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South India


The area of south India where Tripe photographed, first in Hullabede and Belloor in 1854, then on tour from Bangalore to Madura and north to Madras in 1857–1858 (likely route marked in green). The locations are identified by their 19th-century place names, with the 21st-century names below in italics.

In 1856 Tripe was appointed photographer to the Madras Presidency, a British administrative subdivision covering much of southern India. He proposed that his work should be the “1st attempt at illustrating in a complete and systematic manner the state of a country by means of photography.” With this grand ambition and new legitimacy, he was free to choose his own locations, routes, and subject matter.

Leaving Bangalore in December 1857, he traveled south to Madura before going north to Madras. Although European artists had depicted the area earlier, Tripe was the first to photograph extensively in south India. With a history traceable to the dawn of civilization, it is laced with sacred sites, including the country’s holiest temples to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu as well as shrines, bathing places, and pilgrimage routes. But south India was also permeated with the effects of British conquest, its efforts at civic improvement, and the pervasive influence of the British East India Company.


Exhibition catalog plates 36 and 37 illustrate the waxed-paper negative (left) and its positive print (right) of Beekinpully: Permaul's Swing at Mariammah Covil, December 1857–January 1858 (slides 5 and 6). The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford; Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro.

By the time Tripe arrived in Madras in April 1858, he had made more than 290 large-format negatives. Working out of his studio in Bangalore, he then set about supervising the printing of nine portfolios, which had a total of 17,745 prints. He did not complete the work until early 1860.

Madura and Tanjore

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Scroll of Tripe’s 19-foot-long composite photograph, Tanjore: Great Pagoda, Inscriptions around Bimanum (detail), March–April 1858, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

Beginning in January 1858, Tripe spent almost two months photographing Madura and nearby Trimium before leaving for Poodoocottah in March. The area had been the site of many battles in the mid-18th century as the British and French East India Companies fought each other, as well as local independent rulers, over territory in the Carnatic region of southern India. After the Carnatic Wars ended in 1763, the British fought a series of battles with local rulers until 1801 when they established control over the area. Many of Tripe’s photographs depict sites of major military battles and thus reverberate with significance for both the British and the local populations.

One of Tripe’s most extraordinary projects was to document the ancient Tamil inscriptions around the base of the Great Pagoda at Tanjore. In March and April of 1858, he circled the temple making 21 exposures to create a 19-foot-long panorama — the first of its kind in photography. An immensely difficult undertaking, it required Tripe to keep his camera perfectly level as he moved around the base and made multiple negatives with a similar density and tonal range.



The End of Tripe's Photographic Career

Tripe’s fate was inextricably linked with that of the British Empire in India. In May 1857 following months of unrest, Indian soldiers in the Bengal army, sparked by religious and cultural intolerance, shot their British officers and marched on Delhi. Their rebellion encouraged others in a large section of northern and central India to join the year-long revolt. After it was quelled, the British government stripped the East India Company of its privileges and took over administration and rule of India. Although Tripe was far away from the uprising and little evidence of it appears in his photographs, these actions inaugurated a new era of regulations and oversight that soon affected him. In 1860, after hurriedly completing his multi-volume portfolio of photographs from the Madras Presidency, he was forced to close his studio as a result of cost-cutting measures. Discouraged that his work was no longer appreciated, he all but abandoned photography at the youthful age of 38.