When Samuel Bourne went to the Himalayas in the 1860s to take some pictures, it was a big deal -- so big that Bourne and his British associates required 40 to 60 Indian coolies to carry it around. "It" was about 600 glass plates, chemicals, tents and cameras -- plus enough food and Hennessey brandy to last a month or two.
Bourne's 19th-century work in India, and the work of his colleagues at the English photography studio of Bourne and Shepherd, formed the basis for a periodically updated studio catalogue documenting life in the Indian Empire, and the catalogue is the basis for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's "A Permanent Record of India."
The peoples, palaces and peaks that Bourne and company captured are striking, and not just because you might know the arduous process necessary at the time just to make a photograph. The glass plates had to be coated with a syrupy collodion, sensitized in a darkroom and exposed while still wet. Then came the developing, fixing and drying.
The Indian Empire, which would be under British rule for eight more decades, comes through the Bourne and Shepherd lens as a land of stark contrasts. Some of the contrasts were native -- a print of Todamund villagers in mountainous Madras, gathered in front of their mud huts with the crawl-through doors, matched with one of the breathtaking Sumeree Temple on the Ramnagar flatlands, or with the King of Burma's gilded barge, its twin gold dragon heads at majestic rest beside a Mandalay dock. Other contrasts were not so native: A print of a courtly British shop, being visited by a parasol-wielding matron borne on a litter by four young Hindus, hangs above a print depicting the ragtag exuberance of a native bazaar in Simla.
The exhibit's 19 warm-toned vintage albumen prints, taken from the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives, are in the museum's first-floor alcove gallery, next to the Discovery Room. A PERMANENT RECORD OF INDIA -- At the Smithsonian Natural History Museum through December. 357-2700.