An English photographer and army officer who worked in British India, James Waterhouse is known for documenting indigenous communities native to central India as well as portraits of Indian nobility. He was the first head of the Photographic and Lithographic Office of the Survey of India (1866–97), during which time he headed various photographic groups in India and, following his retirement, in Britain. Waterhouse’s efforts were instrumental in the increased importance of the photographic department within the Survey of India, turning photography into an important tool in the colonial arsenal.
Waterhouse was born in London and trained at the British East India Company’s seminary in Addiscombe from 1857–59 in preparation for joining its private army in India. It was here that he received an introduction to photography, as a part of his curriculum. He arrived in India in October 1859 as a Second Lieutenant in the Indian Army. Waterhouse obtained his first camera in Meerut and, alongside fellow photography enthusiast Boyce Edward Gowan, began photographing the ruins at Bhilsa and Sanchi. In 1861, he answered a circular issued by then-Governor General Lord Canning calling for photographs and detailed notes for an ethnographic survey of the people of India. The following year, Waterhouse travelled through central India, making portraits of various indigenous tribes as well as other groups, which are considered to be Waterhouse’s most significant contribution to the field as a photographer. Most notable among these were photographs of the Sikander Begum of Bhopal, Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar of Indore and the Bhils of the Vindhya mountains.
Waterhouse’s practice placed him as the foremost authority on photographic printing in tropical weather. While he initially began developing photographs using the calotype and waxed paper process, since the materials were inexpensive and easily available, he later transitioned to the wet plate collodion process, which allowed for greater sharpness and contrast. However, the hot and dry weather severely affected the chemical solutions he used to develop the negatives, resulting in cracked negatives and dried collodion plates. He went on to experiment with a number of approaches to making photographic plates, as well as preparing his own albumen paper and chemical solutions for the photographic process. In recent years, these technical experiments have been considered to be of lasting scientific significance, partly due to his contributions to photographic and lithographic printing.
Objections to ethnographic surveys conducted during colonial rule have also impacted the perceptions of his work. While Waterhouse was a product of his time and worked within the structural racism implicit in the ethnographic documentation of central India, his notes suggest that he established human connections with his sitters in numerous ways; not only was he open to the sitters’ contributions to the shoot, his observations about them, regardless of rank or social status, shed light on the relationships forged between people who were otherwise forced to operate within the larger mechanics of colonial rule. Some examples of such portraits include those of Sikander Begum, who wore a different set of elaborate garments for each photograph, often in performative modes, and a man who dressed in the clothes of a higher caste for the photograph.
While at the Photographic and Lithographic department of the Survey of India, Waterhouse modified photographic processes to make the reproduction and distribution of maps and other visual material simpler and more practical. The department also reproduced photographs taken by other British officials and organisations, such as the Archaeological Survey of India. This ensured that the cartographic, archaeological and ethnological information collected across the subcontinent remained consistent and was not altered in the process of being shared between colonial offices and outposts.
Waterhouse also served as the head of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1888–90) and was twice chairperson of the Indian Museum in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). After his retirement in 1897, he returned to London and joined the Royal Photographic Society, where he served as president from 1905–07. He received the Society’s Progreso Medal as well as the Voigtlander Medal from the Vienna Photographic Society.
James Waterhouse passed away in 1922 in London.
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