I’ve been known to grumble about the weight of my camera bag. When I’m packing for a long trip the bag is likely to weigh in at 12 or 13 kg once I’ve added in a laptop and tripod. However, a talk I went to recently made me think that maybe that’s not really too bad.
The talk, at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, was by Hugh Rayner of Pagoda Tree Press and covered the early years of photography in India, from 1860 to the end of the 19th century. The talk included the work of numerous photographers across India including amateurs from the well-heeled English and Indian communities and some of the early professionals.
The character from the talk that grabbed my imagination was the British-born photographer, Samuel Bourne. After a few years of amateur photography in the UK in the late 1850s and early 1860s, he decided it was time to quit his job in banking and head out to India to work as a professional photographer. Bourne spent six years in India, working in partnership with variety of other photographers; one of the partnerships he established, Bourne and Shepherd, went on to become the society photographers in India in the 20th century, and is still operating today.
During his time in India, Bourne undertook three major expeditions, and these were the adventures that really grabbed my imagination. The first two trips were from Simla up into the Sutlej Valley and into Kashmir, the third trip lasted six months and went high into the Himalayas, up to about 18,000 feet probably establishing an early altitude record for photography.
My photographic kit collection, entirely digital and fitting into one backpack, is very modest compared to the one used by Bourne. He was also working using 10 x 8 inch glass plates, and on a six month trip took a several hundred images. The fragile plates which couldn't be ‘backed-up’ other than by making contact prints, were very susceptible to damage either by scratching or, at the disastrous end of the spectrum by dropping.
On these trips, Bourne used the 'wet collodion' process which requires that the photographic plates are made up, exposed and then processed in a very short period of time.
So on this trip Bourne not only needed a camera and lenses (lots of wood and brass) and tripod, he also had lots of heavy glass plates and a mobile dark-room. To move this lot around he had a team of about 40 porters travelling with him – there are clearly some advantages with modern photography.
On the other hand, Bourne never found himself half-way up a remote valley with his batteries running out...