Missing Persons 1 – A Whole Empire

The first missing person from ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’ is not a person but a whole slice of our nation. Britain was the great imperial power of the nineteenth century, and the empire was in many ways the heart of the British nation. It, and in earlier years the trade in enslaved human beings which we’ve recently been remembering provided the wealth and the goods that made the nation work. Slavery in the British Empire was only ended a year or two before the invention of photography (and those freed people were often still working for the same masters under even harsher conditions.)

Much of the best British photography of the nineteenth century was made in India and to a lesser extent in other countries outside these islands. No history of British photography is complete without the fine work of photographers such as John Murray, Felice Beato, Robert & Harriet Tytler, Linnaeus Tripe, John Burke & William Baker and of course the incomparable Samuel Bourne who arguably in several respects took British photography to new heights.

Sameul Bourne, Darjeeling. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-76815
Samuel Bourne: Darjeeling, 1875/6

Of course, we should not stop there. India was a part Empire Britain and its citizens until independence in 1947 were British too. Another of the truly great nineteenth century photographers was Lala Deen Dayal who learnt his photography in the first engineering college set up in the British Empire.

Peter Marshall

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