For Students

An Eye on the Empire: Photographs of Colonial India and Egypt

Johannes (Jean) Pascal Sebah, Interior of the Mosque Amro, circa 1873-86, Albumen print, UMMA, Transfer from the Kelsey Museum of Archeology, 1980/1.201

The zenith and subsequent decline of the British Empire in the later nineteenth century coincided with a unique and powerful convergence of cultural, technological, and economic forces.  This era signaled the last great period of European exploration when large swaths of Asia and Africa were visited, recorded, and documented—a feat hard to imagine in this day of Google Earth.  These years also saw the rise of the modern tourism industry; no longer confined to wealthy aristocrats as part of a Grand Tour, travel to foreign lands was democratized by companies such as Cook’s Tours, who furnished excursions for well-heeled Victorians who had not traveled beyond Britain, let alone Europe.  Whether as government-funded explorers or as groups of tourists, travelers contributed their experiences—and photographs—to the understanding of the vast lands under Britain’s rule or influence, shaping Britons’ perceptions of their role in the world. 

Photography aided the work of geographers and others amassing data by providing important visual information of regions not previously recorded.  The Royal Geographic Society so valued photography’s contributions that they lent cameras to explorers to take with them on expeditions.  The resulting maps and photographs allowed those back home to gain knowledge of these new lands, expanding the official archives comprising maps, documents, photographs, and artifacts of distant lands, and facilitating British plans for economic development and access to natural resources.

Commercial photography in India, where the British had had a continuing presence since the seventeenth century, and in Egypt, which came under British military occupation in 1882, complemented the burgeoning travel industry.  Interest in photography in India was evident as early as 1854 when the Photographic Society of Bombay was established, issuing a pitch to photographers, both in country and elsewhere:

India, I need hardly point out to you, offers a vast field to the Photographer: Its magnificent Scenery – its Temples – Palaces – Shrines – and Ruins, dating back, as many of them do, to the remotest antiquity—the varied costumes, characters, and physiognomies of its millions of inhabitants; its religious and other processions and all the other endless objects of attraction or of curiosity which present themselves to us—each and all should incite us to the practice of an Art, of which the beauty and utility are only surpassed by its truthfulness; and where, I would ask, can that art be more advantageously studied than under the sunny skies of India?

Many photographers in India exploited exactly those aspects of India detailed in the Photographic Society of Bombay’s description: the photographic record of India includes historical monuments, ethnographic descriptions of customs and peoples, and the striking beauty of the land—all offered with an objective “truthfulness” considered inherent to the medium. 

The images of India and Egypt taken during the nineteenth century were obtained often under extremely difficult conditions—mold and moisture in India, and wind and heat in the Egyptian desert, made photography challenging.  Many photographs captured monuments of striking beauty that partake in a highly romanticized vision of non-European culture and form part of a highly complex mosaic of information compiled by both officials and private individuals.  What began as an archive of Empire became a lens through which Britons could appreciate the extent and complexity of their influence.  The photographs in this exhibition were an element in what James Ryan described as the “imaginative geography of Empire, creating a parallel Empire with a range of discourses including science, art, commerce, and government.”

An Eye on the Empire: Photographs of Colonial India and Egypt is on view in the Photography Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art from March 22 to July 29, 2014.

Carole McNamara
Senior Curator of Western Art

An Eye on the Empire is offered in conjunction with the University of Michigan’s theme semester, India in the WorldLead support for this exhibition is provided by the University of Michigan Health System. 
Second image from top: Samuel Bourne, The Memorial Well, The Marble Statue by Marochetti, 1864, albumen print, UMMA, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. W. Howard Bond, 1984/1.308; Third image from top: Francis Frith, India Series, circa 1859–1900, albumen print, UMMA, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Lewis through the Friends of the Museum of Art, 1971/2.131

Related Programs and Tours: