From Colonial Travel Album to Altar: The Circulation of Late 19th Century Photographic Portraits of Tibetan Incarnations in the Indian Himalayas and the Problems they Pose for Photo Theories of Portraits as Memento Mori
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
Friday, Jan 27, 4-6 p.m. CWAC 156
Two unusual photographs from an otherwise rather conventional travel album documenting a trip to India in March of 1908 offer the opportunity to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions about photography. The album, in the Getty Research Institute collection, contained a surprising number of images of Ladakh and Zangskar, two culturally Tibetan and Buddhist regions incorporated into the territory of state of Kashmir and Jammu. The two photographs depict a prominent religious teacher born in Zangskar who resided in Ladakh, but is also known to have visited Srinagar and Jammu. While many of the album’s handwritten labels are accurate, these incorrectly identify the teacher, and it is doubtful the album’s compiler’s actually met him. Fieldwork in Ladakh and Zangskar enabled the identification of the subject of the photographs, and the discovery that these two photographs also circulated locally. Copies of them were owned along with similar photographs by the teacher in question, as well as by his successor, his reincarnation, also a prominent figure in 20th century India who became ambassador to Mongolia. This article attempts to suggest that the functions of the photographs in Ladakh and Zangskar (and in Tibetan culture widely) call into question the universal relevance of western theories of photography which associate portrait photography with the apprehension of death, loss, and memory. While I make no claims to represent a distinctive culturally Tibetan understanding of photography, here I record my own observations of these and other photographs operating within Tibetan networks of meaning.