Woodbury & Page

Roads and canals of Batavia, c. 1865, Albumen Print


Woodbury and Page  

Photographers of the Old Order


John Bloom

When photographers Walter Bentley Woodbury and James Page arrived in Batavia, Java, by way of Australia in the fall of 1856, they were following an already well-established tradition of gentlemen adventurers in the colonies.

The Dutch East Indies had been providing raw materials—primarily spices, coffee, tea and tobacco—for the trade routes of the European empires for several centuries; and, in the context of this commercial culture, photographs of the colonies were a much desired commodity in the homelands. These record, or topographic, pictures offered an often misleading glimpse of life in "primitive" or "uncivilized" culrures, bur they satisfied in Europeans a desire for the exotic and unfamiliar, a wish to be one step closer to the bestial. The seeming distance and objectivity of the photographs fed the colonial illusion of dominance and security.

The British expeditionaries Woodbury and Page met while sailing from England to Australia. After some photographic success in Melbourne, but still seeking a photographic marketplace that would provide sufficient support, they continued on to Batavia, the main port of call for rhe Dutch colony. Arriving there, they may even have found it quaint to find canals and small-scale railroads in this foreign land, although neither commercial device was native to the archipelago.

The British, of course, were old hands at colonizing, but the geophysical transformation of the tropical landscape accomplished by the time-tested Dutch technology of canal dredging must have been seen as a marketable photo-opportunity for the firm of Woodbury & Page. To British eyes, the image would have been a double take—the Indonesian landscape, the presence of canals and the landscape represented as view, itself a seventeenth century Durch invention.

As a photographic ream in the Indonesian archipelago, Woodbury & Page flourished from 1856 ro 1861. The firm produced images of architecture, portraits of local dignitaries and, of course, the ubiquitous view. In 1859, with the arrival of his brother, Henry James Woodbury, to help with the business, W. B. Woodbury returned to England to secure a regular supplier of photographic materials. He also contracted with the London publishing house of Negretti & Zambra to market their photographs in England.

In 1860, they opened a new studio, Atelier Woodbury, in Chiribon, Java. In addition to the portrait services provided by the firm, Woodbury made photographic explorations into the less settled inland regions of the island. Woodbury & Page also marketed and sold photographic equipment and supplies. As a key supplier, they had contact with the best-known photographers traveling throughour Asia and the Pacific, and they frequently published other photographers' images under their corporate imprint. This was a relatively common practice in the nineteenth century; and, in the case of Woodbury & Page, it makes positive identification of their work after 1860 very difficult.

In 1861, James Page left the firm for further adventures. There is to date no record of his activities after his departure. The following year, Woodbury's younger brother, Albert, arrived in the Dutch East Indies to help with the business. Walter B. Woodbury, who had spent seven years in the Indies, returned to England with his wife in 1862. It was following his return that he accomplished the photographic work for which he is best known, photomechanical reproduction and a 1864 patent for the Woodburytype.

Albert Woodbury took over Atelier Woodbury in 1870, and the timing of this transfer coincided with the end of the Dutch government's so called "culture system." While the switch from the "culture system" to the "ethical system" related primarily to agricultural policy, one can only conjecture that the Dutch government (as had other governments in Europe) wanted to generate a body of visual documentation to attract investment in and support for the change in policy.

With renewed commercial interest in the archipelago came more image-makers and studios, and thus competitive markets. Some of the latest known images with the W & P stamp were made of the Krakatoa volcano on June 21,1886. Eruption of this volcano, felt throughout the islands, was one of the most violent ever recorded, and documentation of this news event was highly marketable. Records show that the firm remained in business until 1910.

From its early days, the Woodbury & Page aesthetic was to a large extent determined by the needs of the marketplace the firm served. Individuals in portraits were often shown vignetted, but were always removed from any surrounding context. Groups were also posed in makeshift outdoor studios, and the glass negatives were scraped to remove any stray contextual information. Finally, the views are neat and orderly—nothing to upset the empirical sensibility of command and control.




Woodbury & Page

Lombok nobility in traditional court costume, c. 1865, Albumen Print


Woodbury & Page

Sultan Paku Buwono IX of Surakaru, Central Java, c. 1865, Albumen Print


Woodbury & Page

Ratu Paku Buwono, Royal spoouse of Paku Buwono IX Central Java, c. 1865, Albumen Print


Woodbury & Page

Gamelan orchestra of the Regent of Badung, outside the palace, c. 1870, Albumen print


Woodbury & Page

Group of Bettawi, the orginal inhabitants of Batavia, 1860 - 1870, Albumen Print



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