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Linnaeus Tripe, “Quarterdeck of HMS ‘Impregnable’” (1852–1854), 
albumen print (National Gallery of Art, Washington, William and Sarah Walton Fund, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel, 2010) (all images courtesy National Gallery of Art)

WASHINGTON, DC — Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma 1852–1860, on display in the National Gallery of Art, showcases some of the earliest photographs of India and Burma. The exhibition is the handiwork of English photographer and army captain Linnaeus Tripe. Born into a well-to-do family in Devonport, Tripe was initially trained as a surveyor. He joined the British East India Company in 1839 and embarked on his first trip to India shortly thereafter. When he returned to England on medical leave in 1850, he took up amateur photography, and he began documenting Indian cultural sites in 1854. Many of the pictures on display in Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma feature Indian and Burmese monuments that had never been photographed before.

Linnaeus Tripe, 
”Amerapoora: South Ditch of the City Wall” (September 1–October 21, 1855), albumen print (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Edward J. Lenkin Fund, 2012)

Admirable as its aims may be, however, Tripe’s work is documentary, not artistic, and much of it is somewhat disappointing. Tripe regarded photographs not as aesthetic ends but rather as informational means, and his pictures are characterized by an uninspired realism. A surveyor at heart, the captain photographed each site from different perspectives and distances, crafting comprehensive portraits of buildings and their environs. When he set out to photograph southern India in 1856, he expressed hopes that his portfolio would represent the “1st attempt at illustrating in a complete and systematic manner the state of a country by means of photography.” Several years earlier, when he was tasked with compiling a portfolio of photos of the Burmese kingdom of Amarapura, he placed the photographs in an unimaginative sequence that emulated their real positioning — an attempt to give viewers the impression of navigating the actual city. The results were thorough and rigorous, but they were anything but creative.

Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma consists mostly of anodyne landscapes: a walkway flanked by an innocuous field, a prosaic seascape. But there are several striking photographs of temples and religious monuments. The structures are imposing but decaying, displayed in bleak lighting to almost gothic effect, and their ornate awnings are often juxtaposed with simple, sweeping vistas. The pictures look windswept, and the intricacy of the temples in the foreground is thrown into sharp relief by the austerity of their backdrops.

Linnaeus Tripe, “
Seeringham: Great Pagoda, Munduppum inside Gateway” (January 1858), albumen print (
The British Library, London)

Most of these dramatic images come from Tripe’s trip to Mysore in South India, where he photographed religious sites in Hullabede and Belloor. Several are from Amarapura. But their beauty isn’t a function of their photographic composition but rather of their subjects — temples and monuments whose architecture is intrinsically stunning. The sole exception is a photo taken in 1858 in Madura, which depicts Trimul Naik’s Choultry. In this picture, canted shadows and lines of light fall through a series of pillars that stretch off into the distance. The image gestures at a remote mystery extending just beyond the perimeter of the frame.

Overall, Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma is informative but dry. The exhibition itself is as monochrome as Tripe’s uniformly sepia pictures — even the walls are a drab, sandy brown. Exploring the show is like reading the travel diary of someone painstakingly meticulous — and painfully dull.

Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma 1852–1860 continues at the National Gallery of Art (6th and Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC) through January 4.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...