Frederick Fiebig and Madras photos

While much has been written about Linnaeus Tripe, a soldier attached to the Madras army who photographed many icons of Madras, we rarely know of the German photographer Frederick Fiebig, who t

Published: 21st March 2011 11:45 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 09:41 PM   |  A+A-

While much has been written about Linnaeus Tripe, a soldier attached to the Madras army who photographed many icons of Madras, we rarely know of the German photographer Frederick Fiebig, who travelled from Calcutta to Ceylon through Madras and shot a few classy photos of Madras.

Frederick Fiebig lived in Calcutta in the 1840s and 1850s. The Bengal and Agra Directory & Annual Register (1849—1850 editions) refers to Fiebig as a piano teacher. Earlier Fiebig was a well-known lithographer, but in the 1840s, while in Calcutta he took to photography. He made several topographic photographs of Calcutta. Soon he seems to have learnt a more refined photo-printing technique of calotyping (use of silver iodide [AgI], a photosensitive salt, in printing photographic images on paper). He seems to have travelled to Singapore in 1846, where he sketched panoramic views of Singapore, which are untraceable today. The only contemporary reference to his photographic work appears in a brief article (‘Photography in Madras’, Illustrated Indian Journal of Arts, Part 4, February 1832, 32), which refers to his visit to Madras in 1852. Because no biographic details are available, historians assume that he was born in Germany and from lithographic work he took to photography.

Eight-hundred views of Calcutta are considered to have been photographed by Fiebig. He was in England in 1856, where he managed to sell 500 hand-coloured, salted paper prints of Madras and Calcutta, and Ceylon, Mauritius, Cape Town to the East-India Company, which are currently stored in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. As assumptions go, Fiebig should have first travelled to Madras, then to Ceylon and England via Mauritius and Cape Town. We know nothing more of Fiebig. Several photographs by Fiebig made in Madras are available in the Internet and I have chosen to reproduce one of them below.

Salted paper was the photography printing process developed and perfected by William Talbot in 1839. Prints were done on either ordinary writing or drawing paper. It was done through contact printing process – by holding a same-size negative firmly in contact with the printing paper. It used fine crystals of light-sensitive silver iodide salt. Almost all salted paper prints were toned to improve colour and density. Gold toner was used extensively from the 1860s, which improved the image tone. Salt prints are usually of warm brown, but may show a purple-brown tint. Organic binders, such as gelatine, starch, citric acid or albumen are critical in this process. Salted paper prints are matte. Salted paper with sufficient albumen could be made glossy, and glossy salted paper prints are generally considered as ‘albumen prints’ rather than as salted paper prints.

Linnaeus Tripe used a binocular camera and made stereographs.

(The author is a senior lecturer in Ecological Agriculture at Charles Sturt University, Orange, New South Wales, Australia)

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