Photography in Indonesia (Part 1: History in the Making)

Dalih, August 24, 2011

photographer Kassian Céphas at a Borobudur stupa – The Tropenmuseum

Photography is as capricious as life itself. From the mere concept of the pinhole camera to the invention of the Daguerreotype; from black-and-white to color; from stacks of old photo albums to posting photos on Facebook and finding a location on Google Earth; too many things have happened in the reproduction of images from nature to a medium.

In this series, we will take a look at photography in Indonesia, a phenomenon that has in recent years skyrocketed to one of the nation’s favorite hobbies. Before, photography was only a pastime for the rich and/or the colonial. Many young people (say 20-25 years old) have hardly any images of their childhood, simply because the family didn’t own a camera. However, as we will see, photography played a huge part in documenting Indonesia’s history and raising national awareness.

Early History of Photography in Indonesia

portrait of a baboe & children, 1934 – The Tropenmuseum

Photography in Indonesia has come a long way since the invention of the Daguerreotype in France in 1839. Only two years later, its duplicate arrived in Batavia at the behest of the Dutch Ministry of the Colonies to collect any photographic information of the landscapes and people of the colony.

The first photo firm was set up in the Dutch East Indies in 1857. Called Woodbury & Page, it was founded by British photographers Walter Bentley Woodbury and James Page in Harmonie, Batavia. The following year, the two traveled across Central and East Java, producing a large number of works that provided England with better images of its ex-colony than Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ sketches. See some examples of their work in the video below:

At this stage, photography did not only serve powerful governments as a tool of spatial inventory seen vital in the occupation of lands. Wealthy Europeans living in or visiting the Dutch East Indies loved having their portraits taken here. They also collected and traded cartes de visites of the land and its people — an equivalent of tagging your friend on a holiday photo on Facebook as a way of bragging: “I was here.” The Woodbury & Page firm made a fortune in this field.

Sultan Hamengku Buwono VII – by Kassian Cephas

Not long after Woodbury & Page introduced commercial photography to the colony, the first native professional photographer rose to fame. At a time when the profession was an exclusive dominion of Europeans, Japanese, and Chinese, Kassian Cephas managed to become one in the 1860s. In the following decade, he worked as a photographer to the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. From sacred ceremonies to members of the royal family, many of his objects had for so long been out of reach.

His photos from inside the elite circles, as well as those of Borobudur and Prambanan near the end of the 19th century, marked the peak of his career.

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Turning the Lens in Indonesia

Photography played an important role during Indonesia’s time of struggles for complete independence. What had once been the colonial governments’ supporting tool to conquer the land became one of the things that helped unite the people to break free.

Whereas Cephas’ photos pleased many Europeans with their exotic theme, the Mendur Brothers’ works radiated with the spirit of rebellion. Some of the most monumental photos by Frans and Alex Mendur have been reprinted so many times, mostly alongside texts that describe the time of Indonesian Revolution: the procession of Indonesia’s Proclamation of Independence; national hero Bung Tomo in a compelling gesture; the tearing of the blue strip of the Dutch flag, which left the merah putih intact (it was in black-and-white, but everyone got it); and General Soedirman returning from his guerilla campaign.

raising the Indonesian flag on August 17, 1945 – photo by Frans Mendur

On October 2, 1946, together with Justus Umbas, Frans Umbas, Alex Mamusung, and Oscar Ganda, the Mendur Brothers founded Indonesia Press Photo Service (IPPHOS) in Jakarta. Storing millions of negatives dating from the 1920s, IPPHOS has one of the best collections that document Indonesia’s journey as a nation.

One response to “Photography in Indonesia (Part 1: History in the Making)

  1. Pingback: Photography in Indonesia (Part 2: Modern Times) | Bekabuluh·

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