The four-storied Gothic structure of Bourne & Shepherd, which stands almost unnoticed next to the glamorous Metropolitan Building on S N Banerjee Road in Kolkata, was once one of the oldest photographic studios in the world. Today the building wears a barren look, just another discarded and neglected slice of cruel history.
One of the most famous of the early European commercial photographer-cum-adventurers, Samuel Bourne arrived in India in 1863. Initially partnering with an established Calcutta photographer, William Howard, he established the Howard & Bourne Studio in Shimla. Meanwhile, Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson had already established a photographic studio, named Shepherd & Robertson in Agra in 1862, and subsequently they also shifted to Shimla in 1864. With time, Robertson left the business and Charles Shepherd, joined the Howard & Bourne Studio to form ‘Howard, Bourne & Shepherd’. In 1866, with the departure of Howard, the company became Bourne & Shepherd. In 1866 they opened a branch in Calcutta, where it soon came into prominence as one of the most prestigious studios of its time. It was equally preferred by the British rulers as well as the Indian royalty.
At one point of time, no official inauguration, appointment, meeting or even marriage ceremonies of important families was considered complete without being photographed by the company. Their works were widely retailed throughout the subcontinent by agents and distributors. In 1870, when Bourne went back to England, he sold off his shares in studios, and left behind his archive of about 2,200 glass plate negatives with the studio, which were constantly re-printed and sold, over the following 140 years to the benefit of the company.
Some of the most precious works of the studio still grace the walls of the famous National Portrait Gallery in London, The Smithsonian group of museums in Washington, Cambridge University Library and National Geographic Society. They were especially known for portrait images. Apart from other luminaries, they also had the precious privilege to click Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa. The building of the studio was frequented by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Oscar winner Satyajit Ray.
In the following years, the studio changed hands so many times that the sequence of owners has been almost lost. The business slumped after the independence of India, mainly due to the exodus of the Europeans, and end of princely states. It was auctioned in 1955.
Yet the business was not that bad. In those days not all the family was the proud owner of a camera. But people wished to get a pretty picture of their unmarried daughter for matrimonial purpose. Newly married couples used to visit the studio to be photographed together. Well to do families wished to arrange a family album to record the special social occasions like First Rice, Upanayana or Marriage Ceremony.
In 1991, a fire ravaged the building of Bourne and Shepherd and destroyed most of its archival materials. It was a setback from which it could never recover.
Possibly, that was the beginning of the end. With the advent of the new century, digital photography and later smart phones along with the electronic social media appeared on the social and political scene. With the change of technology, the beauty of black and white lost its glamour. Finally, the legendary establishment quietly closed down its shutters in the month of June 2016. Today the building itself is a heritage property, though the company has lost its legal battle against LIC, the owner of the building.