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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Raj at High Altitudes

August 9, 2010

The Wall Street Journal, page A20
August 7, 2010

Within months of its invention in 1839,
photography had made its way to India, turning
generations of colonial officers into amateur
photographers. Among them was John Claude White,
who served as political officer for the British
Indian government for one year in Nepal and then
from 1888 until 1908 in Sikkim, with occasional
missions in Tibet and Bhutan. In all, some 200 of
his works are known to have survived, just 17 of
which are on display at the Rubin Museum of Art.

In a museum largely devoted to Tibetan art, one
cannot help but notice the absence of Mr. White's
cityscapes of Lhasa or shots of southern Tibet.
This is because, curator Becky Bloom explains,
the photographs come from the collection of
Pamela and Kurt Meyer, which doesn't include
works from Mr. White's days in Tibet. For these
images and those of Nepal, visitors will have to
leaf through the Meyers's excellent book "In the
Shadow of the Himalayas" in the gallery.

Another limitation Ms. Bloom had to contend with
was that Mr. White's Bhutan photographs are part
of a bound album. To get around this, the museum
displays high-quality reproductions on the wall
and the album itself in a case. These constraints
notwithstanding, this small show succeeds in
introducing one of the Raj's best amateur
photographers, whose beautifully composed images
combine aesthetic and documentary pursuits. In a
photograph of the Glacier Head at Langpo, a dark
range of mountains sets off the white splendor of
the glacier—but look left and you will see a
small human silhouette, which provides a way to measure the height of the ice.

In another, the choppy surface of the glacier at
the source of the Teesta River rakes the
foreground in concentric arcs, leading the eye
between two mountains to distant snows.
Beautiful, yes, but also political. One of Mr.
White's duties was to survey the border between
Sikkim and Tibet. Some in the Indian colonial
government feared that expansionist czarist
Russia would threaten Britain's hold on the
region by infiltrating Tibet. A well-delineated
border would confirm that Sikkim was part of the
Raj—and the river was crucial to the border.

For all his photographs, Mr. White used a
large-format camera (an 1895 example is in the
show) that required a tripod and glass-plate
negatives -- it took three mules to carry his
equipment during his arduous, months-long
expeditions. The dry-plate process he used
produces matte surfaces and a slightly sepia cast
that softens contrasts. What the photos lose in
vibrancy, they gain in texture and detail,
whether capturing the intricately carved beams in
a Bhutanese monastery or the frozen waves of a glacier in Sikkim.

Mr. White, however, chafed at the camera's
limitations. Writing of the glacier in his
memoirs, he describes "ice lakes of an exquisite
turquoise blue, while the colours of the
surrounding ice varied, as the sun's rays caught
it, in all shades of deep blue, green, violet,
and almost prismatic colours in places. … And my
photograph cannot do justice, as it only produces
the colour in shades of black and white."

He repeatedly expresses frustration, as though
worried his photographs might add to
misunderstandings about the region. Referring to
the dancing Bhutanese monks he photographed in
1905, Mr. White writes in his memoir that their
dance "is often incorrectly called devil dances.
The masked dancers do not represent devils, but
virtues and vices," he writes, comparing their
ritual to the Miracle Plays of medieval Europe.

Mostly his photos of people corrected skewed
impressions left by colonial predecessors and
peers. Unlike those who posed natives to make
them appear exotic, Mr. White takes them as they
are. As a result, the show broadens our view of
how colonial officers used photography in the British Raj.

'A British Life in a Mountain Kingdom'
Early Photographs of Sikkim and Bhutan
Rubin Museum of Art
Through Jan. 10, 2011

* Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn.
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