- A look into Lionel Wendt’s work as well as the history of photography
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
The Harold Peiris Gallery at the Lionel Wendt Centre for the Arts is currently displaying a selection of photographs by Lionel Wendt along with the Gladys Forbes collection of mementos as part of “Wendt on Wendt”, presented by The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund.
The exhibition will be held until 13 November, and gives an insight into the life and work of Lionel Wendt, a pivotal figure in the art scene of the 1930-40s. Wendt pioneered a movement that gave rise to what is considered today as modern and contemporary art.
As part of the “Wendt on Wendt” exhibition, a special event was held on 4 November, with a segment titled “Gallery Talks” looking at the history of early photography processes and portraits on metal, paper and glass. “Face to Face”, delivered by architect and researcher Ismeth Raheem, focused on the period 1839 to 1920.
It was followed by the screening of a film on the life of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The film is a collaborative effort by Martin Pieris (director) and Ismeth Raheem (research), and follows Cameron from the Isle of Wight to the island of Ceylon.
The history of photography
While the film was enjoyed by all, the “Gallery Talks” segment was educational and interesting. It painted a clear picture of the early years of photography, connecting inventions in Europe with the development of the industry in Sri Lanka.
Raheem started by saying that from 1840 to the 1900s, photographs were produced on metal with the daguerreotype and then paper with calotype. The use of glass as supports stopped in 1910-1920, when Kodak and other German manufacturers started introducing celluloid film for photography. Kodak had come to Sri Lanka by 1920.
“Since the renaissance time from 1500 to right about up to 1840, the only way in which you could capture an image was through a mechanical instrument called the camera obscura,” Raheem said, adding: “For 400 years, scientists and inventors were trying to capture an image and make it permanent.”
They managed to achieve this, and the first photograph was captured by Nicéphore Niépce, who kick-started the process. This is how various types of cameras came to be developed, and Raheem explained that the daguerreotype camera, developed by Niépce’s associate Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, was made of timber and glass, making it very heavy and difficult to manage.
There were 20 to 30 daguerreotype studios in Sri Lanka back then, with eight to ten well-known daguerreotypists from Europe and the US visiting Sri Lanka.
“What was remarkable was that it was announced in Paris in August 1839, and by 1842, there were numerous daguerreotype photography studios in Sri Lanka,” Raheem noted.
He went on to say that we were well ahead of Australia and most of Asia at the time. One of the biggest problems in Sri Lanka, however, was that the copper plates used by daguerreotype cameras would become tarnished due to the high humidity and salt content in the atmosphere.
“At the same time that Daguerre announced this process, Englishman Henry Fox Talbot simultaneously invented the calotype process in 1840,” Raheem said, adding that the advantage of this process was that it was on paper and could be reproduced.
Thus, in less than 10 years, the daguerreotype process was outdone by the calotype process and many early photographers who came to Sri Lanka between 1840 and 1850 carried a calotype camera with them.
However, since colour photography had yet to be developed, photographs had to be hand-tinted using watercolours. Raheem said: “Artists like A.C.G.S. Amarasekara and George Keyt started their career hand-tinting photographs in studios.”
Pointing to a map of the Colombo Fort, Raheem said that in 1880, there were as many as 22 photographers from America, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France, and Italy operating down Chatham Street.
“Quite a number of them were operating within the Fort, hoping to make a breakthrough in their career.”
However, by 1870, photographers were finding it extremely difficult to manage. The number of albums a photographer could have sold was very limited, but three important breakthroughs occurred in photography. One was the carte-de-visite, which was essentially a visiting or greeting card with the individual’s photograph.
There were also double images that created a three dimensional effect, as well as picture postcards which postal authorities allowed as the 19th Century progressed.
Photography in Sri Lanka
“The main problem for a researcher like me is figuring out where exactly photography made landfall in Sri Lanka,” Raheem said, adding that it could have been in Galle, where the main port was located until Colombo was developed.
“The other possibility is that it could have been in Jaffna, where the American missionaries introduced photography as early as 1850,” Raheem said, mentioning Swaminathar Kanagaratnam Lawton, who was one of the earliest photographers working in Jaffna.
He added: “There was this tremendous competition amongst foreign photographers, but among them there was a scattering of Sri Lankan photographers.”
Portraiture was one of the main types of photography, bringing in about 80% of the revenue. Other themes include royal visits, British construction, racial types, festivities, plantations, archaeology, transport, and wildlife.
Raheem also made note of three female photographers who worked in Sri Lanka; Julia Margaret Cameron, Inez Maria Del Tufo, and Ethel Mary Coomaraswamy. He explained that Sri Lanka was unique because of these female photographers, since women were usually not involved in photography back then, due to it being an arduous process involving heavy equipment and noxious chemicals.
“I don’t think there were women taking on the role of men by working in photography anywhere else in the rest of Asia,” Raheem said.
Concluding the discussion, Raheem spoke about nude photography: “The strange thing is that after 1950, there was self-censorship, and there were no more nude photographs in Sri Lanka in any of the journals or magazines.”
Photos Eshan Dasanayaka