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A load of Tripe

13 February, 2010

Yesterday, the National Gallery in Washington called, and to my surprise and delight the voice of Roger Taylor was on the line. One of the most distinguished historians of photography in the world, Roger is in residence at the Gallery for the next few months. Following his recent book on paper negative photography, which accompanied an exquisite exhibition organized by the Met, he is now researching the life and work of pioneering photographer Captain Linnaeus Tripe, the man with the unlikely name but the uncanny eye for a great picture.

Tripe worked in India and Burma mainly in the 1850s and 60s. He made his photographs using paper negatives, meaning he made his negatives by hand, coating thin sheets of paper with photographic chemistry that were then loaded into the camera and exposed. It took inventors a few years to figure out how to adhere chemistry to glass because without a workable binding layer the chemistry would just bead up and roll off. So until that time, with the invention of wet-plate collodion, photographers had to use paper – the most transparent substance they knew chemicals would stick to.

There were things photographers could do to make paper negatives more transparent, for example, coating them in wax, but try as they might, paper negatives always showed a little of the grain of the paper the negative was made with. This made the final prints a little fuzzy and indistinct, which some considered a drawback. Others found the richly evocative images the process made extraordinarily beautiful, and used these qualities to their advantage. To this day, paper negative pictures by William Henry Fox Talbot, Gustave Le Gray, Charles Negre, Benjamin Brecknell Turner, and their peers are among the most luxurious and purely enjoyable photographs ever made.

Tripe was one such photographer. Photographing in South Asia at a time when few photographers did, his photographs capture the poignancy of the ruins, temples, and landscapes he visited. There are large collections of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (where Janet Dewan produced an exhaustive catalogue raisonné) and the British Library in London. The Peabody Essex Museum has at least one example – the 1858 photograph of Madura reproduced in the top of this post. Roger is interested in examining the aesthetic decisions Tripe made – the bold, inventive, and compelling compositions for which he is now so celebrated. In the image above, Tripe shot against the light, or contre jour, allowing glare to fill the center of the frame. Roger’s project has inspired me to dig deeper into the Peabody Essex collection to see if we might have other examples hiding in an unexplored corner. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what he uncovers in other museums. Captain Tripe, funny name and all, was one of the great photographers of the 19th century, and deserves to be better recognized.

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