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William Johnson

by Gael Newton AM, independent curator and writer

British civil servant, William Johnson arrived in Bombay in 1848 and took an early interest in daguerreotype then wet-collodion photography on paper. In association with fellow British civil servant William Henderson, Johnson was a member of the Bombay Photographic Society in the early 1850s and together they established an ambitious program of publication, producing portfolios and albums of views and portraits of the rich array of ethnicities and races in India. These were some of the earliest such photographically illustrated ethnographic publications and included work by both British and Indian photographers from the Bombay Photographic Society.


There had been a long-standing tradition in the West of publication by foreign artists of views and Indian ethnic ‘types’. Artists could easily include appropriate backgrounds. Merging views and close-up outdoor portraiture was not so easy for the pioneer photographers. In the mid-1850s however, it seems it was enterprising Johnson (rather than Henderson) who had the brilliant idea of montaging ethnic group portraits taken in a studio with appropriate views of actual buildings and scenes. The resulting highly-skilled, naturalistic images have a vibrancy and authenticity that must have been quite startling at the time.


By the early 1860s Johnson had planned his own deluxe photo book, The oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay, which was published in London in 1863 and 1866. The tomes had explanatory texts opposite portraits. As can be seen in the groups of ‘Kulis’, ‘Kharavas’ and ‘Chambhars’ on view here, the sitters appear situated in an open-air environment matched to their localities. They are posed in a formal and dignified manner whether proud Rajput princes or members of a lower class, and this formal composition would have been made within the studio, before being layered atop of a landscape relevant to the group of people.


How a man of low civil service rank could find the funding to make the work that Johnson made, let alone publish deluxe volumes with a major British press is not known, but the albums remain a remarkable treasure trove.



Images: William JOHNSON 

The Kulis of the West of India  1852–55

Kharavas  1852–55

Chambhars  1852–55

from the album The Oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay

albumen prints

23.0 x 17.7 cm (each)

courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)


Image: Installation view of Visions of India: for the colonial to the contemporary featuring artworks by William Johnson, Monash Gallery of Art, 2021 Photo: Lauren Dunn

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