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A pair of new museum exhibitions showcase hand-toned paper prints of 19th- and 20th-century photos from Asia and Africa. But as impressive as the old images are, it’s hard in either case to escape the shadow of the colonial era.
More than 150 years after the abrupt close of his brief career, Linnaeus Tripe (1822–1902) is being honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art that features his little-known work documenting India and Burma on behalf of the East India Company and the British government. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the National Museum of African Art has an exhibition of works by and about Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994), the first indigenous photographer of the Royal Court of Benin.
Artistically, Tripe’s works are more wholly realized than Alonge’s. Tripe had to carry heavy cameras, a portable still for water, and tin cans to protect his photosensitive materials while trekking through the hot, humid reaches of South Asia. This logistical reality, combined with the relatively primitive state of technology just two decades after the birth of photography, shaped his aesthetic.
Because enlarging negatives was out of the question under his working conditions, Tripe’s paper negatives had to be made large enough to communicate intricate details of the pagodas and other buildings he was photographing. He also had to retouch his gold-toned images to capture details his early technologies simply couldn’t register, like clouds in the sky.
Tripe’s earliest images in the exhibit, made in England, are weak and faded; paradoxically, and impressively, he got better under more challenging circumstances. His mature work is at once rigorously formalistic, showing echoes of his training as a surveyor, and visually pleasing.
Though he could have easily made stodgy, explanatory works—these were works for hire, after all—Tripe instead harbored aims that, in the exhibit’s words, “were not merely documentary but artistic.” His energetic aesthetic vision is doubly impressive considering that much of the photography that preceded him consisted of portraits on a small scale made in metal (daguerreotypes) and glass (ambrotypes). Architectural and landscape photography was in its infancy.
Given this artistic blank slate, Tripe’s arrangements seem precocious. Close-ups of intricate façades have a jarringly modern immediacy, with strong light falling on individually visible bricks. Sometimes, his arrangements offer a protomodernist geometry; at other times, their mood presages that of the dreamy pictorialists. One image has alternating diagonal shadows like those that captivated the early Alfred Stieglitz.
Indeed, an accompanying mini-exhibit of roughly contemporary photographers confirms that Tripe’s approach was ahead of its time. Compared to the works of early photographer William Henry Fox Talbot or the Scottish duo of Hill & Adamson, Tripe’s images were far more detailed, resourceful, and organizationally complex.
Cost-cutting by colonial officials precipitated the end of his career; Tripe all but gave up photography after a brief but fruitful decade of work at age 38. Even scholars of photographic history knew little of his work until 1977, and he has remained obscure until this exhibition.
Equally obscure, at least until now, is the work of Alonge, who was active for much of the 20th century in Benin, a city and former kingdom in what is now Nigeria. The National Museum of African Art’s exhibit on Alonge is somewhat oversold as a showcase of photography. Mounted to mark a century of unified Nigeria, the exhibit ranges widely, including artifacts from Benin, like ceremonial swords and intricately carved ivory tusks; photographs of Benin made by others; and Alonge’s personal effects, including his cameras and photographic equipment.
Even where Alonge’s photography is concerned, it’s a bit of a misnomer for the exhibit’s title to focus on his work as a photographer of royalty. The exhibit does include a few examples of his court photography, including a notable, hand-tinted image of Oba (King) Akenzua II meeting Queen Elizabeth in 1956. Still, the more numerous—and interesting—examples of Alonge’s work are his portraits-for-hire of ordinary people.
These images are interesting because of the choices they present to people for whom the taking of a photograph is a pretty significant life event. Should they wear traditional or modern clothing? Should they stand or sit for the photographer? Should the photograph be taken with a spouse or with siblings?
In such photographs, the question of how to present oneself within a world circumscribed by colonial bonds is hard to miss. But while Tripe’s images from South Asia are almost devoid of people (the long exposure times made that difficult), his works touch on issues similar to Alonge’s, albeit in a more sublimated fashion.
Tripe’s images are seductively peaceful—it’s easy to lose yourself in his creamy tones, his careful geometrical arrangements, and the exotic beauty of his locales. But even a casual perusal of the carefully curated wall cards relates a story shaped by war and conflict. It’s a constant reminder of the colonial context of which Tripe was very much a part. Neither early photographic technology nor Tripe’s artistic vision captured this unsettling background, but this exhibit reminds us, quietly, that it’s there nonetheless.
Linnaeus Tripe is on view at 6th St. & Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov; Chief S.O. Alonge is on view at 950 Independence Avenue, SW. Free. (202) 633-4600. africa.si.edu.