Although trained as a medical doctor specialising in Cholera, Dr. John Murray excelled as a photographer. He was introduced to photography around 1849 while in the Medical Service of the Army of the East India Company. Stationed near the Taj Mahal in Agra, and evidently developed a considerable interest in the Mughal architecture of the region. Throughout the forty-year period that Murray lived and worked in India, he systematically recorded the architecture of ancient sites, street scenes, temples and landscapes in and around Agra and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
In the mid-1800s, no simple method of enlarging photographs existed. Murray wanted his wotk to hang on walls like paintings, so to make a sizable print, he used a huge large-format wooden camera capable of housing negatives up to a whopping 16 by 20 inches. He worked with both glass and waxed-paper negatives; traveling photographers and those in remote places found the waxed-paper negatives particularly useful because the paper did not require immediate development. Considering this unwieldy equipment, his creation of such a huge and beautiful body of work at all is a testament to Murray’s passion and dedication. In quality and in quantity, his documentation of India’s architecture remained unsurpassed throughout the 1800s.
In 1857 Murray sailed to England with a portfolio of four hundred of his negatives under his arm. By September of that year, the London publisher J. Hogarth was offering prints from them, individually or in sets of thirty.
What Murray did wasn’t easy, it was time consuming, labour intensive and expensive. He weaseled himself patrons in high office to sponsor him:
“Sir, I have the honor to report that I returned to India on the 12th November, after six months leave of absence. In consequence of the disturbed state of the North-West Provinces, I have hitherto been unable to rejoin my appointment of Civil Surgeon of Agra; but after our recent victories, I anticipate the road will be open, and I am anxious to proceed to Agra.
The most noble the Governor General requested me to take some Photographic views, at Benares, Allahabad, Cawnpore, Agra, and Delhi, and I have fitted up the requisite apparatus. I beg I may be furnished with definite instructions as to the duty required, and the allowances I will receive when employed on this duty. The apparatus and baggage will weight four hundred pounds; for which, with myself and servant, Carriage will be required. It would be convenient, if I were permitted to draw on the Treasury, on this account, to the extent of 2000 Rupees.”
Letter from J. MURRAY, Esq., M.D., to C. Beadon, Esq., Secretary to the Government of India, dated Calcutta, 4th January 1858.
Of all the photographs Murray made of the Taj, perhaps the most impressive are his triptych panoramas, taken from the roof of the entrance gate and looking down and across the formal gardens to the mausoleum beyond. Perched high above the heavily wooded gardens, the pale building appears almost translucent in the early morning light. Often described as a tribute to feminine beauty, the monument itself becomes an architectural odalisque reclining amongst the dark silky clouds of trees.