A photographer and civil servant in British India, William Johnson is believed to have arrived in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in 1848 and occupied various clerical and administrative positions till 1861. He also had a daguerreotype and albumen print studio in Grant Road, Bombay, from 1852–60, which continued to operate till 1868.
Johnson was a founding member of the Bombay Photographic Society in 1854, serving as its joint secretary until 1855 and co-editing its monthly Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay alongside WHS Crawford. During this time, he also partnered with William Henderson to create ethnographic studies of the inhabitants of Bombay, which appeared in the Indian Amateur’s Photographic Album, published in thirty six issues between 1856–58 by the Society. Each issue contained three pasted-in albumen prints, which later constituted Photographs of Western India, a three-volume series containing 287 prints – including ethnographic photographs and landscape and architectural views – made by Johnson. The first volume, titled Costumes and Characters, contained ethnographic photographs, while the second and third volumes, titled Scenery and Public Buildings, Churches, Temples etc. respectively, contained landscape and architectural photographs, with about a hundred photographs each presenting alternate or additional perspectives to those featured in the Indian Amateur’s Photographic Album. His photographs also appeared in John Wilson’s publication, The Caves of Karla Illustrated: In a Series of Photographs (1861).
While Johnson used the daguerreotype process in his early photographs, from 1855 onwards, he began adopting the wet-collodion method. In his photographs, he employed techniques that echoed Victorian portraiture, developing carefully crafted photographs of groups of Jews, Banias and Parsis in Bombay posing against elaborate backgrounds consisting of velvet curtains and Roman pillars. The even lighting and centred composition of Johnson’s subjects indicate that these sessions were studio visits.
Photographs of Indians – often disseminated as souvenirs and postcards – were part of the British administration’s larger ethnographic project, and the modes and conventions of representation it encouraged played a significant role in how the subcontinent was understood and governed. Johnson’s subjects remained unnamed and were presented as typical representatives of their group, suggesting a certain foreignness, exoticism and a foray into ethnographic examination, therefore setting a visual precedent for subsequent ethnographic studies.
The photographs of caste groups taken individually by Johnson for the Indian Amateur’s Photographic Album are transformed in subsequent iterations found in The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (1863, 1866). His photographs were also used in the Frith Series India Vol. I, published by Francis Frith & Co. Since they were sold as souvenirs rather than full sets, it is difficult to find complete sets of Jonson’s photographs. The National Gallery of Australia houses the first volume of The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay, whereas the DeGolyer Library of the South Methodist University in Dallas, USA, holds all three volumes of Photographs of Western India.
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