Calcutta Photographs

Standing on the Esplanade crossing, looking down Lenin Sarani with the “Tipu Sultan” mosque on our left, Kawshik Aki pressed his shutter. Bringing his camera down from his eyes he looked at the preview, shook his head, took a step to the left and clicked again.dharamtola_smallMeanwhile I stood facing the opposite direction trying to ensure that bus-drivers (who had little patience for a couple of people standing in the middle of the road photographing a notoriously chaotic crossing of no apparent photographic value) did not run us over. I passed the Samsung tablet to him and we compared the shots. It was not exact but it was close enough. The precarious geo-coordinates were recorded, and we hastily exited the scene. The photograph we took could never be exact because Frederic Fiebig, who had shot and carefully hand-tinted the original from the 1850s, did not have to dodge irate vehicles and could stroll into positions on the roads that spell certain death today.

Not all the locations were this hazardous, but replicating the old positions of the photographers was often excitingly challenging. The accuracy of the geo-coordinates is essential for the ‘Timescape: Kolkata’ app to function satisfactorily. The idea initially was that the Layar App would help the phone recognize the location using two sets of data—image recognition and global positioning system. (The former has not been as successful as we’d like it to be, but I’ll get to that later.) The app identifies where the user is on the streets of Kolkata and shows points of interest within a user-defined radius.

The size of the images that appear on the phone are distance-sensitive. For instance, if the user is standing in front of the Calcutta High Court, the nineteenth century photograph of the High Court will appear largest. Along with it, they will see buildings in the vicinity, such as the Town Hall or the Raj Bhavan in varying sizes depending on their proximity. A tap on the image will reveal information on the building, and there is the possibility of adding various layers of information and multimedia.

 Gathering geo-coordinates meant having to trace the footsteps of the nineteenth century photographers whose images were made available by the British Library. Photographs by W.G. Stretton, Frederick Fiebig and Bourne and Shepherd constitute the greatest share of images. This was a fascinating task for several reasons. First of all there is the antiquarian’s curiosity—could we retrace the exact routes that these men took? If we did get close to their positions, would we see what they did? How have the scenes been altered—or do the points from which they took the photographs still exist?

The first site we chose brought home many of these difficulties, but it also gave us some cues about how we could continue to work things out. The Calcutta High Court had obviously been photographed from somewhere along the Strand. A number of tall buildings have all but obscured the view of Walter Granville’s grand Gothic edifice. A sliver of the steeple inspired by the Ypres Cloth Hall could be seen from a particular angle. It seemed to fit in because it was directly in line with Chandpaul Ghat, one of the popular landing ghats in colonial Calcutta—logical that the photographers would want to stand in the shade while assembling their heavy photographic equipment and tripod.

While photographing the Writer’s Building we saw that the photographer’s point of view was at an elevation. The only building that looked as old was the one that houses the West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (diagonally across St. Andrew’s Church). Getting permission to get in wasn’t easy, but it provided an instance of a yet un-chartable aspect of mapping—the altitude. But the strange thing is that the number of trees at least in front of these buildings seem to have increased, even though it is an easy bet that the overall greenery in the city has gone down drastically.

Speaking of trees, one of the happiest realizations came when Aki and I were trying to replicate the photograph of the Town Hall. The exact position is beyond reach now because it is part of an enclosed space right now. There are two trees, however, in that older photograph that exist to this day! Perhaps we need to make a public note of this.

For each difference that comes to light, there is also a startling continuity between the old and new Calcutta/Kolkata. The Chitpur Bridge photograph initially seemed like a challenge. There seemed to be no access along the nullah. On getting on the bridge, however, we found an apparently abandoned platform a few meters to the left of the bridge. We managed to scramble through some garbage and dust and upon reaching the platform realized immediately that we had found the one which was used for the older photograph by Frederick Fiebig.

The challenges were mostly technical, although in some cases where buildings had disappeared altogether, a fair amount of research went into establishing the contexts for the buildings in order to understand which direction it faced or the angle from which the photograph had been taken. The process of testing involved a trial-and-error method. We tried to report back to Martin Winchester of the University of Liverpool the problems we were facing, trying hard to communicate the exact nature of the particular glitch. With great patience, he awaited each report and tweaked the programming according to every minor problem. The glitches are often site-specific. The slightly unreliable service of the satellites above the city of Kolkata may also have something to do with this. But hopefully as time goes by, and more people use the app and offer feedback, we will be able to keep modifying the app and work towards a perfect model.

You can visit the project website for help with installation:

Old Court House Street, Calcutta by Johnston and Hoffman

This is a photograph/postcard of Old Court House Street in Calcutta (7088) taken by the commercial photography firm, Johnston & Hoffman. They were active in Calcutta and the wider Bengal region from around 1870-1918. Some of their photographs are held in the Royal Commonwealth Society Photographs Collection , Cambridge, UK. We would like to investigate this studio in further detail, and to produce a visual compendium of how they saw and captured Calcutta in their ‘commercial’ prints and postcards.

Johnston_Hoffman_old court house st

Their everyday street scenes capture ordinary life and rarely show the classic iconic views and buildings associated with tourist postcards. The idea behind these images was to convey the ordinary, almost banal quotidian street scene. Calcutta is not being presented here as the quixotic, oriental or ‘other’. Instead we see classical architecture, jewellry shops. There is an efficient tram system running along purposefully straight streets, and terminating with an ‘English’ church steeple (barely visible in this poor quality scan).

Photographs of Calcutta by Pablo Bartholomew

Pablo Bartholomew (b 1955) is one of India’s leading photographers and photo-journalists with a long list of international exhibitions and commissions for leading publishers. Often photographing the ‘margins of society’, as well as tackling subjects of migration, memory and the mundane his work forms an important corpus of interest to this project. The link below includes some everyday street scenes of Calcutta in the 1970s, images of the Chinese community and the film maker Satyajit Ray.