India Photography History

projet mené par Alexandra de Heering

Private and vernacular photography, in India, was produced massively, first mostly by studio photographers and later thank to the development of amateur photography. It has held a very special place within households, without nevertheless catching many conservators and researchers’ attention.

The platform « India, Photography, History », brings together a sample of photographic portraits and albums dating back from the end of the 19th century to the very beginning of the 21st century. These collections, collected in families with very diverse socio-professional backgrounds, come mainly from the region of Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu). They have been uncovered thanks to a dense fieldwork that has sometimes left some traces on the digitised snaps. A minute survey work enriches the images with several information on the portraits themselves, as well as on those who produced them and on the ways they are used and consumed.

La photographie privée et vernaculaire en Inde a été produite massivement, d’abord essentiellement par des photographes de studio, puis grâce au développement de la photographie amateur. Elle a tenu une place très particulière au sein des familles, sans pour autant attirer l’attention des chercheurs ou des musées.
Le site « Inde, Photographie, Histoire » rassemble un échantillon de portraits et d’albums photographiques, datant de la fin du XIXe siècle au tout début du XXIe siècle. Ces collections, conservées dans des familles aux profils socioprofessionnels très divers, proviennent principalement de la région de Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu). Elles ont été découvertes grâce à un important travail de terrain, qui a parfois laissé des traces sur les clichés numérisés. Un minutieux travail d’enquête a permis d’enrichir ces images d’informations sur les portraits eux-mêmes, mais aussi sur ceux qui les ont produits, et sur les modes d’utilisation et de consommation de ces images.

Scientific project

In 1840, India discovered photography through those – the Britishers – who used it for their colonial enterprise, through the creation of visual inventories of natural resources, of archaeological remains or of human communities (i.e. H.H. Risely, People of India, 1908). The colonisers, as well as the Indian elite, also used it to be photographed in all their finery (see for instance the photographic collections of the British Library). Despite their attempt at developing a kind of state photography, British people did not have a stranglehold on the production of images as it was the case in other colonial spaces, for instance in West Africa, where indigenous/local photographers captured the technique and opened their first studios only in the second half of the 20th century (Nimis 1998). In India, from the 1880’s, the consumption of portrait photographs slowly got democratised and its production “indianised”, partly due to the spreading of photographic studios beyond the main urban centres as Bombay, Madras or Calcutta (de Heering 2021). Over the years, photography has become a wide social phenomenon concerning all the classes and castes. It has invested the private and the public space as well as a wide range of cultural, religious, and administrative practices (Pinney 1997). The photographic studio, that Mahadevan (2013) coined as, “the dominant institution of photography” has clearly played a key role in this diffusion. Amateur photography indeed remained peripherical in India – due to access and cost hindrances – till the advent of digital photography in the 1990’s.

In this – quickly summarised – context, my research project consists in studying the social history of portrait photography in South India from the end of the 19th century till today. Its aim is twofold: (1) studying the production of private portrait photography in the private, Indian, and popular sphere; (2) studying the consumption of this kind of photography by an always growing range of customers. This research on the social practice of photography in India is a unique opportunity to question the reception and the appropriation of a new technique in a space dominated by a colonial power and that later outlived it. The study of the practice of photographic portrait is a major concern since it has shaken the systems of representation in place throughout the world (Werner 2002) by giving access to new opportunities for the representation of the self (Freitag 2014). Photography, indeed, has induced new forms of social recognition since any person who could afford it – even the socially most discriminated – had the possibility to be represented. First manifestation of a local photographic culture, the studio portrait is a unique source to study the diversity of societies histories and imaginaries (Delporte et al. 2008).

Genesis of « India, Photograhy, History »

This platform is born out of the double assessment according to which photographic sources – and more portrait photography produced for the private iconosphere – can be very rich materials for the study of Indian history and society – for delving into the “visual bath” of successive times, studying the ways one should be shown or seen, or questioning the visual transmission of family memories –, and yet they are hardly available in most of the institutional archives.

As a result of that, doing research on this kind of topic often requires to hunt for visual sources by way of intensive fieldwork. And this is what I did between 2018 and 2020, in the region of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu (South India). India, Photography, History thus gives access to all in the spirit of open sciences (sciences ouvertes) to a sample of about 30 private photographic collections that I collected and documented over the course of several months. Often, the collections have been only partially digitised. It constituted my main research material (cf: de Heering 2021).

These collections come from very diverse households, geographically, socially, economically, culturally. My investigation indeed not only dealt with the oldest and richest families in Coimbatore, whose photographic collections are often the biggest. It also searched for recent, small, non-extraordinary collections. Some information is provided about the latest. Most of the time, photographs require extra information – or metadata – to be readable. This is the reason why I decided to interview people about their own collections.

In the city of Coimbatore, I also interviewed professional photographers still running old studios to study the history of these “temples of photography”, and to understand the practice of this profession and the production patterns. This aspect is also documented in this database. This information has been filled to the maximum, but many studios unfortunately remain undocumented.


Coimbatore, or Covai as its inhabitants casually call it, is the second biggest city in Tamil Nadu, after Chennai (called Madras till 1996). Due to the development of the textile industry in the 19th century and of the intense commercial activity that resulted from it, Coimbatore quickly became a pole of cosmopolitan attractivity attracting entrepreneurs from all sides. Coimbatore is also the first place, after Madras, to host a permanent cinema hall: the Variety Hall Talkies, established by Samikannu Vincent in 1914. This multi-layered effervescence and the presence in town of many artists, entrepreneurs and wealthy families, particularly interested in technological innovations, seem to have played a central role in the birth of a strong interest for photography and of an early local photographic activity.


This database documents about 30 private photographic collections. Digitised on the spot, in conditions being often far from ideal, it was decided to underline the makeshift nature of the digitisation process, and to make it visible in most of the material presented. Most of the time, photographs are presented in context, far from the refined devices usually used for the digitisation campaigns. Here, the photographs “in context” bring forward the materiality of the visual objects, and give to see how the photographs have lived.

This corpus also contains images documenting how those collections are still very much part of people’s lives and are still used. If many portraits have been discarded, many still form the family heritage, hanging on the walls or safely kept in wardrobes.

The corpus also contains above 30 interviews conducted following the precepts of oral history. Some excerpts are published in the database.

The corpus also presents a few textual sources identified during the fieldwork visits, in private households or in photographic studios.


Alexandra de Heering, « Coimbatore et sa myriade de portraits. Vers une étude spatialisée et socialisée de la pratique photographique en Inde du Sud » = Coimbatore and its myriad of portraits: Towards a spatialised and socialised study of the photographic practice in South India, PHOTOGRAPHICA, Histoires-monde de la photographie, n°3, 2021, p. 42-70. DOI: 10.54390/photographica.572



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