Early albums typically consisted of commercially produced vistas, city views, and commissioned ethnographic and studio portraits, often lacking the personal touch. As the access to photography grew, however, more people wanted their individual and family portraits as keepsakes. By the late 1880s, the Eastman Kodak Company had introduced box cameras with roll films, transforming photography into a more accessible hobby. It became so popular that in 1898, one photography journal reported that over 1.5 million Kodak roll-film cameras had got into the hands of amateur enthusiasts. The command and skill of the commercial studio to choreograph a beautiful setting was no longer required. Owning a camera made individuals independent in manipulating and controlling their visual narratives and autobiographies.
Subsequently, a very private archive evolved — the personal or the family album. The family album became the most ubiquitous artefact, a historical record, and a memento of bygone relationships, perceptions and experiences.
Albums of the Sinclair family
One stellar sample of family portraiture is a set of three albums belonging to John Sinclair, the First Lord Pentland, and the Governor of Madras between 1912 and 1919. His tenure saw some of the significant developments of the region, like the construction and opening of the sea bridge linking the mainland and the island of Rameswaram, British India’s participation in World War I and the Home Rule Movement in Madras, led by Subbaiyar Subramania Iyer and Annie Beasant.
These albums, part of the Sarmaya photography collection, contain over 800 silver prints arranged in a scrapbook-like format, accompanied by ephemera, handwritten captions and visual commentary, possibly by the Baroness Pentland, Marjorie Adeline Gordon Sinclair.
The albums illustrate the personal and official lives of Lord Pentland, Baroness Pentland, their children Margaret (Peggy) and Henry, between the years 1912 and 1922. While there are photos taken in Britain too, their years spent in India are showcased exhaustively in these albums. They also highlight the pomp and circumstance of British India at the beginning of the 20th century. Scenes from high society are portrayed alongside administrative and missionary views. Let us see some of the features of these three albums collectively.
First, it’s surprising to discover that these albums have rather economical covers with no introductory or embellished details on the cover or the first page.
Like any typical family album, it has vernacular views and spontaneous moments, influenced by the trends of early-20th century photography culture. Some everyday casual portraits with close friends and relatives also appear in the mix.
Given the colonial context, the albums offer elaborate photographic documentation of official receptions, formal group portraits, travels, and community pastimes giving us a flavour of the political and cultural milieu of the British Raj. They present an unfailingly decorated picture of a colonial administrator’s life.
There are also photographs produced in line with early practices and techniques that betray the photographers’ curiosity about local cultures and people. The images are arranged chronologically and captioned meticulously. Interestingly, what gives the albums a scrapbook-like personality is the ephemera surrounding the photos establishing an emotional connection to certain significant events.
Finally, the album reveals a growing interest in photography at the time. The photographs in these albums were contributed by several accomplished amateur/professional photographers identified as Lady Flora Poore, Mrs Elliott, Miss Bemister, Miss EJ Torrie, Miss Sinclair, Mrs Corbet, Miss Lloyd, Mrs Scott, Mr Cotterell, Rev. GR Ennis and Mr J Hornell, plus some by Henry John Sinclair.
A comprehensive visual archive like this set of albums prompts us to pause and inquire, ‘What do these photographs reflect?’ If there were no captions, would these albums have the same impact on the viewer as they do now? How did a personal album of a prominent British family find its way out of the family and in another country? Will the album’s standing within the archive change at some point in the future? Furthermore, what possible relationship do I, as a viewer, have with these images?
I looked at the work of experts and scholars who have explored theoretical and practical framing around the subject of family portraiture and albums. I used their understanding and ours to see what can be used to construct logic and interpretation and unlock the spirit of the Sinclair albums.
The idea that albums present a romantic view of the family is not uncommon, and many researchers have recognised that in their works. As Mette Sandbye, who studies family portraiture and amateur photography, observes, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualised and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” In her ethnographic study, Şahika Erkonan too notes that photos are chosen exclusively for albums in order to portray a positive and idealised view of the family in the sociocultural context.
This seems true in the case of the Sinclair albums. Given the historical background and the family’s standing, it is reasonable to believe that these albums likely functioned to actualise the features of the Indian natives and the imperial landscape for viewers in another, foreign land.
Robert Zussman, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observes in a 2006 essay that albums toggle between being mere chronicles and absolute blown-up narratives. They are simple listings of events without beginning or ending, nearly without the linking threads that offer them any moral significance. In the Sinclair albums, the juxtaposition of images shows the comfortable yet industrious life of the Governor, and harmony between imperial and native agencies, presenting an idyllic view of that period and glossing over any political tensions. This careful selection and structuring therefore presents a distilled view of the family’s life and works.
Zussman further remarks that the complexity of the content comes not in the arrangement of the subject matter but the reconfiguration of the specific subjects in varying combinations. This is critical in parsing the Sinclairs’ story from these albums. For example, the page here depicts the Ootacamund (Ooty) Government House grouped with family snapshots that indicate the assembler’s intimate connection between the place and the family.
What establishes the biographical quality for these albums is the arrangement of images and the handwritten captions. The careful ordering of the snapshots emphasises potential links between one picture and another and the carefully written notes aid in determining historical, social and political context.
Without captions, it is challenging to ‘read’ photographs. This is especially true in the case of the Sinclair albums. Captions are like a voiceover, says Liesbeth Ouwehand, who has studied several personal albums at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. She believes that it is the moment of compilation that determines how a caption comments on a photograph. In the Sinclair albums, each photograph has a short caption that identifies the photographer’s focus, the year and names detailing who is who.
Apart from captions, we also come across autographs on some pages. In British art historian Geoffrey Batchen’s book Forget Me Not that focuses on the expressions of memory in photographic portraits and paraphernalia, he points out that a common technique used by those who wished to boost the picture’s power was the inscription of signatures. It was a compelling way to make a photograph more than a record of appearance, for a signature is the unambiguous declaration of an individual’s presence, identity and endorsement.
If nothing else, I believe that the signed pages may also function as a proof of their many viewings later in life by those who are represented in the albums. A few examples of these are shown below.
In addition to helping us observe the history of a specific family, the photos in these albums allow us to look more closely at the structure and fabric of memory-making. Şahika Erkonan’s notes that family memory is reshaped and created through photographic storytelling in albums. She says, memory is more like a practice in which family members or close friends deal with images, gather them, order them, alter them. And before their narration, this process begins with the creation of photos. While the Sinclair albums focus on one family’s life and work, they also represent individuals and personalities who were part of their journey. The many individuals who contributed, for example, to taking pictures of different activities, whether the ceremonial or the everyday, also participated in memory-making. It is this quality, I believe, which makes the album a vehicle of collective memory.
New contexts: challenges and possibilities
Provenance is an essential aspect of an object that determines if collectors and institutions will want to acquire it. It is a mystery as to how the Sinclair albums came to be found in India. One possible explanation for finding such objects far away from the assumed original place is given by Andrew Dearman who examined Danish family albums found in Australia. He states “The explanation given in these markets, for the presence in Australia of what were once highly personal objects originating from the other side of the world, is that death duties in Denmark are so high, deceased estates are often settled overseas to avoid paying inheritance tax.” This could be a plausible reason in the case of our Sinclair albums too. However, at this point, it’s still speculation.
The introduction of these albums to the Sarmaya collection has introduced a new context to the object’s biography. Cataloguing and documentation have also added to the interpretation of these albums. The work doesn’t stop there, the photos and the album as an object will go through a constant interpretation process for as long they continue to be relevant in the public domain. Observers and researchers will come, shape their own meanings and speculations, and therefore keep expanding our perception of the Sinclair albums.
Going through photo albums is a venture into nostalgia and the lands of the familiar and the unknown. The Sinclair albums can be variously valued as historical records. However, as a viewer, I understand that the meaning of each photograph is not static. Viewer’s perception, responsiveness or reactivity and knowledge help create a distinct meaning within a specific context. The Sinclair albums offer a rich visual narrative to connect the family’s identity and its memory in the cultural, political and social context of the mid-20th century. Through intimate portraits, they reflect the development in the articulation of the self, the empire and a new nation in the making.
Dearman, A. (2008, November). ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.’ Performing disjunct memory through an early 20th century Danish family photo album—in early 21st century South Australia. Retrieved 2021
Sinclair, M., Lady Pentland. (1928). The Right Honourable John Sinclair, Lord Pentland, G.C.S.I: A Memoir. London.