After more than 150 years of documenting the faces and landscapes of India, a photo studio that many considered the world’s oldest in operation has shuttered. Bourne & Shepherd, named for its founding British photographers, Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd, officially closed earlier this month, following its last owners’ loss of a 14-year legal battle over the company’s sole space, a building in Kolkata’s busy Esplanade area. The studio — which, starting in the 1860s, produced cabinet cards and cartes de visite that propelled it to prominence — has since 1910 occupied an old, four-story structure owned by Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). What happens to its remaining archives and equipment, including a massive camera originally used by Bourne, a prolific travel photographer, is now uncertain.
“We only had the building on lease and due to a space issue, and a discrepancy on the rent, [LIC] wanted it back,” co-owner Jayant Gandhi told the India-based Writing Through Light. “We filed a case in 2002 and finally lost the battle to the court order.”
Now in his 70s, Gandhi also cited the difficulty of running the business at his age and the impact of digital technology as reasons for the closure. He and co-owner K.J. Ajmer had expanded operations to include work on commercial shoots and processing services for 16 and 35mm motion-picture film, but reaping strong profits still proved challenging. Gandhi told The Hindu that he now intends to try and preserve the studio’s archives and equipment, although he has not shared any specific plans. A petition asking LIC to convert the space into a museum has emerged on Change.org, but it has so far amassed fewer than a dozen signatures. Listed by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation as a Grade IIB Heritage Property for its “architectural style,” the building itself should at least continue to receive protection and proper maintenance from LIC; according to the corporation’s guidelines, only “horizontal and vertical addition and alteration … compatible with the heritage building” are allowed.
LIC, however, has long neglected the structure. It still sports a massive hole in the roof that dates to 1991, when a large fire broke out. The main studio and library, then on the top floor, contained around 2,000 glass negatives — used to reprint images for sale — that were lost to the blaze: Gandhi told Times of India he had stored some of the archive’s most cherished ones in a large iron safe, but the flames damaged the metal and he was never able to open it again. Since the disaster, business has been on the decline.
At its peak, Bourne & Shepherd had numerous outlets not only across India but also in London and Paris. It began in the northern India city of Shimla, where Bourne founded a studio in 1863 with another photographer, William Howard. Initially a bank clerk in Nottingham, Bourne had acquired his first camera just a decade prior, according to photographic historian Hugh Ashley Rayner in his catalogue essay for the exhibition Bourne & Shepherd: Figures in Time (curated by Tasveer gallery, the traveling show just finished its run in India, only days before the studio closed). Bourne first approached photography as a hobby, snapping pictures of the marketplace from his window at work, but after exhibiting some of his images, he decided to move to India to pursue it as a profession.
Charles Shepherd, who had his own photo studio with a man named Arthur Robertson in the northern city of Agra, joined Bourne and Howard in Shimla in November 1863, as Rayner explains. Howard left about two years later, leaving the business with the two-partner name it’s kept for the past 150-plus years.
The company’s first studio in Shimla was known as “Talbot House,” named for photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, Rayner writes on his website. By 1865 it also had a branch in then-Calcutta that moved locations a number of times before settling, in 1910, into its Esplanade premises. Bourne & Shepherd’s other studios closed over the years, but the Kolkata one endured, with the business prospering through the 20th century. Besides making portraits of people from Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna to English writer Rudyard Kipling, the photographers also documented important events including the Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903, and 1911.
“The company became the de-facto official photographers to the British Raj in India; and produced portraits of successive Viceroys and Governors, as well as most high officials and major political events,” Rayner writes. “Everyone who was anyone in British India, had their portrait ‘done’ by Bourne & Shepherd, at some point in their career!”
While Shepherd primarily worked as a printer, took portraits in the studio, and managed the commercial side of the business, Bourne traveled extensively, capturing the architecture, scenery, and people of India. He was an expert in the wet-plate collodion process, which required setting up a fully equipped darkroom tent near the capture site to quickly process the plates — and he apparently succeeded even while “perched on a mountainside in the remote Himalayas, with the thermometer approaching a hundred degrees and a dusty gale blowing,” as Rayner describes.
“Although not the first serious photographer to document the landscape and architecture of India, he was perhaps the first to produce such a large and coherent body of work of such consistently high technical quality and artistic merit,” Rayner continues. “His images recorded an India that was rapidly changing, and that has now largely disappeared.” Many of these images now reside in the collections of museums around the world, from London’s National Portrait Gallery to the Smithsonian Institution.
Bourne and Shepherd eventually moved back to Europe in, respectively, 1870 and 1879, with Bourne later developing an interest in watercolor painting. Ownership of the business passed to a number of people: It remained in European-only hands until 1955, when then proprietor Arthur Musselwhite sold it at auction; Ajmer and Gandhi then took control of the Kolkata studio in 1964 — almost exactly one century after Bourne and Shepherd began working together. Over the years, the building has welcomed such regulars as 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore as well as filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray, who memorialized the business in stories featuring his fictional character Feluda.
Despite this rich history, LIC is not interested in preserving the old Bourne & Shepherd studio, Gandhi told Times of India. He does not intend to sell any of the old photographs or equipment for fear that people may misuse them, but also doesn’t know where to find the space to hold all the artifacts he’s amassed over time.
“I am sad that it is gone,” he told Writing through Light. “But in the end, there are some things that are out of one’s control.”
The ground floor of this heritage building in Calcutta (Kolkata) is home to Bourne & Shepherd, which is the oldest functioning photo studio in the world. Established in 1863, it was one the most successful commercial studios in the region. Founded by Samuel Bourne (photographer) and Charles Shepherd (printer) who were also pioneers of Indian Photography. The studio itself became an expansive archive of their work and other photographic items of historical significance. Sadly, the changing ownership and neglect over the years lead to a massive fire in February of 1991 which destroyed much of the archives and film stock and just only sparing the building and the ground floor studio. Bourne & Shepherd, Esplanade – Kolkata, 2013 #heritage #photography #architecture #calcutta #india #nerd
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