To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment. 1
In the investigation of such a “present” moment, while researching the landmark photography exhibition, The Family of Man, which had travelled to India in the 1950s, I found myself fervently looking for magazines on Indian photography that could give me an insight into the photographic world of the 50s to gauge the reception of this exhibition amongst Indian audiences. Though there was little material that had been archived, what I uncovered were hints of a thriving magazine culture for photography at the time, whose history in India was as old as the practice of photography itself.
This research is rooted in a study of photography periodicals, focussed on magazines; though it will briefly touch upon journals by photographic societies; as a medium that truly made the consumption and practice of photography available for the masses. Since the study is more focussed on the medium of the periodical; its frequency and indication of a dedicated reading public; the study will also touch upon certain general interest magazines which, in their inclusion of photography, went beyond treating images purely as content that accompanied text, but drew attention to their artistic qualities. In part they also fulfilled efforts for the advancement of photographic practice, much like dedicated photography magazines, through the inclusion of advice columns for amateurs, and dedicated features on photography.
Though its arrival in India was almost immediate, following its invention in France, photo historian G Thomas in his seminal publication, The History of Photography (1840–1980), takes particular note of the third phase (1920–1953) within his narrative. He notes that this was a moment of “intense awakening with a compelling desire for Indian Photography to find its own feet”, after having been under British leadership even within the space of artistic production. Thus, even within this study, I am drawn to explore further, the repercussions of this change in leadership and through that identity how these changes manifest with the print culture at the time. Though several magazines, that form a part of this study, formally begin around the 1940s, we already begin to see the works of Indian photographers more widely available in print as well as systemic advancements, such as the creation of new photographic clubs such as the Camera Pictorialists of Bombay (1932), Gujarat Pictorialists (1938) and the Photographic Society of India, Bombay (1938), all under Indian leadership.
The study begins within the state of Bombay2 for a few reasons. Within India, where photography was already quick to arrive after its invention, Bombay was at the forefront of setting up a formal institution, the Photographic Society of Bombay (1854), for the scientific and artistic advancement of photography and simultaneously an education course in Photography at the Elphinstone College. The Society was also quick to publish a journal which, much like its counterparts in the West, was focussed on sharing experiments of the medium with other enthusiasts across the world. Though this may be seen as the first glimpse of an attempt to identify a dedicated reading public for photography, we would be mistaken to see these journals as modes of mass communication; though they were made available to non-members for purchase. Yet another kind of printed publication, with a monthly periodicity, was the Indian Amateur’s Photographic Album, begun under the patronage of the Photographic Society of Bombay. Based on a subscription model, these albums with small descriptive texts on the images again hint at there being an attempt to cultivate a dedicated and enthusiastic audience for photography; which at this time would likely have been a British audience. But this nascent association with print continues in the city of Bombay parallely as the association with photography grows.
As the headquarters of the The Times of India (which was first published in 1838 as The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce), which would go on to take the lead in the publication of influential illustrated magazines such as The Times of India Weekly Edition (1880, later renamed as The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1923) and the Indian Pictorial Education (1920), it remained the center of an active print culture starting in the 1880s. In her study of cinema’s reading publics, by the 1930s and the 1940s, film scholar Debashree Mukherjee identifies Bombay to have “mixed, cosmopolitan reading public”,3 which is important in thinking about the audience for photography magazines at the same time.
Another undeniable overlap that develops due to our focus on Bombay, is that with the world of cinema. Mainly due to practitioners, who primarily identified as photographers but went on to develop an enthusiasm for amateur cinema and filmmaking around the same time in the 1930s, there is a creation of a hybrid space between photography and cinema. Though the overlaps might not have been with popular cinema, demands for which were being satiated by 68 journals between Calcutta and Bombay, practitioners were definitely dabbling in the crafts of both photography and filmmaking, which is evidenced through popular magazines such as the Camera in the Tropics(1940), that addressed this space of still and cine-photography. The magazine was seen as “the first photographic journal of its kind”.4
While print and magazine culture has been a part of the conversation on the history of Indian photography, it has been as a means to access the images themselves, rarely looking at the medium in its own right; its ephemerality, sequentiality, and as a space for multiple authorial voices and collaboration; and assessing its influences on photography. Notably, due to its ephemerality, the medium is very hard to access, particularly in the case of these magazines, rarely preserved for posterity, and when preserved a victim of degeneration. But a part of the study is also invested in getting access to this material from the scarce institutional sources that exist, as well identifying overlooked and previously unknown printed material from this period. Looking at the content itself, there are sub-histories of Indian photojournalism, graphic design, and printing that become accessible through this study.
In the present, when photographic journals in India are scarce, but photography has been integrated into a print culture in a way that is inseparable, looking back at the popularity of those earlier magazines and reflecting on Allen’s comment, “To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment” one might ask “What could popular photography magazines look like today?”
- Gwen Allen. Artists’ Magazine. An Alternative Space for Art.
- Though we don’t get into the details of the state of photography in Gujarat, we do notice overlaps of practitioners and institutions between Bombay (belonging to the state of Maharashtra today) and Gujarat, since the post independence Bombay state formed in 1947 right until 1960, included Gujarat as a part of its territory.
- Debashree Mukherjee, Creating Cinema’s Reading Publics. The Emergence of Film Journalism in Bombay. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/161454671.pdf
- Advertisement, Times of India, 20 February 1940.