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Visual Histories: Photography in the Popular Imagination

by Malavika Karlekar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013
174 pp., illus. b & w. Trade, 795.00
ISBN: 9780198090267.

Reviewed by Aparna Sharma


The field of visual culture studies in the Indian subcontinent has gained tremendous momentum over the last two decades. It has drawn the interests of scholars working across disciplines spanning anthropology, film and visual culture studies, curatorial studies, art history, sociology and even history and English literature. While it is evident that the visual has assumed particular historical import — the study of which is often perceived as constituting a radical move against the logocentric bias of the epistemological frameworks engendered by colonialism; the diversity of approaches in the field has however provoked interdisciplinary methods and discourses only in a very limited way. On occasions there is a hasty will to confusing the visual as a ‘popular’ medium, even bearing the mistaken claims to subalternity. The size of India’s mammoth film industry, whose annual output surpasses Hollywood’s, only facilitates this misgiving. In the backdrop of this formative field characterized as yet by an indistinguished discourse/s few texts come close, through their method, to offering a comprehensive and holistic take on the histories of the visual in the subcontinent. Malavika Karlekar’s Visual Histories: Photography in the Popular Imagination is a delicate read, combining a unique and multi-faceted form of close analysis of photographs with eloquent prose that on instances enthralls the reader with masterfully constructed complex sentences and on others, subtly humours her with the flavourful flourishes of Victorian expression.

The text takes up the beginnings of photography in India, starting in the colonial period and it extends to the study of photography in the nascent nation-building project of India inaugurated following independence in 1947. In a very reader-friendly gesture the text has been structured around short chapters dwelling on particular themes. These themes are wide-ranging and derive from such categories as photographic practices, the contexts, social uses and narratives surrounding the production and reception of photographs. Karlekar particularly examines the uses of photography within the colonial administrative and epistemological frameworks; representations of gender; photographs of the Raj as extensive and performative of the Victorian conceptions of ‘Britannia’; the emerging Indian middle class’s turn to photography as an expression of its cultural and social capital. Karlekar’s approach is historical and the text is divided into two sections: the first, pertaining to early photography that is intimately tied with the wider culture of the Victorian era and her analysis in this section is imbued, without being overdetermined, with a critical take on the discourse of the empire. Key in this section is Karlekar’s succinct analysis of how the colonial uses of photography served both public and private ends. For example, she states: ‘Apart from its role in recording and analyzing physiognomic aspects of the native population, the camera was extensively used by the rulers to document the country’s often undiscovered architectural and natural wealth… At the same time, the discourse of the Empire required its private affirmation at home. This role was amply filled by the growing number of commercial photographic establishments.’ (29) The second section of the text focuses on the uses of photography in India’s nation-building project, beginning with the anticolonial movement including a cultural renaissance in parts of India such as Bengal and extending into the early Nehruvian years following independence. This pairing of the colonial alongside the emerging nationalist discourse is perhaps the text’s most significant intervention for Karlekar very subtly contextualizes the elite investments in photography in the subcontinent, suggesting to us the complex linkages between colonial and nationalist discourses. While anchoring the reader, this chronological approach complicates for us any neat designations of the colonizer-colonised, colonial and postcolonial binaries — a dimension that has been missing in much post-colonial thought surrounding visual cultures that has emerged from Europe and North America. Where the latter tends to perceive the colonizer in hermetically sealed terms, inadvertently valorizing the colonized subject in often quite sentimental terms; Karlekar’s multi-faceted empirical method exploring and linking camera technics with ideological, economic and aesthetic persuasions as also the social uses and historical meanings accruing on this medium and its artefacts contests the summary reductionism of singular and exclusive approaches such as the ontological (say through Barthes) or the critical (say through Foucault).

Each chapter includes a close analysis of one photograph that is tied to the theme under consideration. Karlekar has displayed a keen eye in her choice of photographs and the contexts in which they were produced. The text steers away from iconic images associated with key moments of India’s colonial past and nationalist project. Examining the relation between photographer and subject, Karlekar offers narratives on how photographs come about — their social life as artefacts and their very making as a socially mediated process. The discussion on photographing Mahatma Gandhi and the other chapters that specifically take up the negotiations of gender codes before the camera particularly stand out in the book. While Karlekar offers us a rich survey of photography in the subcontinent through a period of fervent political upsurge, on some instances as say the chapter on Margaret Bourke-White’s photography during the partition of India and Pakistan, one is left wanting a more rigorous discussion on the ethics and methods of documenting trauma. Of course in regards to historical events such as the partition this cannot but be a matter of conjecture; however a text that interweaves disparate dimensions of making and viewing photographs sets up the expectation for a deeper engagement with how the ethics and aesthetics of image-making intersect. Visual Histories: Photography in the Popular Imagination will be of use of distinguished scholars in the field and feed the appetite of readers interested in the history of photography. 

Last Updated 1st September 2013

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