Towering legacy Statue of Buddha near the north-end of the wooden bridge at Amerapoora in Burma, September 1 – October 21, 1855 Image Credit: Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro

In 1854, a certain Captain Linnaeus Tripe returned from a lengthy leave in England to resume his duties with the British East India Company, the trading conglomerate that ruled extensive areas of Burma (now Myanmar) and India. He was gripped with enthusiasm for a new pastime that was sweeping England — photography.

He had become a founding member of the Photographic Society in London and taken enough scenes of the docks and the ships in his hometown Devonport, in the west of England, to realise that photography could be useful for his original profession — that of a surveyor.

When he rejoined his regiment, the 12th Madras Native Infantry in the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore, he suggested to his superiors that he and his camera should be employed as the “first attempt at illustrating in a complete and systematic manner the state of a country by means of photography”. They agreed and off he went to record and map out territories that included places rarely seen by the British rulers and cultures invariably overlooked and ignored.

An exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum — “Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860” — displays 60 of the 800 or so photographs of Tripe’s work from his earliest in England (1852–54), to those taken on expeditions in Mysore (1854), to Burma (1855) and again to South India (1857–58).

The result is a fascinating combination of the documentary style one would expect of a surveyor — and a military man at that — and the creative impulses of an artist experimenting with a new and exciting medium.

One can only guess at what the people living in and around the cities and countryside he visited made of Tripe and his entourage of helpers with their caravan of equipment — storage chests full of the wax paper he used — the weight of glass which was the usual means of development would have been prohibitive — a still to purify the water needed for working with photographic chemicals and tin cases made to protect his negatives from heat and humidity. And not least his camera, much bigger than the norm, which was able to take images of 12 inches by 15.

The result was a record of never-seen-before archaeological sites and monuments as well as landscapes and great rock formations, all of which provided the East India Company with a new perspective on the country it ruled.

Among the most eye-catching of his images in India was the Great Pagoda in Seeringham, which was the site of some of southern India’s most sacred temples. The Great Pagoda was one of the largest in India, covering about 61 hectares and here Tripe combined the splendour of the gateway and the immense temple with the dusty road that leads towards it, lined with untidy thatched houses, and shops selling offerings such as fruit and vegetables for the deities. The buildings appear to lean in as if framing the image.

His most ambitious work was the record he made of the inscriptions on the four sides of the base of the Brihadishvara temple in Tanjore, which was built in about AD1010. The temple rises more than 64 metres in all its granite splendour from the centre of a large rectangular courtyard. He took 21 prints of the base and mounted them on a narrow canvas roll more than six metres long to create a panorama.

To ensure that the end result was level, Tripe had to adjust the height of the camera as he worked his way round the base of the pyramid because while the top of the inscriptions was straight the ground sloped away considerably.

Tripe then headed north to Burma, travelling up the River Irrawaddy to the royal city of Amerapoora where the king gave him the freedom to explore and take photographs. They were among the first taken in that country and they are spectacular. He captured the monumentality of the statue of Gautama Buddha looming more than 11 metres above the throne base by framing it against a big sky and contrasting its bulk with a landscape punctuated by smaller spires and lank palm trees.

Many of the images have the surveyor’s imprint, such as view of the brick and stucco monastery of Ouk Kyoung seen from afar, but the artist in him is revealed by such close-ups as the heavily decorated portico in the Shwe Zeegong Pagoda in Pugahm Myo. It may be that aesthetic values mattered less to him than the clarity of the documentation but he did accept that “the picturesque may be allowed perhaps, supplementally”.

He took several photographs of the buildings in Pugahm Myo, which his engineer, Henry Yule described as “the most extraordinary place we have yet seen. Fancy pagodas of every form and colour, some of very great extent, some quite minute — here in perfect preservation.”

The capital Rangoon (now Yangon) is depicted in several scenes with its wooden walk ways and dilapidated houses. The British, who had seized the city and lower Burma in 1852, wanted to sweep away what they considered slums and replace them with new buildings. Again, the aesthete trumps the surveyor with Tripe writing that he wanted to “secure before they disappear [subjects] that are interesting to the Antiquary, Architect, Sculptor, Mythologist, and Historian”.

Nonetheless, there is a hint that his photographs might have had a military use with his picture of the Signal Pagoda in Rangoon. Although it was a holy site, as the carvings of temple guardian figures around the base show, the British used it as a signal station to guide ships up the River Irrawaddy. Tripe wrote: “From this a very extended view of the town and river can be had. It is used as a signal station because of the distance at which a ship coming up the river can be descried.”

As the show’s co-curator, Roger Taylor, says: “His military background gave him a disciplined approach. His work was not so much a composition as a structure. He knew where to stand, he knew the best time of the day to take a picture.”

One of the most artistic results of that discipline can be seen in Trimul Naik’s Choultry, a resting place for travellers, in Madura, southern India. Tripe took almost 40 photographs of the building but the view of a verandah with the light flooding through the columns across a 91-metre long cloister does not just demonstrate the massive scale of the place, but also its beauty.

There are few people in Tripe’s pictures. There is a glimpse of a man by the Seeringham gateway and two men squatting by a wooden bridge that leads to the statue of Gautama Buddha and even less that shows how people lived apart from the homes and the places of worship.

It might appear that the pictures are simply a record of what he sees before him. Except that they are not. Tripe frequently re-touched his images, adding clouds to skies which his equipment could not pick up and ripples to lakes such as the shot across the waters in front of the Shwe-Doung-Dyk pagoda in Amerapoora. The sky above the Shwedagon pagoda was etched in with pigment to create an atmospheric, cloudy effect and the leaves on the towering trees to the right lightened and thinned to improve the symmetry of the shot.

His plan to capture the world around him came to an abrupt end in 1857 when the affairs of the East India Company were wound up and the control of India was taken over by the British government. There was no call for his work. He was only 38 and felt compelled to stay on in India to earn his military pension until he retired to England in 1874, where he spent his time collecting shells until his death in 1902.

There are no pictures of him, no personal diaries or letters, but the work endures as does that splendid, unforgettable, name.

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.

“Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860” runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, through October 11.