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The Camera's Truth

Malavika Karlekar

By Christopher Pinney
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. x 166, Rs. 1295.00

By K.G. Pramod Kumar
Alkazi Collection of Photography, Delhi & Mapin Publications, Ahmedabad, 2008, pp. 88, price not stated.


In his new and somewhat provocative book, social anthropologist Christopher Pinney brings into the mainstream of photographic discourse the place of ‘photography as a technical practice’. Of a practice that has changed greatly during the more than a century and a half of its existence, given the protean nature of the technology in use. Much more than creative activities such as painting and sculpture, the technical base of photography has changed dramatically: artists still use gouache and oil paints, clay and bronze as did their predecessors. But which photographer makes albumen prints, let alone daguerreotypes today? And what about the challenge to film from the digital age?   Hardly surprising then that Pinney chooses to go well beyond his earlier work to look at how changing technologies allowed/encouraged different roles for the camera. If one wonders at the ‘ordinariness’ of the title of the book, chapter titles challenge the reader immediately. Thus we move into ‘Photography as Cure’—the early years and the assumption that the new mode of representation opened up a whole new world of who could now be visually represented. The camera may have replaced for some the painted portrait, but as Painted Photographs show, the intertexuality, so to speak, between the two was considerable. There are a number of important propositions that emerge from this chapter—some seemingly contradictory, but, on closer examination, they are not really so: one, the camera records whatever is put before it; two, whatever is put before it may not be the ‘truth’—European in Indian costume, a pardanashin who is not normally ‘visible’ and so on; and three, the equalizing role of the album. Pinney cites social theorist Bruno Latour who argues that the view that technology has an ‘autonomous destiny’ and the obverse that it is a neutral tool to be manipulated by humans, are in fact dependant, the two sides of the same coin. Thus Pinney states, ‘with photography we engage with a fantastically protean technology, and a fluid and revolutionary medium engaged in an endless series of transformations: from daguerreotype to calotype, wet collodion to dry plate, glass to nitrate, bulky wooden and brass cameras to box brownies, to nearly invisible spycams. And we will see it used by amateurs and professionals, British colonials and Indians, rulers and subalterns’ (p. 7). Its increasing popularity pointed to its curative role—the photograph was regarded as a vast improvement over ...

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