John McCosh, a descendant of several generations of medical professionals, was born in Kirkmichael, Ayrshire, Scotland, on March 5, 1805. Not surprisingly, he became a physician, and by age 26, he was an assistant surgeon assigned to the Bengal Medical Service. For the next decade, Dr. McCosh sewed up his fellow soldiers while himself enduring several bouts of debilitating illness. When his initial tour was concluded, he continued his surgical studies at Edinburgh University, where it is believed he became acquainted with photography, perhaps through the calotypes of St. Andrews-based David Brewster. Virtually nothing is known about Dr. McCosh receiving any type of formal instruction, and the possibility exists that he may well have been self-taught. By the time he returned to the Bengal Medical Service in 1843, his clunky, folding camera rarely left his side.
Though never shirking his surgical duties during the Second Sikh War (1848-1849) and Second Burma War (1852-1853), Dr. McCosh was possibly the first man to realize the significance of wartime photography. His prolonged service in India provided him with an appreciation for the country and its people that he wanted to immortalize on film. He became something of a local camera expert, recommending that amateurs invest in sturdy mahogany cameras capable of withstanding the brutal Indian heat. His original camera of choice was his battle-worn portable camera that produced small format images (usually 4x3”). With practice, he used fitted it with a large lens to take calotype negatives that enabled him to take professional-looking photographs requiring scant exposure times. Dr. McCosh later progressed to large-format stereographs, and his works sufficiently impressed Multan Governor Diwan Mulraj enough to consent to a private sitting with the doctor.
Dr. McCosh’s admiration from the Indians he encountered on his tours of duty was emphasized by his insistence upon lowering his camera so that he could face them at eye level, and thus demonstrate a level of respect uncharacteristic of British imperialists. He captured their descriptive racial characteristics and distinctive dress in a manner more reminiscent of an anthropologist than of a colonial photographer. His framing was specially chosen to enhance his subjects’ skin tones, and his composition accentuated their physical contours. Dr. McCosh’s progression to a bulkier-weight camera enabled him to effectively reproduce the vastness of Indian urban landscapes.
After his retirement from the military, Dr. McCosh shifted his aesthetic attention to poetry, but he shared his impressive photographic knowledge with fledgling Bengal soldiers in his 1856 text, Advice to Officers in India. However, despite the artistic strides he had taken as a photographer, Dr. McCosh was clearly a man of his time. He fervently believed wartime photography made for a persuasive argument in support of British colonization. This likely led to the increasing prominence of photography in furthering the British military’s propagandist agenda. Eighty-year-old Dr. John McCosh, the self-described amateur photographer, died in London on March 16, 1885. Several of his photographs are housed within the National Army Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which collectively serve as a testament to their artistic and historical value.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 911-912.
2007 Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 by Roger Taylor (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 121-123.
2001 India: Pioneering Photographers: 1850-1900 by John Falconer (London, UK: The British Library and The Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection), p. 13.
2018 Manuthiha, Guardian at the Shwe-Dagon Pagoda (URL: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O130026/manuthiha-guardian-at-the-shwe-photograph-mccosh-john-dr).
2002 Photography: A Cultural History by Mary Warner Marien (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.), p. 49.
2012 Photography of Victorian Scotland by Roddy Simpson (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.), p. 105.
1997 Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire by James R. Ryan (London, UK: Reaktion Books Ltd.), pp. 77-78.
1979 Roopa-Lekhā, Vol. L (Delhi, India: All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society), p. 87.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera