to their former splendor. This observation strikes me as especially timeless. That local culture favors construction over restoration is in many ways conspicuous in modern Myanmar where a gradient of decay hints at Burmese society’s penchant for the shiny and new.
I think what is most amazing is that Tripe’s photography from Burma defies the traditional colonial lens, trading in the hegemonic eye of judgment for a subaltern empathy that elevates beauty to a universal standard. Perhaps it is the absence of human form – whose inclusion might have shifted the narrative from unbiased observer to indulgent orientalist – that affords Tripe such an unprejudiced aesthetic. Yet somehow these lonely landscapes are anything but sterile. Rather; they suggest the impression of a vivid society that – on any other day – would inhabit them.
That an unknown photographer would be plucked from obscurity for such a major retrospective is tremendous and the curators are to be commended for bringing such worthwhile photography to light. Though the modest nature of the exhibition itself is not likely to see the Met flooded with long lines, it is an exhibition that will linger in the mind of the viewer long after the museum’s doors are closed. The works of Linnaeus Tripe can without a doubt be appreciated by a modern audience – whether for their historical merits, their artistry – or both.