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Abstract

Focusing on middle-class artistic and professional photography The Public Lives of Photographs: Aesthetic Conventions and Sociocultural Change in Twentieth-Century India explores aesthetic conventions and sociocultural consequences of mass-circulated photographs in India from the 1890s through the 1980s. The introduction of halftone printing in the vernacular press by the photographer-printer-writer Upendrakishore Raychowdhury (1863-1915) not only revolutionized the viewing of photographs but also restructured the class composition of photographers and viewers alike. As photographs appeared in the periodical and the daily press, they made mass viewership possible and transformed photography as a medium and as a practice. Photographers debated and reevaluated the aesthetic worth, documentary merit, and public function of photographs. Newspapers’ demand for images fostered a new practice of press photography that opened up salaried jobs for middling bhadralok photographers. The pioneering Bengali photojournalist Sunil Janah (1918-2012) epitomized both the emergence of the press photographer as a socially acceptable bhadralok profession and the development of photojournalism and documentary photography as distinct photographic genres. In conclusion, the dissertation considers the photo-documentary series People of Calcutta (1977-1991), made by leftist Calcuttan photographers under the auspices of the Jesuit social communication organization Chitrabani. ,At the intersection of the visual culture, print history, and social history of modern India, the dissertation discusses myriad notions of subjective-interpretive art and objective-impartial documentation in relation to photographs created explicitly for the public domain. Set in the context of changing photographic and printing technology Public Lives of Photographs argues for aesthetic autonomy of photographs and more specifically documentary photographs.

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