Photography: Capturing India ; When Photographers First Began to Document India, People Rushed to Buy Their Pictures. Some Were Armchair Travellers, but Others, Says Robin Muir, Had More Sinister Motives

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To the Victorians, the most magical aspect of photography was the window it opened on to an unknown world. The viewer could seize upon glimpses of a far-off landscape, its people, its architecture, its savage fauna and its exotic flora that had remained, up until then, as remote as the planets and the stars. Felice Beato's photographs of Japan, Francis Frith's of Egypt and John Thompson's of China were extraordinary experiences for the armchair traveller, the first true links to distant cultures in the age of nascent Darwinism. Their ethnographical portraits and landscapes were as remarkable for the valuable scientific information they conveyed, as for their beauty.

Of all the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, however, it was India that most captivated the pioneer photographers and their audience. The early 17th-century explorer Thomas Coryate had only three wishes: to ride an elephant, to see the legendary Mogul conqueror of India, and to wade in the Ganges. More than 200 years later, the Victorians could get a knowledge of moguls and elephants and sacred rivers without leaving the comfort of their drawing- rooms. And it was in this half-explored land of ash-covered holy men, fakirs and beggars that the pioneer photographers (especially British ones) were at their most industrious and inspired. The results of their labours are on display at the Brunei Gallery in London, which is hosting the capital's first major exhibition of early photography in India.

The aims of these photographers and those of the British Empire were intimately connected. Queen Victoria was proudest of her title Empress of India - her "jewel in the crown" - but initially there was little that she, her subjects or her government knew about the country. As her civil servants and military strategists would learn, with knowledge came power, and photographers could provide the former. Barely a decade-and-a-half after the discovery of the medium, in 1855, it was recommended that British cadets serving in India be given rudimentary instruction in taking pictures. With the patronage of the East India Company, the army captain Linnaeus Tripe and his fellow officer, Biggs, documented the customs and caste members of rural and urban India. The result of their and others' endeavours on behalf of the Company were published in eight volumes as The Peoples of India. Meanwhile, pioneering civilian adventurers - such as Beato and the extraordinary Samuel Bourne - gave the professional photographer in India a status to rival that of any army officer.

Bourne was a one-time bank clerk from Nottingham, whose Simla- based company, Bourne and Shepherd, was the first commercial photographic studio in India. For Bourne, India existed outside the garrison towns with their easy audience of civil servants, officers and their wives. Like a visiting potentate, he organised lavish expeditions to the furthest reaches of the subcontinent. Bourne's India is one of impenetrable vegetation, and forbidding mountain summits. The results are still breathtaking.

On his longest trip, a nine-month journey in 1866 to the foothills of the Himalayas, he photographed the very source, he believed, of the great Ganges, the river that had exerted such a hold on the imagination of Coryate. Bourne's journeys to Kashmir and the Himalayas were organised with military precision. His caravan of porters, livestock, photographic equipment and tents, and his arsenal of guns, stretched for miles. He had 22 valets purely for his own comfort and he travelled in a litter. At anything above 12,000ft, it was reported that he had to beat much of his retinue with sticks to keep them from turning back, ill-equipped to survive at such altitudes.

On the same nine-month trek to the Himalayas, Bourne and his bearers reached the Manirung Pass. At 18,600ft, this was the highest place in which anyone had yet taken photographs. …