John Burke (1843-1900), photographer

William Baker and John Burke were among the earliest war correspondents in the Indian subcontinent. Pioneers in their field, they chronicled important events in a turbulent era of world wars and imperial durbars (ceremonial gatherings). Baker arrived in India in 1850 and opted out of the military service nine years later. In 1861 he became one of the first commercial photographers in Peshawar and in the North-West Frontier, the area between British India and what was at that time Afghanistan (this area is now part of Pakistan). There he partnered with a young apothecary, who came to India with the Royal Engineers, John Burke, and over the next few decades they became the first ever commercial photographers to witness and catalogue more wars, discoveries, news events and human diversity than any of their peers.

The high quality of their work and the rich composition of their images are immediately noticeable. The chemicals and procedures they used have aged better than most others from this period. By 1871, the photographic practice of W. Baker & Co. officially became Baker & Burke. They established offices in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Murree. In 1873 the partnership of Baker & Burke was dissolved. John Burke established himself independently and continued to be in the business for the next 20 years.

At the start of the Second Anglo - Afghan War, Burke tried to go as an official photographer with the British Army, but his request was refused. He decided to go with them in any case, financing his trip by selling photographs depicting the life of English soldiers and native people of India. As there was at this time no satisfactory way to print photographs in newspapers, artists were employed to translate the photographs into engravings. It is in this context that Burke, in 1879, took the first photo of Afghanistan. During his travel, he photographed many Afghan landscapes, inhabitants and monuments. He was also allowed to take a series of pictures of the Ameer Yakub Khan and his suite at the camp at Gandamak.

Picture: Native Officers, "The Guides", 1890s, by John Burke. FromG. Fraser, The Last Empire, London 1976